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Letter from New York, 6-13: Novelty Acts
At the Chapel of St. Twyla with ABT & St. Vitus; Ratmansky-Shostakovich Concerto from NYCB

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- Less than a week separated the spring season's two major premieres: Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH" on the New York City Ballet, May 29 at the New York State Theater; and Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue" from American Ballet Theatre, June 3 at the Met. The dancing at the subsequent performances I saw couldn't have been better. Each company now exhibits unprecedented strength at every level of the roster and consistently fields casts of uniform excellence. The brilliance of the dancing in both was so constant, so incessant it verged on monotony. Not until you looked beneath the breathtaking technique to know dancers from the dances could a gap of Grand Canyon-like vastness be found yawning between the two ballets.

Tharp, whose chief concern is a filigreed surface, guaranteed that her latest pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Vitus would be shapeless from start to finish by commissioning an eclectic score from movie and TV composer Danny Elfman. You'd think that someone who supplied accompaniment for "The Simpsons" would be just the man to score the Tom & Jerry-style rivalry between Ethan Stiefel (Rogue) and Herman Cornejo (Rabbit). Watching Stiefel, operating at his old level of virtuosity, match the feisty Cornejo twitch for twitch soon became tedious, however, when there was no dramatic reason -- like, say, A Plot -- to justify their incessantly merry lo-jinks. Or, for that matter, their being given names.

Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg were billed simply as Rag Couple and Paloma Herrera and Gennadi Saveliev as Gamelan Couple, and they performed accordingly, depending on whether Elfman's amorphous score veered from ragtime rhythms to Far Eastern sonorities. (Fortunately for the dancers, the obligatory swerve into electronic "sound design" didn't last long.)

American Ballet Theatre in Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue." Rosalie O'Connor photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

The sole purpose of Tharp's marvelous supporting cast was to provide free-form frenzies while Stiefel and Cornejo caught their breath to perform more of the same. Brad Fields's generally murky lighting and Norma Kamali's black and silver costumes, while incongruously gloomy for a ballet in which so much energy was expended at being High Spirited, made as much sense as anything else onstage. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins deserves at least a bonus for maintaining some musical coherence.

Journalism compels me to report that ABT's audience was aflame with delight after watching some of the world's finest dancers risk their knees and necks getting jerked around by an egoistic puppeteer. Perhaps being preceded by Harald Lander's "Etudes," as "Rabbit and Rogue" was at every performance, guarantees an enthusiastic, grateful house for just about any sort of dance.

I never thought I'd welcome a ballet set to the rackety banalities of Dmitri Shostakovich, but there's no denying that by selecting his Second Piano Concerto as the score for "Concerto DSCH" (shorthand for the composer's name), Ratmansky gained a secure musical structure to build on. His much-admired "Russian Seasons" never jelled for me -- some of the partnering was laboriously cute; the steps didn't always jibe with the mood of the mezzo's songs; everyone took to the floor too often -- however I never left it dreading either another viewing or encountering another Ratmansky ballet. In 'Concerto,' a shorter, unpretentious work, he has briskly gone about the business of moving marvelously gifted people around in a gratifying manner, unencumbered by any allegiance to a hostile, hateful "style" or to some dubious "vision."

New York City Ballet's Wendy Whelan and Benjamin Millepied in Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH." Paul Kolnik photo copyright Paul Kolnik and courtesy New York City Ballet.

Dancers whom Ratmansky had used earlier in 'Seasons,' principals and soloists among them, made up his 14-person corps while five principals were his leads. Costumes in green or blue or burnished earth tones by the ever-reliable Holly Hynes set a lively, genial mood the choreography never violated. Ratmansky was never at a loss for creating intricate groupings but he still hasn't discovered how to make the most of Wendy Whelan's highly individual style. Still, having Benjamin Millepied partner her with loving attention was not a bad idea.

Was it a comment on Ashley Bouder's aggressive personna that Ratmansky assigned both Joaquin De Luz and Gonzalo Garcia to attend to her? Possibly as some sort of hazard-pay or bonus for not getting in her way, he also rewarded both with virtuosic, air-borne fireworks in the finale. Pianist Susan Waters and conductor Faycal Karoui maintained high musical standards throughout.

The rapturous reception accorded "Concerto DSCH" was in no way due to rampant inferiority in the other works on City Ballet's "Here and Now" program. The sole loser was Peter Martins's arid 1998 pas de six "River of Light," burdened with a clangorous, grinding score that only its composer, Charles Wuorinen, could be trusted to conduct. "Rococo Variations" (2008), Christopher Wheeldon's last work for the company as its resident choreographer, could be admired for the professional way he made the most of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (a lesser work Balanchine never touched).

As for Mauro Bigonzetti's "Oltremare," it had been the runaway hit of the winter season, less for its challenges to 14 of the company's finest dancers than for the daring way they met anything Bigonzetti hurled at them. Drably dressed as turn-of-the-century immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (the title means "Across the Sea"), they took a while to trudge across the stage, but once they set their suitcases aside, they had nothing to declare but their virtuosity.

Even Bigonzetti's over-fondness for having a woman plant the sole of her foot on a partner's chest or having a man catch his partner under the armpits on his extended arms looked consistently fresh danced by the current cast, led by the returning Maria Kowroski, Tyler Angle, Andrew Veyette, Amar Ramasar, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Tiler Peck. Bruno Moretti's serviceably rhythmic, klezmer-flavored score supplied atmosphere and angst. Still, Ratmansky -- and, for that matter, Shostakovich -- delivered as big a crowd-pleaser and a tighter, leaner, more worthy ballet as well.

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