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Letter from New York, 12-11: Tudor Mania, Movie Mania
First-class performances for ABT's second choice; Lar's come far

By Harris Green
Copyright 2008 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- American Ballet Theatre's fall season in New York's City Center lasted only two weeks (October 21-November 2) but it still proved a stretch for the Tudor-challenged among us. Not only was "Tudor Centennial Celebration" on the cover of every Playbill and on every ticket, but at least one work by Antony Tudor was given at every performance. Considering that he was the second choice of Ballet Theatre co-founders Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant (Frederick Ashton had been invited first to contribute to their debut season, in 1940), ABT, as BT came to be known, has shown extraordinary loyalty to a choreographer who's contributed only one commissioned work to the repertory.

Tudor is more likely to be represented in other companies' repertory by "Jardin aux Lilas," which was premiered by London's Ballet Rambert in 1936. Because he remained true to his lower-class origins and concentrated on ballets about ordinary people, not royalty, fairies or exotics, he is slated to be performed in New York City in an intimate venue like City Center, never in the vastness of the Metropolitan Opera House, where ABT's lavish productions of evening-length classics flourish.

ABT's Met repertory this coming spring is a bit more daring than usual. "Balanchine-Tchaikovsky Spectacular" will include a shamefully belated company premiere of "Allegro Brillante" and "All-Prokofiev Celebration," which should squelch any smugness from the rival company diagonally across the plaza by including a premiere by Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi choreographer who got away from New York City Ballet. Otherwise, the mixture is pretty much as before: MacMillan, Ashton, Bournonville, McKenzie-Petipa-Ivanov, etcetera.

Some of his lesser known, rarely done works joined "Lilac Garden" and "Pillar of Fire" for the all-Tudor gala at City Center on October 31. The most welcome novelties of the evening, however, were three short films consisting of archival material that Dance Spirit editor Kate Lydon, a former ABT dancer, had laboriously winnowed from such sources as previous documentaries, TV performances and memorablia collections, as well as new material created especially for the occasion. Eric Wolfram, a former member of ABT and San Francisco Ballet, served as both film editor and occasional interviewer of today's interpreters. Each film, shown separately between ballets, covered a different topic ("Antony Tudor: American Ballet Theatre's Artistic Conscience," for instance).

Taken together, all these films were infinitely more satisfying than any of the rash of visual aids that have been breaking out at ballet performances since a dishearteningly inept try at updating the pas de deux from Robbins's "NY Export: Opus Jazz" was run off at the opening-night gala of City Ballet's 2006-07 season. Robbins's dancers were in contemporary clothes and filmed in the great outdoors by a camera mounted on a boom. From the "film sense" in evidence, Fred Astaire had lived in vain. No doubt this fragment of a work in progress was shown to a well-heeled benefit audience in hopes of attracting donors. (How many in the audience would have paid the filmmakers to scrap the project I cannot say.)

Christopher Wheeldon has included "movie" entr'actes during performances of his Morphoses "company." City Ballet's Jerome Robbins Celebration often preceded a Robbins ballet with a rare, muzzy, frustratingly short take of him rehearsing the work to be performed. (One beloved principal, who shall remain nameless, was shown repeatedly flubbing the master's carefully calibrated demands about a gesture in "Fancy Free," then repeating the error in the live performance that followed decades later.)

Finally, two short subjects were worked in among the dancing at last spring's Dancers Emergency Fund benefit at City Ballet: a look behind the curtain at the creation of Aaron Severini and Adam Hendrickson's eminently forgettable "Flit of Fury," and an anthology of home movies featuring company members as utterly adorable children, strutting their stuff in school recitals.

Whimsy played no part in Lydon and Wolfram's films. Should copyright and union restrictions limit their compilation to this one showing, as is likely the case, then the benefit audience was given a truly gala treat, indeed. Close-ups of Tudor talking directly into the camera demonstrated why experiencing the force of his personality in rehearsal was likened to receiving a radium burn; also why his repertory has never looked quite the same after others with less charisma were left to rehearse it.

Denied his influence, the Tudor-challenged at City Center were left to concentrate on his dance vocabulary, which often doesn't repay repeated viewing, and his choice of scores that don't always reward repeated hearing. Reviewers waxed most eloquent about the bedroom scene from the legendary 1943 "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," danced opening night by Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg and at the gala by Xiomara Reyes and Gennadi Saveliev. Understandably, my colleagues were moved by its contrast with the MacMillan-Georgiadis "Romeo," which weighs several tons, and the sleeker Martins-Kirkby version, which is an eyesore from beginning to end. Reviewers panted hopefully for the return of the complete one-act ballet in its original Eugene Berman production.

My memories of ABT's revival in the 1970s, with Natalia Makarova and John Prinz, were less happy. The score, while lovely, was a Delius potpourri that lacked a steady danceable pulse, and the choreography often forced dancers to contend with poses that veered from eloquent to awkward. In this bedroom pas de deux, Juliet is discovered kneeling on her right knee with her left knee raised so that her toes are pointed down onto the floor. "Statuesque" is one word for this mannered creation. Romeo is merely supine on the bed. When standing, he must also strike a similar bent-leg pose, with toes pointed down, bringing the leg up while performing a lift. Encountering this awkward, low-key pas de deux again stirred no sense of loss in me.

The inclusion on the centennial gala of the season's sole performance of the 1937 "Judgment of Paris" can only be justified by its being done on Halloween night. Have three former dancers (Kathleen Moore, Martine Van Hamel, and Bonnie Mathis) ever been made to look and move in a more grotesque manner? And for what purpose? To show a trio of rugged old whores parading their jaded stuff for the patron of a seedy bar to music from "The Threepenny Opera." Maybe the patron was a trick but "Judgment" was no treat. More wryly amusing was the 1977 "Continuo," a serviceable pas de six for corps members. Surely it was an inside joke that three couples dancing to Pachelbel's Canon in D proved so reluctant to dance in canonic sequence. (I thought it was funny, anyway. Just like Tudor to do it.)

"Pillar of Fire" and "Jardin aux Lilas," both danced throughout the season, could be enjoyed for the dedication the dancers brought to every performance. For the challenged, however, nothing could counteract the distracting whiffs of lesser Tennessee Williams that kept arising from 'Pillar.' Poor, dear inhibited Hagar, having to live across the street from a bordello where horrid bare-chested men can be discerned within, when the walls turn transparent. And what about those passers-by, performing funny walks worthy of "Monty Python"? (And what's with that little wandering house?) Murphy, her shoulders hunched in spinsterhood, was lost deeply in the role of Hagar when the curtain rose, and seemed to have returned only halfway to reality during the ovation, flanked by co-stars Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes. If we must have avatars of, respectively, Sacred and Profane Love -- and Tudor wouldn't have it any other way -- we couldn't have done better than Hallberg and Gomes.

There's more to savor and less to deplore in "Jardin aux Lilas." A quartet of mismatched lovers quietly struggle to maintain decorum at all costs on a formal occasion. Sometimes their gestures veer into the banal (a finger to the lips to say, "Hush!"). Sometimes the stylized movements look a bit stiff (a social "dance" sequence). Generally Tudor successfully matches, in his own way, the romanticism of the score, Chausson's "Poeme." Indeed, he is as dependent on the musicians as on the dancers to bring the simmering emotions in 'Jardin' to a boil. Julie Kent and Melissa Thomas alternating as Catherine, the Bride-to-be, Roman Zhurbin and Vitali Krauchenka as The Man She Must Marry and Veronika Part as An Episode in His Past did not let him down (unlike the tall, rather bland corps guys who alternated as Catherine's Lover). Tension builds inexorably to its peak, when the entire cast strikes a tableau vivant and the atmosphere throbs with loss. Or at least it should. In four performances, conductor David LaMarche brought the orchestra up to that level of ardent intensity that Tudor and, for that matter, Chausson demanded exactly once. Solo violinist Roland Oakland never came close at any time.

Having to revive several delicate ballets that had not been performed in some time also seemed to take its toll on the cast of the plot-free "The Leaves Are Fading," which had marked Tudor's return to ABT, in 1975. Its revival at City Center was initially so languid some reviewers found it as dreary as another of the season's rarities, Jirí Kylian's unremittingly morose "Overgrown Path," a black hole into which excellent dancers repeatedly vanished. The comparison was unfair to Tudor, but soon one wondered if he was really interested in a gathering of innocent, blissfully un-neurotic young people. Was he capable of making us interested in them through steps and lifts alone? Judging by the performance with Reyes and Saveliev, the answer was, "No." Three days later, with Kent and Gomes on duty and conductor Charles Barker now in command of a gently propulsive tempo (for what the program notes admitted was some "little-known" chamber music of Dvorak's), everything came together in satisfactory fashion. 'Leaves,' premiered at the New York State Theater, in 1975, should be considered for future seasons at City Center. But never the Met.

ABT's sole world premiere this fall, Lauri N. Stallings's "Citizen," was an indulgence in post- modern prankishness. A meandering program note that eschewed all capital letters should have prepared me for the curtain's rising on a stage bare of everything but a bank of small spotlights aimed directly into my eyes, but it still took me by surprise. Similarly jolting was the sight of Corey Sterns in a seedy Madonna-syle bustier and tights that stopped around the knee. Thomas, Sean Stewart and Devon Teuscher were equally uglified, but Sarah Lane in a spangled bikini looked terrific. All were forced to contend with a dreary, droning score by Max Richter, which suggested Henryk Gorecki with hepatitis.

When a couple of dozen strangers, looking like they had taken a wrong turn while on a guided tour of City Center, walked out onstage, I was so fixated on the guy with the baby in a snugli that I didn't realize they were the ABT corps in mufti. (I am indebted to Virginia Johnson, editor of Pointe Magazine, for this belated insight.) When the curtain mercifully descended, Lane was left standing outside by the footlights. Stearns and Stewart reached under it to grab her ankles and pull her out of sight, like Eurydice in Balanchine's "Orpheus," a ballet "Citizen" did not otherwise resemble.

Thanks in part to erratic conducting by Barker, Balanchine was represented by ironically disparate performances of "Theme and Variations" and "Ballo della Regina." The company looked less at home in 'Theme,' which BT premiered in 1947, than in 'Ballo,' which premiered at City Ballet in 1978 but wasn't danced by ABT until last fall. Barker impeded the flow of the former with several pauses for entrances and applause that slowed its seemingly inexorable progress to its great polonaise finale. He paced 'Ballo' with unfailing authority, however. The corps, which had seemed constricted in 'Theme,' greeted it like an old friend with an almost palpable relish at performing such rewarding steps. While every lead couple rose to its challenges (better than the leads had done, meeting the cruelly exposed technical demands of 'Theme'), there was exceptional satisfaction in watching lissome soloist Yuriko Kajiya and stalwart corps member Eric Tamm make great strides in authority and ease in only two performances.

Two early works by new Kennedy Center awards honoree Twyla Tharp, "Baker's Dozen" (1979) and "Brief Fling" (1990), did much to offset the aftertaste of last spring's fulsome "Rabbit and Rogue" and its grab-bag Danny Elfman score. 'Dozen,' made for 12 of her own dancers wearing simple Santo Loquasto costumes, went down well, once we got past an overly long piano solo/overture (rousingly played though it was by Barbara Bilach). Stride-piano classics by Willie "The Lion" Smith did not provoke Twyla into inflicting an epidemic of seizures and anti-classical demands on a gutsy cast. 'Fling,' an ABT commission, was more lavish (18 dancers in Isaac Mizrahi costumes!) and more complex (Michael Colombier's driving score, counterbalanced by folksy Percy Grainger favorites), but only a turbulent fugual section threatened to get out of control. Paloma Herrera and Gomes served as chaperones to keep the party elegant.

American Ballet Theatre's Luciana Paris in Paul Taylor's "Company B." Photo by and copyright Gene Schiavone and courtesy ABT.

The high point of the opening-night gala -- and a joyous addition to every program it subsequently graced -- was "Company B," Paul Taylor's 1991 salute to the songs of World War II set to classic recordings by the Andrews Sisters. What a privilege it was to be reminded that American popular music was once witty, sophisticated, rousing and romantic, and that some popular entertainers -- particularly these Andrews gals -- had a command of diction, harmony and rhythm that was never less than musical. Aaron Scott, Misty Copeland, Joseph Phillips, Carlos Lopez and Luciana Paris looked less balletic and more idiomatic with every repetition. But who told that rejected gal in "Joseph! Joseph!" she could express frustration by saying, "Phooey!"?

American Ballet Theatre's Daniil Simkin in the pas de deux from Vainonen's "Flames of Paris." Photo by and copyright Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy ABT.

No season would be complete without a dazzling debutante, and with the arrival of 20-year-old Russian-born, parent-trained Daniil -- that's how he spells it -- Simkin, ABT has another little guy with big talent on its roster. A shelf-full of international competition trophies may justify his ineradicably smug expression but not the undeniably dazzling double tour en l'air he generously added to the finale of "Company B." Whether or not the airy Simkin has the stamina for a demanding evening-length classic, the undeniable exhilaration he triggered, tearing through Vainonen's old Soviet crotch-bustin' pas de deux, "Flames of Paris," opposite the increasingly impressive Lane, will make him a box-office draw at any theater for quite a while. On to the Met!


Lar Lubovitch Dance Company also celebrated an anniversary, the 40th of its founding, with a retrospective at City Center (November 5-8) featuring works from 1969 ("Whirligogs") to the present ("Jangle"). The overview was encouraging proof that Lubovitch has come a long way. "Whirligogs" was an "homage to," or, if you prefer English, "ripoff of" Paul Taylor's "Three Epitaphs." Taylor had five dancers in head-to-toe black body suits gallumphing about to scratchy old jazz records: modest, distinctive -- also hilarious. Lubovitch needed so many dancers onstage he had to invite 18 members of the Juilliard School's Class of '09 to mill around much too long to the third movement of Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia." The verdict: Bloated, second-hand -- decidedly glum.

In "Jangle," subtitled "Four Hungarian Dances" and set to two Bartok "Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano," Lubovitch wisely avoided having seven company members attempt to generate excitement by making like Gypsies. Instead, he worked in his best lightweight style and stressed midair imagery and onstage energy. Even in costumes that looked as if designer Ann Hould-Ward had ransacked a thrift shop, the cast, headed by Jonathan E. Alsberry, generated a genuine exuberance that enveloped the audience.

Rasta Thomas, a major dancer who never remains with any company for long, dropped by LLDC for one performance of last year's all-male pas de trois, "Little Rhapsodies." Seeing him dance this choreography with such silken precision dredged up memories of how Thomas had transformed the title role of Lubovitch's otherwise forgettable evening-length "Othello" during a recent guest appearance with ABT at the Met. I don't ever want to see another evening-length Lar Lubovitch ballet again -- especially one derived from Shakespeare -- but another short work that makes full use of Thomas's animal energy and sensational technique would be something worth celebrating.

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