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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 version.

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 Hernandez.

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!

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