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Letter from New York, 10-19: Fall for Francis
After Diaghilev, what?; ABT @ Avery

American Ballet Theatre's Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns in Benjamin Millepied's "Everything Doesn't Happen at Once." Photo by and ©Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

By Harris Green
Copyright 2009 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- City Center's Fall for Dance festival, now in its sixth year, gives me a belated opportunity to salute the late Francis Mason. A voracious consumer of dance as editor of the quarterly Ballet Review and commentator on dance on radio station WQXR-FM, he would have welcomed the festival's smorgasbord of entrées and canapés: two weeks (September 22 -- October 3), five programs, 20 companies and soloists, a season built around a salute to the centenary of Les Ballets Russes in which every performance would offer at least one ballet Sergei Diaghilev had premiered or one based on music he commissioned. Francis would have willingly crossed and recrossed New York City as well as the Hudson River to sample such a spread, and here it was, concentrated in one venue, all seats $10.

He was not only present at every world premiere I attended over the last 25 years, but he could be found at lesser events as well. In the early 1980s, New York City Ballet principal Daniel Duell invited me to watch a work in progress he was choreographing on some School of American Ballet students at a studio in a blighted Manhattan neighborhood located so far west it was virtually in New Jersey. I sought it out with increasing trepidation, only to find Francis on duty when I arrived. Dan had participated in several panel discussions on Balanchine he had chaired and Francis was curious to see what he was up to. (For the record, one of the SAB kids was Christopher Stowell, who went on to a long career at San Francisco Ballet before becoming artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theater.)

The late Clive Barnes, another receptacle of dance lore and experience who died in harness, was bent double over his cane as he hobbled down dozens of aisles, his eyes bright with anticipation till the very end. Francis's eyes were always squinched up in a ready grin, but when I saw him during American Ballet Theatre's and New York City Ballet's spring seasons, he looked tired. I learned of his death from cancer over QXR; the announcer said the station had lost a friend. So had we all.

Francis and Clive would have been grimly amused, I'm sure, by the irony that Balanchine was not represented in the Ballets Russes tributes at Fall for Dance. Nijinsky, Fokine and Nijinska were, but not the choreographer whose "Apollo" and "Prodigal Son" are probably the only Diaghilev commissions regularly performed around the world in their original stagings -- except at NYCB, that is. Balanchine had dropped the first scene of "Apollo" for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, and no one has had the temerity to restore it in 37 years.

Balanchine was to have been represented at Fall for Dance by a genuine rarity, his 1927 "La Chatte," performed by the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma Ballet Company, but it was cancelled. For no reason I will ever understand, the first choice for a replacement was the pas de deux from William Forsythe's "Herman Schmerman," premiered by NYCB (also for no reason I will ever understand) in 1992. At the last moment, after the City Center Playbill and the Fall for Dance flyer had gone to press, a further search of City Ballet's teeming repertory was made and "Four Bagatelles" (1974), the surprise sensation of last season's Jerome Robbins Celebration, was selected. Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia, showing no sign of fluster or underrehearsal, did it full justice.

New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia in Jerome Robbins's "Four Bagatelles." Photo by and ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy New York City Ballet.

Pianist Nancy McDill's gracious accompaniment of 'Bagatelles' from the orchestra pit reminded the audience what live music can sound like in this theater, where union pressure has forced most companies to resort to taped music. (Savion Glover's jamming with four jazz musicians and two other dancers on another program was undeniably "live" but everything, including the little substage the tappers assaulted, was over-miked past all bearing.) Diana Vishneva's lyrical demise as Michel Fokine's "Dying Swan" (like his "Les Sylphides," a pre-Diaghilev classic) was immeasurably enhanced by the warm playing of cellist Borislav Struley and pianist Maxim Mogilevsky. For his buoyant ensemble work "Grand Duo," Mark Morris had no need to reinforce violinist Jesse Mill and pianist Colin Fowler's playing of Lou Harrison's Grand Duo for Violin and Orchestra. The Mark Morris Dance Group tore through it with a right good will although the ballet would have had a stronger finale if the choreography had been as inventive as it was energetic.

Although the Paul Taylor Dance Company's performance of Taylor's 1995 "Offenbach Overtures" was danced to a tape recording, there was energy to spare onstage. What I missed was the extra buoyancy the work had years ago when former music director Donald York was conducting it and everything else. And now that I'm waxing nostalgic, indulge me in a tribute to the retired Lisa Viola. None of the women in 'Overtures' came close to expressing the envy her character once radiated when forced to stand by while a colleague soloed. The grotesque flower-blossom headgear she wore wobbled from the force of Viola's scorn. I miss her.

The Australian Ballet's production of Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose" (1911) was the most satisfying of the festival's three Ballets Russes offerings. (I avoided Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal because it was dancing Stijn Celis's "Noces" instead of Nijinska's "Les Noces.") Appearing as Le Spectre in a setting borrowed from ABT, Tzu-Chao Chou had to contend with the memory of Herman Cornejo's recent triumph on this very stage. (Those double assemblés -- first clockwise, then counter clockwise!) Chou was obviously no habitué of the weight room; still, his line was sharp, his jetés truly grand and his arms as curly as tendrils. If he often radiated more grand mannerism than grand manner, that is an occupational hazard no Spectre has ever evaded.

Not surprisingly, Ballet West's "Les Biches" (1924), which the company essayed for the first time this March, did not find the dancers securely attuned to all the subtleties of Nijinska's stylized sex play, but these often escape ensembles in communities even more sophisticated than Salt Lake City. Howard L. Sayette's staging and Georgina Parkinson's coaching have gotten Ballet West off to a decent start. Sandra Woodall's costumes and scenery based on Marie Laurencin's "original designs" looked appropriately summery, however any tape of Poulenc's score that contains the version with that obtrusive chorale has got to go. What's a chorus doing at an afternoon party in the south of France, anyway?

Boston Ballet's try at Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun" was close to a total loss. I do not doubt that those fortunate Ballets Russes audiences who saw Nijinsky as the Faun witnessed a uniquely mesmerizing presence that blotted out everything around it but Léon Bakst's glorious backdrop of molten, iridescent colors. That his staccato, jerky movement and two-dimensional Greco-Egyptian poses were a hostile mismatch with the light-shot liquidity of the music escaped just about everyone at the time but the composer. (Debussy hated the ballet.) I grant there's much "historical interest" in any performance of 'Faun'; unfortunately, that's a relative virtue, usually found in artworks possessing little interest of any other kind.

Without Nijinsky, the battery of this anti-ballet has died, and no dancer I've seen has been able to jump-start it. (Yes, I saw Nureyev, thank you very much, and the problem wasn't the violence with which he gestured but the amusicality of such gestures.) Under the circumstances, I probably shouldn't complain that Ghislaine Thesmar's coaching left the Boston dancers looking insufficiently two-dimensional and more than a little ridiculous. I don't know whom to blame for the drab, monochromatic drop that was libelously credited to Bakst. It looked as if it had been repeatedly sent to a laundromat that overdoes the bleach. Altankhuyag Dugaraa brought off the Faun's scandalous orgasm quite well. His defiant, long-suppressed leap when he came out for his bow was pretty good, too.

Mark Dendy's male pas de deux, 'Afternoon of the Faunes,' an excerpt from his "Dream Analysis," roughed up Nijinsky along with Debussy. According to the festival's flyer, it was inspired by Dendy's reading of Nijinsky's diaries and "walks the tightrope between the madness and genius that was the tragedy of [his] life." That's an awful lot to ask of two barefoot, bare-chested guys in furry biker pants, and to further heighten our expectations, Playbill carried this excerpt from those diaries: "I run instead of walking. I run a lot because I feel strong... I ran and ran. I did not stumble. A mysterious force was driving me forward."

It was something of an anticlimax to find that Dendy Dancetheater members Lonnie Poupard, Jr., and Alex Dean Speedie would not run but jump in place while a tape of "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" flowed past, and after some larking about elsewhere onstage, they would go back to where they had been jumping to jump some more -- knees turned in, calves turned out, feet cocked, arms repeatedly raised to form a parenthesis above their merry faces. After considering "madness" and "tragedy" as the operative term for this demonstration, I bit the bullet and settled on "goofy."

Ravel was assaulted by Ohad Naharin in 'B/olero.' For once I actually felt some sympathy for the composer of music's most omnipresent distended crescendo. Usually I identify with the raffish little chamber orchestra in George Booth's classic New Yorker cartoon in which the conductor, about to begin rehearsal, says, "The last time we played Ravel's 'Bolero,' I heard a scream at this point." I reached that point immediately in 'B/olero.' Jewel-like orchestration had been replaced by the coarsening of a synthesizer, leaving me nothing to enjoy but the pseudo-aerobic galumphing of Iyar Elezra and Bobbi Smith from Batsheva Dance Company. 'B/olero' was an excerpt from something called "Project 5." Now you can't be surprised to learn there's more where this came from.

I presume "Snow," a solo choreographed and performed by Forsythe associate Sang Jijia, was the festival's beau geste to an unfamiliar artist. The Playbill did all it could to help us along. It ran a poem, "When snow begins to fall, / The world is silent / And the world begins to speak aloud..." and this helpful nudge: "'Snow' is an intimate journey the artist takes the audience through." I would have preferred choreography. Something like snow was gently, gently falling throughout except for an occasional fistful of confetti hurled at the floorboards by a surly stagehand in the flyspace, tiny comets that disintegrated in descent. "I liked the snow," my guest said. "It gave me something to watch." There wasn't much to listen to, either, just a sort of murmuring New-Age minimalism credited to Wim Mertens. Jijia, barefoot in black pants and T-shirt, alternated leisurely strolling with pelvis-wrenching moves that repeatedly sent him crashing to the floor. Now if that's not a fall for dance I don't know what is.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater concluded the festival with Ailey's "Revelations." No other company dances it. No other company should or could dance it. On closing night, the joyous troupe, resplendent though performing to a tape of spirituals, had to contend with several jolting, intrusive war whoops from what appeared to be a member of the audience with Tourette's syndrome. Secure in the bosom of Abraham, it rocked on to a triumphant finale.

American Ballet Theatre's Stella Abrera and Gennadi Saveliev in Alexei Ratmansky's "Seven Sonatas." Photo by and ©Gene Schiavone and courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

American Ballet Theatre's fall season this year, featuring three new commissions, was reduced from the usual run of 18 to 21 days to six performances (October 7 -- 10) at, of all places, Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. When ABT management learned that City Center, its usual autumn venue, was supposed to be undergoing extensive renovation at this time, it scurried about to find a replacement and had irrevocably signed on with AFH when the center announced it would be open for business after all.

The anomaly of a ballet company appearing in a concert hall with no provision for scenery or a curtain turned out to have few drawbacks for either the audience or the dancers. Having to warm up in public, all glamor muffled in unsightly but functional gear, permitted dancers to wave to and chat with friends out front before the performance. After the hall was plunged into darkness, the stage could be bathed in light to whatever degree required. While the three choreographers knew they could not choose any music requiring a huge orchestra, since there would not be an orchestra pit in AFH, they would be working on a huge stage with four doors opening on to it and plenty of room for scores of dancers. The only oddities about this season were that all costumes were in black and white and that some men wore tights above the knees -- except in Robbins's 1976 "Other Dances," one of two ABT-commissioned pas de deux included in most performances. After all, 'Dances' was made on Makarova and Baryshnikov. (ABT opened out of town; the new ballets received their world premieres at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, on October 2.)

Resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's "Seven Sonatas," set to Domenico Scarlatti lovingly played by pianist Barbara Bilach and danced by three double-cast couples dressed entirely in white, easily took the honors. Perfectly scaled to the hall and to the music, 'Sonatas' gradually ventured into something approaching A Plot as the music justified it. Initially, the three women entered together, then the three men, and their inventive intermingling involved no fixed partnerships. Not until four lively, distinctive solos had spun past did a couple (danced by Stella Abrerra and Gennadi Saveliev or by Yuriko Kajiya and Carlos Lopez) seemed to be having a conflict of some sort, scaled however to the emotional confines of Scarlatti.

Sarah Lane and Joseph Phillips, a perkier pair, replaced those technical marvels Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo at both performances I saw. Lane, already a soloist, was the picture of fluid assurance. Phillips, who is on his up from the corps, held back nothing, even when asked to come out of a double tour to the knee and bounce back up to strike an aggressive "Yes!" stance with a clenched fist -- a step plainly made with Cornejo in mind. While Phillips lacked the ultimate in polish, I assure you he was conscientiously rehearsing it onstage before the lights went down.

Hee Seo and Jared Matthews and especially Julie Kent and David Hallberg were the most sophisticated pairs, separating but reconciling with no apparent hard feelings. Ratmansky then wisely varied the grouping by flanking one man with two women and one woman with two men, before returning to the partnerships.

Not until the final sonata, when Scarlatti had moved from his sunny, melodic, typically Italian style into the denser, contrapuntal world of his contemporary J. S. Bach, did the dance reach its hushed, transforming resolution. The light began to diminish, the dancers resumed their partnerships, the music deepened into a solemn intricacy. The women stretched out on the floor, and despite the near-feral contempt I always feel for this facile substitute for choreography, this move seemed fitting after the men knelt behind them and darkness enveloped the stage. Everything came together with an unforced certainity the two other novelties couldn't begin to equal.

I was anticipating Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton's "One of Three." The flyer had hailed her for directing "a universe of constantly moving bodies with a seamless clarity," and her "Barbara," set to songs of the eponymous Parisian singer for ABT II last spring, had indeed been delightful even if it never attained the cosmic. "One of Three" was not only earthbound, but pulled Ravel down with it. Whatever he might have had in mind when he composed his Violin Sonata in G, I really doubt it matched the steady buildup to a flurry of slashing salutes by 11 well-dressed sophisticates that erupted at AFH. It started with Michelle Wiles in a floor-length white sheath evening gown but formality, along with musical aptness, diminished as Luciana Paris and Nicola Curry's attire dwindled to gymwear and desperation mounted. I knew the feeling. Violinist Ronald Oakland and conductor David LaMarche, here serving as a pianist, were lucky to be stationed upstage so far out of range.

NYCB principal Benjamin Millepied's "Everything Doesn't Happen at Once" suggested that Millepied had chosen the title to set himself a challenge before starting the choreography. His "Quasi una Fantasia" for City Ballet last spring required a 16-person corps and ever-shifting lighting. For 'Everything,' his corps has swelled to 22 (soloists Maria Riccetto and Daniil Simkin among them). At one point all were spot-lighted from the side and danced in synch with their shadows. The finale found everyone linked arm in arm, grouped in four lines and moving in opposite directions simultaneously. Well, there was certainly no lack of texture, I'll give Millpied that.

The slow-motion pas deux (Abrerra and Cory Stearns or Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomez) would have provided an intriguing contrast with such massed manuevering, had Daniel Lang's low-key, minimalistic score for a small upstage ensemble under Ormsby Wilkins not relentlessly induced something akin to shell shock. The second movement consisted of sustained muttering from piano, violin, cello and clarinet, monotonously interrupted by resounding detonations from the percussion, repeated over and over. Lang called the movement "short fall." I accept "fall" but never "short." At my second exposure, it seemed longer than before.

American Ballet Theatre's Daniil Simkin and corps in Benjamin Millepied's "Everything Doesn't Happen at Once." Photo by and ©Gene Schiavone and courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

Elegant as Abrerra, Stearns, Boylston and Gomes were, the image most of the audience carried home were the poses the ever-sensational Simkin snapped into and out of, either while being tossed around by the corps or generating enough energy on his own to whip his body 360 degrees around in midair by slinging his right leg over the left. Corps member Arron Scott couldn't duplicate the impact of that last feat, but I still prefer his dancer to Simkin's stunt man.

Stunts were the hallmark of "Some Assembly Required" (1989), a pas de deux by the late company member Clark Tippett to William Bolcom's Second Violin Sonata. I suspect it was revived as a 20-year commemoration because it's certainly been no recurring repertory favorite at ABT. It's best remembered for the performance photo of the man, lying on his back with his legs up in the air and his partner perched on the soles of his feet -- not an atypical pose in this case. Riccetto and Matthews went about their risky assignment like the dedicated pros they are. Musicians Oakland and LaMarche did far better by Bolcom than Tippett did.

For "Other Dances," a more viable ABT commission, LaMarche phrased Chopin with such powerful, loving clarity that Veronika Part and Gomes and Gillian Murphy and Hallberg, respectively, delivered two of the most eloquent performances of it I've seen in some time. Until Gomes in a rare miscalculation overdid the bit where he's supposed to be vertiginous after a set of turns, I had almost forgotten it was by Robbins.

American Ballet Theatre's Maria Riccetto and Jared Matthews in Clark
Tippett's "Some Assembly Required." Photo by and ©Rosalie O'Connor
and courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

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