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Letter from New York, 7-31: American Beauties
At ABT, dazzling stars bring glitter to tired repertoire
By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green
NEW YORK -- Because all the pollsters were obsessed with the
presidential primaries this spring, conducting what H.
L. Mencken would have called "boob on the street
interviews," there was no attempt made to learn what
loyal supporters of American Ballet Theatre were
thinking at the approach of its eight-week season at
the Metropolitan Opera House (May 19-July 12). There's
an excellent chance, however, that most ABT admirers
desperately wanted one -- or all-- of the following three
questions answered at the earliest opportunity:
Would the premiere of Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue" mark a recovery from her disastrous
Broadway attempt to choreograph to Bob Dylan lieder or a further decline?
Would last season's disastrous new production of
"The Sleeping Beauty" remain substantially intact or
be revised to meet reviewers' minimum demands for new sets, new costumes, and the old choreography?
Would ABT's unprecedented roster of male
superstars, which has suffered its first diminution
with the departures of Julio Bocca and Vladimir
Malakhov, begin to crumble if Ethan
Stiefel and Angel Corella must moonlight as dancers?
Stiefel joins the faculty at North Carolina School of the Arts next year, and Corella is already running Corella Ballet in Spain.
"Rabbit and Rogue" needn't concern us for long. It
was an audience favorite but received no unanimous
response from reviewers. Half were delighted to find
Twyla back at her old refreshment stand, serving
dancers the usual kickapoo joy juice, and half acted
as if her closing down the place wouldn't bother them
at all. (For my review, click here; for Gus Solomons jr's, here.)
There was far less controversy about "The Sleeping
Beauty." Just about everyone deplored this
collaboration among artistic director Kevin McKenzie,
former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, and "dramaturge"
Michael Chernov (her husband). No one person could
have made so many preposterous decisions working
alone. Some 14 minutes have reportedly been excised,
yet the pointless scene in which some peasant maids are almost executed for bringing a spindle(!) onto the palace grounds is triumphantly, needlessly intact.
The business of having Carabosse prevent Prince Désiré
from reaching Princess Aurora by wrapping him in some
sort of cocoon was cut; for The Awakening to make
sense, however, a new castle is required since Aurora
remains sacked out on the veranda -- yes, the
veranda -- for 100 years, come rain or come shine. Tony
Walton's designs were damned for being "Disney-fied."
Would that were so. Although its "Sleeping Beauty" is
probably the Disney studio's worst adaptation of a
beloved fairy tale, with a truly terrifying Carabosse
who turns herself into a dragon, at its best it still
looks more magical than anything in ABT's lumpish
The Act II Vision Scene remains plagued by
illogical structure and irrelevant maneuvers. When
corps girls emerge three by three from the forest,
beckon to Désiré, then waft back into the woods, you
think you are watching "La Sylphide." In fact, you may
wish you were watching "La Sylphide." Act III is still
shorn of all divertissements but the traditional
Bluebird Pas de Deux. The usual fairy-tale wedding
guests, while present, are idle because the fairy
godmothers return to hog the stage. (Considering what
a drab set of divertissements McKenzie made for his
"Swan Lake," one hesitates to suggest he try his hand
at a couple of pas de deux -- for any characters but the
detestable White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, of course.) No
one took the scissors to Willa Kim's cumbersome,
unsightly costumes for the women courtiers. I confess,
however, to a fondness for diminutive ballet master
Nancy Raffa's splenetic Carabosse, who kept appearing
out of and disappearing into clouds of flash powder,
seething like a Tolkein character with rabies.
Otherwise, McKenzie & Co.'s version of this most challenging and marvelous of romantic ballets, which tests a company's strength at
every level, has been subjected to minor cosmetic
surgery when what it needed was a heart transplant.
|Nina Ananiashvili of American Ballet Theatre in "Swan Lake." MIRA photo copyright MIRA and courtesy ABT.
Eventually, this version of Tchaikovsky's "Beauty" will be junked, but
replacing ABT's superstars could be difficult.... They
are essential to the company and the bedrock upon
which its Metropolitan Opera seasons are based; casting is not only given in subscription brochures, but updated weekly in flyers available in the lobby. Only
productions of evening-length classics can fill so
capacious a stage and only all-star casts can sell out
so vast a house. A gradual reduction in the company's
ballerina roster began last season with Alessandra
Ferri's retirement. Nina Ananiashvili announced she
will soon be concentrating on the company she
organized in Georgia, but this season her fan base was
treated to two unexpected performances, when she
replaced the injured Diana Vishneva in "Swan Lake" and
"Giselle." Ananiashvili's robust Bolshoi authority was
no substitute for Vishneva's exquisite Kirov artistry.
Vishneva's "Dying Swan" at the opening-night gala shimmered with such tremulous detail that Uliana Lopotkina's "Swan," seen months before during the Kirov's City
Center season, looked as if it had succumbed to old
age, not the hunter's dart.
Gillian Murphy, Julie Kent, and Paloma Herrera were
consistently on their best behavior at the Met, which
in Murphy's case was very good, indeed; her gain in
supple lyricism has come at no loss in awesome power,
whether in motion or at rest. As Myrtha, she looked
out at the audience with a gaze of implacable
authority as powerful as a laser beam. I would add
Michelle Wiles and Veronika Part to this honor roll,
except that every time I see them, neither is giving
the show-stopping performances I keep hearing about.
Wiles's Myrtha looked about as fearsome as the head
mistress of a girls' finishing school.
Grand as ABT's ballerinas have been, it was the
densely concentrated virtuosity in its roster of male
principals that made ballet history during the past
decade. For this season, at least, Stiefel's knee
problems, which he has never attempted to deny, are
under control. Uncharacteristically bland performances
at the opening-night gala in a "Don Quixote" excerpt
and later as Ali, the (Saracen?) Slave, in "Le
Corsaire" were subsequently obliterated by fiery
triumphs in "Rabbit and Rogue" and Petipa's "La Bayadere." (He
and Murphy reportedly scorched the stage in the
complete "Don Quixote," but I'll have to get hazard
pay to endure that Petipa classic again.) Corella's problem
has been an all-purpose grin that shone out so
incessantly, whether in comedy or tragedy, it was
difficult to accept him as a danseur noble. This
season his Désiré and Albrecht were truly
aristocratic, not a couple of cocky kids exploiting a
flashy technique in stunts. Let's hope he and Stiefel
can break away from their desks to spend time at the
barre for seasons to come.
|American Ballet Theatre's Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in "Giselle." Rosalie O'Connor photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy ABT.
One successor is already rising fast. Herman
Cornejo, that immense talent in a small package,
triumphed in major roles this season partnering women
as short as he. The praise he earned for his Désiré
and Albrecht opposite, respectively, Sarah Lane and
Xiomara Reyes guarantees he will no longer be limited
to performing demi-caractere parts and peasant pas de
deux. Cornejo's legs actually looked longer when he
danced with Reyes, whose Mad Scene needs work (her
blank look out into the house went on so long you
thought she'd forgotten the steps). Now let's hope ABT
can find Cornejo a really short Bathilde to confront
when the hunting party intrudes in Act I, instead of a
corps gal six inches taller and in a red dress to
boot. Joseph Phillips and Aaron Scott are two short
guys in the corps to whom management should now pay more heed. Less attention to the glib, underdisciplined Craig Salstein would suit me fine.
David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes have already
attained that exalted level where artistry, technique,
and personality repeatedly blend to produce
exceptional results. Hallberg, as long-stemmed as any
ballerina, bears a breathtaking resemblance to the late Erik Bruhn, the noblest danseur of them all. You almost feel greedy wishing for a bit more fire to
increase the gleam of his golden presence.
|Marcelo Gomes of American Ballet Theatre in "The Merry Widow." Rosalie O'Connor photo copyright Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy ABT.
Gomes would seem to need no further enhancement of
any kind -- at least that's what my women friends keep
telling me -- yet this season he fearlessly risked
diluting his vibrant Latin-lover persona by revealing
a marvelous gift for comedy where it was most sorely
needed: in Ronald Hynd's charmlessly old-timey
production of "The Merry Widow," surely the absolute
bottom of the narrative-ballet barrel. Franz Lehar's
great melodies were no reason to drag "Widow" onto the
ballet stage. Stretches of the plot offer no logical
reason for dancing of any kind, yet Hynd keeps asking
his cast to bounce around regardless. In Act I
underlings in the Pontevedrian embassy sort
legal papers as they dance. Not until the pas de deux
for the lovers does something resembling "ballet"
emerge. Maria Riccetto and Sascha Radetsky did all
they could for it.
Gomes's rubber-legged entrance as the drunken
Count Danilo Danilovitch was like an injection of
adrenaline. Unfailingly musical, he was equally wild
at the garden party in Act II. Grotesquely
garbed in native costume, he lost no time in hurling
the gear into the wings. First went the towering
busby, then the short cape bristling with fur. From
then on he contented himself with draining one
champagne glass after another and tossing each
offstage. (The unconvincing "tinkles" that inevitably
followed got funnier with each ill-timed repetition.) If the
corps in native dress approached him stomping its feet
in pseudo-flamenco fashion, Gomes stomped his right
back, then threw another champagne glass offstage.
In Act III, at -- where else? -- Maxim's, when Jo
Jo, Margot, Frou Frou, et al. arrived escorted by
three bandy-legged old roués in top hats, Gomes's
greeting of these randy ancients was so hearty they
fell back in a tangle of arms and legs from its force.
The politically correct would shout "Ageism!" but I
for one couldn't deny corps boys the obvious fun of
playing ridiculous characters three times their age,
especially when they did it so well. For truly great
acting-dancing, however, nothing approached Victor
Barbee's touching miming of Baron Zeta's discovery, then
acceptance, of being a cuckold.
In the other cast I caught, much of Danilo's delightful business described above was either weakly done by Jose Manuel Carreno or
dropped altogether. No busby; no stomping; no havoc
among the roués, who were seated out of sight across
the stage anyway. (Such inconsistencies were a regular
source of diversion at the Met.) A sense of an
encroaching domestication of Carreno's feral power
leads me to believe he may be the next principal to
step aside. Radetsky has improved so much -- and he
seems like such a likable guy -- one hopes he will soon
be promoted to principal. But competition is on the way. Russian-born Daniil Simkin, who joins the company for its City Center season this fall, should be a sensation if his
appearances on YouTube can be trusted. ABT II also has two
promising fledglings in Joseph Gorak and Isaac
Great choreography is always in short supply. God forbid that ABT should ever go under, but if
it did, would even a dozen of the ballets it has
commissioned remain in the repertories of companies
around the world? Gifted young
dancers just keep coming, however -- God bless 'em!