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Letter from New York, 7-9: Galarama
Superstars & premieres from ABT & NYCB

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet offered characteristic gala-benefit fare to begin their overlapping eight-week spring seasons at Lincoln Center. With few exceptions, ABT's May 18 Opening Night Gala at the Metropolitan Opera House presented one superstar principal after another, almost all in mint condition, exultantly tearing through excerpts from the spring repertory. The personal appearance of First Lady Michelle Obama to make a brief curtain speech in favor of the arts was decidedly a stellar event. Don't expect me to describe her gown but "stunning" is the word for her. She was greeted with a standing ovation and a silent, incessant barrage of flashing cell phone cameras!

NYCB, which opened its season on April 28 but delayed its Spring Gala until May 13, remained true to its tradition of creativity by offering patrons two premieres. Ironically, both galas concluded with Balanchine's "Theme and Variations," which had been commissioned by Ballet Theatre, ABT's predecessor, in 1947. NYCB performed the complete work. ABT used only its sensational polonaise finale to highlight potential superstars Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin.

There were three novelties at ABT's gala, each a piece d'occasion with no shelf life. Raymond Lukens's "The Procession" was a charming defile for students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, knowingly set to Luciano Berio's arrangement of Boccherini's "Ritirata di notturna de Madrid." Watching young people demonstrate their dedication to and delight in the difficulties of so demanding an art form always bestirs the latent optimist in me. JKO's ability to produce so many accomplished girls and promising boys proved exceptionally hopeful.

American Ballet Theatre's Nina Ananiashvili in Alexei Ratmansky's "Waltz Masquerade." Photo by and copyright Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy ABT.

Alexei Ratmansky's "Waltz Masquerade," which brought the first half of the gala to a rousing close, was a thoroughly professional trifle for Nina Ananiashvili, who would give her farewell ABT performance in the June 27 "Swan Lake." Only ballet-goers with hearts of stone could refuse to share her delight at this grand opportunity to perform, in a flaming red gown designed by Natia Sirbiladze, flattering custom-made steps set to that pops-concert favorite, the Waltz from Aram Khachaturian's "Masquerade Suite." A quartet of men holding candelabras took positions at the four corners of the stage. When they set their candlesticks aside, they were revealed to be principals Marcelo Gomes, Angel Corella, Maxim Beloserkovsky and Jose Manuel Carreno, all of whom would star in the next half of the evening and all so aflame with adoration for La Nina that they fell to their knees, implored her with open arms to embrace them and scampered after her when she left the stage. What better time for an intermission than after that morsel?

"Piece d'Occasion" was the unimprovable title for the third piece of ephemera. Herbie Hancock, who noodled at the keyboard, was credited with the music. No one was credited with "choreography" because none existed. Carreno strolled on, did a tour or two and took a seat beside the piano. Stella Abrera entered looking for him, didn't find him and missed seeing him when he walked -- let me repeat that: walked -- offstage. She wound up settling in beside Hancock on the piano bench. Curtain. The finale of "Theme and Variations," even with such small-scaled virtuosi as Lane and Simkin, was particularly welcome, coming immediately after this vacuity.

Most of the other gala offerings stirred hope for the coming season. The success of the welcome revival of Bournonville's "La Sylphide" (June 15 - 20) was accurately telegraphed at the gala by the stylish and airy dancing of the Act II excerpt by Xiomara Reyes, Herman Cornejo, and a corps of sylphs. Fortunately Michelle Wiles in the huntresses' entrance from "Sylvia" did not foreshadow the eventual success of that Ashton masterpiece.

MacMillan's inescapable "Romeo and Juliet" (July 6-11), however, will gain much needed freshness if everyone matches the dedication Gomes and Diana Vishneva brought to the Balcony Scene. He made doing the same generic leap four times in a row look like a genuine expression of ardor. She, flowing from one liquid pose into another, recalled Alessandra Ferri's total identification with Juliet. Despite their seeming ease, I still could not help thinking of the arid difficulties MacMillan imposed on dancers to approximate passion. Romeo, while kneeling on both knees, must raise Juliet above his head four times while she freezes into a diagonal pose that must be difficult to maintain. (Gomes stopped after a third hefting and who could blame him?) The late critic Robert Garis said that if MacMillan had wanted to move people around to music, he should have staged opera.

Gillian Muphy and Ethan Stiefel in Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" held out what proved to be a vain hope for equally scrupulous and rousing dancing on the "Balanchine-Tchaikovsky" program, which followed the gala and continued through May 23. 'Theme' was also included, along with "Mozartiana" and "Allegro Brillante," making its long-delayed entree into ABT's repertory. Paloma Herrera and Gomes certainly did full justice to 'Tchai Pas.' (Earlier Misty Copeland and Jared Matthews had come close to doing so.) Murphy and Stiefel made 'Allegro' look blindingly brillante. (Reyes and Simkin, looking less wiry in white tights, would come off as merely tidy in comparison.) Neither of the two corps groups I saw looked at home duplicating the same demanding steps of the leads or setting off canonic sequences like a chain of firecrackers. (Former City Ballet principal Daniel Duell told me, "When you were in the corps, you would kill to get to dance 'Allegro.'")

It should be only a matter a time before ABT's marvelous dancers absorb this headlong work, however "Mozartiana," which was already in the repertory, does not yet look at home there. The staging, credited to former NYCB principal Maria Calegari, was often needlessly wreathed in smiles and flowery gestures. Considering the heavy artillery ABT could have rolled out, the casting of Maria Riccetto, Veronika Part and Blaine Hoven was of a smaller calibre.

Arron Scott and Carlos Lopez, gleefully overselling the Gigue, the male solo, should not be dismissed as duds, considering the damage they did. Daniel Ulbricht, who owns this role at NYCB, recalls that the late Victor Castelli, on whom Balanchine made it, taught him to constantly keep the image of a delicate Dresden figurine in mind while going in and out of its several poses. Mr. B wanted nothing less -- or more. Ulbricht, whose grin has eclipsed his virtuosity for some reviewers, has never cracked a smile while maintaining the Gigue's delicate clarity. ("It's the hardest role I've ever danced," he says.) Calegari would have to resort to using a Ouija board to confer with Castelli about this solo but it would be worth a try.

More subtle and inexplicable differences exist between ABT's and City Ballet's performances of "Theme and Variations," because ABT, with its roster of fearless technicians, nevertheless permits simpler, less satisfying steps at two key moments. (Balanchine added 'Theme' to NYCB's repertory in 1960. While it is often danced as an independent ballet, 'Theme' at NYCB is more often done now as Tchaikovsky intended: As the finale of his Third Suite for Orchestra, which Balanchine got around to choreographing in 1970. In keeping with the company's tradition of purely functional titles, the new work was called "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3."

The second male solo in 'Theme,' which opens with six ronds de jambe at both companies, continues at City Ballet with a double tour en l'air and a single pirouette, a second double tour now followed by a double pirouette, a third double tour -- those tours just keep on coming -- followed by a single pirouette, and so on. At ABT, the man does only single pirouettes after each double tour. It's dismaying to see a paragon of male dancing such as David Hallberg waste an opportunity to heighten our admiration at this moment.

More serious is ABT's allowing a ballerina to -- I think the technical term is "fudge" -- the lovely passes when, with a corps woman on either side holding her hand as she remains on pointe, she deliquesces from one pose to another. It's such a unique moment I always sense that Tchaikovsky, an eminently "dancey" composer, had intuited this passage's eventual use for choreography when he orchestrated it. (The English horn hovering over tremulous strings as much as says, "Asoluta onstage!") Every ballerina at NYCB and Murphy and Herrera at ABT keep the "working leg" aloft until their hands are released and the corps exits and they go into the final solo. Wiles and Lane, however, brought that leg to the floor repeatedly as they shifted to another pose, bringing the passage down to earth in more ways than one as they did so.

ABT's big guns were out in force for seven performances (May 26-30) of "Le Corsaire." Five composers, three choreographers, a plot so messy its synopsis lacks only two odalisques named Edith and Betty to qualify as a Robert Benchley parody -- you can't help loving "Corsaire." Why wonder how Medora, who wears only harem garb in Act I, can flaunt a wardrobe that includes a tutu and a shift after she arrives in the pirate grotto in Act II? Why fret over how the sails of the pirate ship out in the harbor can billow in the wind without the ship's moving an inch? When the dancers rise to its demands, watching "Corsaire" is like pigging out on a highly seasoned, high-caloric feast.

Although injuries to Stiefel and Cornejo caused some duplicated casting in the performances I saw, I had no problem watching Hallberg and Corella dance twice as, respectively, Conrad and Ali the slave, for they looked predictably tremendous. Second helpings of Lopez as the treacherous Birbanto and Simkin as the greedy slave-trader Lankendem obliterated memories of their previous lacks. Simkin's ability to land in plié and bound straight up from that position while remaining in character was much admired.

Herrera and Murphy alternated as Medora with equal authority, and Yuriko Kajiya and Riccetto shared Gulnare with similar success. Victor Barbee and Roman Zhurbin were genuinely comic as the pixilated Pasha Seyd. Corps member Roddy Doble quite disappeared into the role of his weedy, love-struck "Assistant," obsessed with Gulnare's discarded veil. Conductor Charles Barker played no favorites when giving invigorating attention to Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Prince Oldenbourg (don't ask). Yes, Irina Tibilova's blatantly old-timey production is fading fast but so what? "Le Corsaire" was American Ballet Theatre at its best.

"All-Prokofiev" (June 1-6) was the company's most ambitious program: "Prodigal Son," a Balanchine classic it had done often and could cast to strength; "Desir," a company premiere from James Kudelka; and "On the Dneiper," an eagerly awaited world premiere from Ratmansky, ABT's much-acclaimed new artist in residence. 'Prodigal' proved a frowsy affair, unfortunately. Irina Dvorovenko had the long line essential to The Siren but her prissiness and robotic stare proved so unnerving I stopped looking at her through my opera glasses. The sequence where the Drinking Companions, a.k.a. "Goonies," toss her up across the table to perch triumphantly on the shoulders of fellow Goonies was disastrously miscalculated. After much fumbling by all concerned, she wound up with one thigh desperately hugged to his chest by a Goonie, the other leg straight up in the air as if signaling for help and the rest of her body out of sight, slung backward over the shoulders of her struggling partners. While she was in that precarious position, Dvorovenko's expression could not be ascertained. Simkin -- light of foot, trim of build, smug of face -- remains an anomaly: a razor-sharp technician whose physique and personality make him difficult to cast. His Prodigal's pummeling of his thighs and the exhilarating signature leap were more petulant than defiant. Stripped to his ballet belt, he looked like prey for plucked-chicken hawks, not a debauched young hero.

"Désir," created by Kudelka for Montréal's Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1991, consisted of four waltzes from the ballet "Cinderella" and two from the opera "War and Peace." While 18 dancers were involved, only Reyes and Zhurbin got moderately rewarding opportunities to look very good, and they had to contend with dowdy costumes from Marjorie Fielding that were the last word in 20-year-old Canadian-chic leisure wear. Had it searched a little longer, ABT could have discovered that Robbins had made much better use of Prokofiev at City Ballet ("Prokofiev Waltzes," "Opus 19: The Dreamer"), but once again the chance to present another Kudelka non-ballet proved irresistible. Romance was apparently supposed to be in the air, but under a giant moon-like object flanked by star-like dots, it didn't stand a chance, nor was it helped by the men's flinging their partners around and then flopping to the floor, possibly to catch their breath. Petals or something came drifting down as the curtain fell, but by then it was too late.

Cherry blossoms were aswirl throughout "On the Dneiper," stirred up by villagers as they crossed the stage, tossed at a happy couple at their betrothal and finally dumped on everyone in a fluttering cascade like a "Nutcracker" blizzard for a melancholy finale. Ratmansky, a very savvy pro, knew such Hallmark moments were essential to reinforce the slight plot Prokofiev and Serge Lifar created for their 1932 Paris Opera Ballet collaboration: Sergei, a soldier, returns to his village to find that his long-suffering girlfriend, Natalia, now interests him less than Olga, who is about to be betrothed to a character so innocuous he wasn't given a name. Sergei and Olga run off together, leaving Natalia, who had not stood in their way, to suffer like a good Russian heroine as the cherry blossoms descend.

Had Prokofiev given this pallid material a transfusion of impetuous, all-consuming lyricism, it would have been believable as well as exciting. (More familiar, too. I can't recall ever hearing it at a concert or on FM radio.) It would also have been more of an inspiration to Ratmansky. His choreography, while never less than professional, wasn't much more than that either. Carreno (Sergei), Vishneva (Olga), Hee Seo (Natalia), Alexandre Hammoudi (Comrade X), conductor Barker and an ever-stalwart corps, who doubled as stagehands trundling Simon Pastukh's potted trees around, did all they could for it.

At City Ballet's Spring Gala, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz fudged no Balanchine demand when dancing "Theme and Variations" yet they remained short of amplitude. (She also had some fleeting difficulty with conductor Faycal Karoui's brisk tempi.) Still, even small-scale Balanchine was welcome after the two murky premieres that preceded it on the program. NYCB principal Benjamin Millepied's "Quasi una Fantasia" proved a knowing use of two couples (Rebecca Krohn and Sebastien Marcovici, Janie Taylor and Jared Angle) and a rousing corps of 16, six of whom were of soloist rank. It marked an advance over Millepied's previous work in its astute reliance on Mark Stanley's brooding lighting -- the New York Times's Alastair Macaulay likened the streaks of red and gold that pierce the gloom to a Mark Rothko painting -- and on the manipulation of the corps as a mass assemblage here, a straight line there, with spiky gestures creating an ever-shifting skyline. Still, the choreography often seemed designed to flesh out the look of the stage to offset the spare solemnity of Henryk Gorecki's eponymous score for string ensemble. The ballet didn't really perk up until the music turned staccato for a lively finale. Further viewing of 'Quasi' would not be a chore, however.

"Toccata," the other premiere, proved even less interesting at a second encounter. Choreographer JirI Bubenicek, a dancer with Dresden's SemperOper Ballet, was apparently playing some sort of "odd man out," setting four men among three women to see how they matched up. The women repeatedly placed their hands on the men's chests only to push them away, and who could blame them? Partnering included the men's lifting the women overhead in spread-eagled, starfish poses or scooting them across the stage while they remained on pointe. Inevitably, arms were flailed a la Tharp/Forsythe/Elo/et al., possibly in self-defense. Under these conditions, Abi Stafford, Craig Hall and Robert Fairchild's pas de trois could pass as a menage a trois. David Prottas was pushed away so often he left the stage, not to return until this fine young dancer could bring the curtain down with a battery of pseudo-classical steps, impeccably done. There, see! It was a ballet.

Bubenicek's twin brother, Otto, a principal dancer with Hamburg Ballet, supplied the music, a blandly rippling affair frugally scored for two pianos and interrupted by grumpy interjections from a cello and a violin. The four musicians, seated behind a scrim upstage about two stories above the floor, came into view only when they needed light to read their scores. There was even less to watch onstage as a result of this arrangement, for "Toccata" was pocked with stretches of silence. Otto also supplied the costumes but in the pervasive gloom, who got a good look at them?

Costumes were the subject of "Recreating a Tutu's Splendor," this gala's inevitable "movie" -- no, make that "short subject." (Remember short subjects, ye olde moviegoers?) With a genuine filmmaker's skill, director Galen Summer took us on a tour of City Ballet's costume shop as its staff replicated Ben Benson's tutus for "Theme and Variations," which would conclude the evening's program. Wear, sweat and even oxidation had debased the exquisite workmanship the great Barbara Karinska had brought to transforming a sketch on paper into fabric and finally a costume. Marc Happel, the shop director, proved a witty guide. When a corps member tells him her costume feels "comfortable," Happel says that means he had better take it in some. The gala audience burst into applause after the curtain rose on 'Theme.' Those costumes were not only the ones they had just seen being recreated with such great care, but were the first tutus they had seen all evening.

A refreshed production was long overdue of Balanchine's 1952 "Scotch Symphony," which I don't recall seeing often at Lincoln Center. Horace Armistead's original backdrop of glens and crags had been acceptable at City Center but looked mingy on a larger stage. The original costumes by Karinska and David Ffolkes were recreated successfully. A new backdrop after a painting by former principal Karin von Aroldingen was a disaster; it looked like the aftermath of some ecological meltdown, a toxic dump that could only be called "Loch Mess." Jenifer Ringer and Millepied lacked the ultimate polish in the leads, but corps lassie Erica Pereira got off to a good start as the perky demi.

And now a supererogatory tribute to Balanchine's ability to come up with an idea that was unthinkable until he thought of it. Using the third movement of Mendelssohn's "Scotch" Symphony to pay homage to Bournonville's "La Sylphide" was one. Embodying the groundswell of the approaching finale with a set of pas de deux was another. Clotilde Otranto's assured conducting built to a genuinely impressive conclusion without ever resorting to the tawdry tempo acceleration, otherwise known as "the bum's rush," at such moments.

The Big Event of City Ballet's season was probably the May 21 PBS telecast, on "Live From Lincoln Center," of Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet" -- the first live telecast of a NYCB evening-length work since the May 5, 1999, airing of Martins's "Swan Lake" and the first live TV coverage of the company since the May 5, 2004, mouthful, "Lincoln Center Celebrates Balanchine 100, New York City Ballet's 2004 Spring Gala." In the 1960s Balanchine was considering a "Romeo and Juliet" starring Suzanne Farrell and John Prinz, set to Tchaikovsky's great "overture fantaisie," but that proved a star-crossed project. First Prinz, then Farrell left the company, and now we have Martins's "Romeo + Juliet." (I know, I know. That looks like a Verona graffito but there's nothing we can do about it.) His 2007 adaptation is set to a streamlined version of Prokofiev's score, in an eyesore of a production designed by his fellow Dane, Per Kirkeby. In preparation for the telecast, the company was brought to a peak of sheer professionalism that was awesome in its own right, whatever the use it was put to.

The May 15 performance, which featured the cast that would be seen on the tube, was a dry run for the PBS crew to check out its scripted camera placement of some 900 shots ("storyboarding" filmmakers call it). It proved to be about as close to well-oiled perfection as a flawed production could get. Robert Fairchild + Sterling Hyltin were ideal as the leads but initially earned little applause from an audience cowed by the presence of six TV cameras stationed in the house. (Two more were backstage.) Not until Ulbricht as Mercutio tossed off his sensational solo, to which Martins had added further difficulties, did they explode into applause. De Luz, sporting a Van Dyke, looked so impressive as Tybalt he should get permission to wear it all the time. (Well, maybe not in "Donizetti Variations," which proved well-suited to him and Megan.) The only members of the second cast who were on the level of the first were Kathryn Morgan as Juliet and Amar Ramasar as Tybalt.

The Capulets and Montagues, respectively clad in red and green as clashing as their swords, went at one another with a right good -- no, make that "ill" -- will. The orchestra must have appreciated having less than usual Prokofiev to perform for it quite outdid itself under Karoui.

There were few changes to the insistent intricacy of Martins's choreography. While I prefer it to MacMillan's intermittent fireworks, there's no denying Fairchild had his work cut out for him, draping Hyltin over his shoulder or his knee and at one point ardently rotating her 360 degrees. Little could be done short of demolition to improve Kirkeby's squatty unit set; no matter how many times it separates and reassembles, it still looks like a cinder-block toilet in an Alabama state park. The great advantage of viewing "Romeo + Juliet" as a telecast was that no matter how wide the screen, it reduced your view of the production but not the dancing.

Or so I was assured. Friends had to TiVo the telecast for me because it coincided with my May 21 Carnegie Hall MET Orchestra subscription concert, and I have yet to find time to view it. And please don't look at me like I'm some kind of traitor to ballet. James Levine was conducting "Petrouchka," for Christ's sake.

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