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Alina Cojocaru and Jose Manuel Carreno in American Ballet Theatre's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." Gene Schiavone photo courtesy ABT.

Copyright 2010 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- American Ballet Theatre celebrated its 70th anniversary by offering few novelties during its spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House (May 17-July 10). Its opening-night gala would have benefited no end from, say, a sneak preview of the pas de deux from Alexei Ratmansky's forthcoming "Nutcracker" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Instead, ABT used the evening mostly for fond backward looks at its repertory and superstars. Glamorous ballerinas Lupe Serrano, Martine Van Hamel, Natalia Makarova, Alessandra Ferri and Nina Ananiashvili, all smashingly gowned, followed by the markedly less glamorous Mikhail Baryshnikov and Frederic Franklin, were summoned from the wings to waves of applause. Notable by their absence: Cynthia Gregory and Susan Jaffe. Alicia Alonso would receive a tumultuous 90th birthday tribute of her own weeks later -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The gala peaked in a pared-down excerpt of the second act of "Giselle" in which Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg achieved much of the impact of the complete ballet all by themselves. Osipova did not simply enter. She seemed to materialize on Stage Right with an eerie incorporeality re-enforced by the unforced ease with which Hallberg lifted her. Utterly boneless once aloft, she bent slightly at the hip as if to the air's resistance. His soaring double cabrioles deftly scissored the air before him. (There must be ballerinas who envy Hallberg those elegant legs.) No technical difficulties impeded their fleetness across the boards. This was a mercilessly tantalizing morsel; however, ABT did not offer a complete "Giselle" this season.

Three of the evening's 13 offerings were company premieres and anything but "gala." Two were dreary Frederick Ashton pas de deux that would later be featured in the four "repertory programs" built around one-act ballets and excerpted pas de deux. Judging from the fringe of unsold seats at those rep performances, this change from the company's regular Met fare of beloved evening-length classics was welcomed more by jaded reviewers than by a public eager to see, say, yet another "La Bayadere" or "Swan Lake." (For the record, this jaded reviewer saw a "La Bayadere" with Diana Vishneva, Marcelo Gomes, and Gillian Murphy, and a "Swan Lake" with Vishneva and Hallberg, and has nothing but praise for them and ABT's increasingly elegant corps.) Ashton's "Thais" Pas de Deux, set to Massenet's entr'acte for solo violin known as "Meditation," certainly got me to thinking: "Why must a major artist like Vishneva be sent onstage covered with a golden veil to waste partner Jared Matthews's time and ours?" Equally puzzling was the incongruously entitled "The Awakening Pas de Deux" which proved soporific in the extreme. Through no fault of their own, Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns seemed to be listless somnambulists, walking about to another violin solo, the excerpt from "The Sleeping Beauty" that Balanchine had wisely borrowed to put little Clara to bed before the Christmas tree in his "Nutcracker." Concertmaster Ronald Oakland and conductor David LaMarche did far more for Massenet and Tchaikovsky than Ashton did during these lulls.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in American Ballet Theatre's production of the Act II pas de deux from "Giselle." Gene Schiavone photo courtesy ABT.

Novelty Three featured Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle in a take-to-the-floor lovers' pas de deux from Act III of John Neumeier's "Lady of the Camellias," which would have its company premiere on May 25. Instead of attaining the height of eroticism, his stripping her of a voluminous fur coat and not stopping until she's left in her shift for a grapple on the boards was a new, often unintentionally hilarious low in choreography. Being set to the aristocratic romanticism of Chopin didn't help one bit. Kent and Bolle got the opportunity to deliver more nuanced characterizations as Marguerite and Armand when they danced the complete 'Lady,' but then they had to contend with Neumeier's insistence on complicating this familiar narrative with flashbacks and visions of Manon Lescaux and her lover Des Grieux. "What," you may ask, "are they doing here?" Well, after Marguerite attends a ballet about this tragic pair, she cannot stop thinking about the fate that awaits a Parisian courtesan. Manon and Des Grieux become a ragged spectral pair whose entrance during the ominous central section of an otherwise placid piano prelude is Neumeier's most apt appropriation of Chopin. (It also helped that they were Murphy and Hallberg.) I'm told the novel "Manon" by the Abbe Prevost is occasionally mentioned in the Alexandre Dumas fils "La Dame aux Camellias," and this tenuous connection was all Neumeier needed to guarantee that his 'Lady' will be utterly unlike the most familiar adaptations, Verdi's "La Traviata" and George Cukor's "Camille" with Garbo for M.G.M.

Flashbacks permit Neumeier to shuffle past and present like a deck of cards. The present is always set in Marguerite's apartment after her death, where her possessions are being auctioned off, and the past is called up as Armand reads her diary. Designer Jurgen Rose's typically uncluttered style often suggests that almost every setting is a stripped-down unoccupied flat, but you always know when and where the action is because a placard proclaiming "Auction" is mounted on an easel chez Marguerite. In fact, the placard is on view when you enter the theater because Neumeier, naturally, has the curtain open from the start. When placard and easel are carried off the stage, a flashback is in progress. This prop, which is brought on and off so often it's partnered like a ballerina, soon becomes a running gag, but at least you always know where you are.

If Vishneva and Gomes were your Marguerite and Armand, you were in heaven. Their technical brilliance and personal involvement made Neumeier's most desperate striving for originality ring true. Vishneva's glamor, presence and artistry -- not to mention cheekbones! -- can convince you she actually is a courtesan who has somehow acquired the consummate grace of a great ballerina. Gomes can perform the most fevered puerility in the highest possible style, even if he must express Armand's anguish upon being betrayed by running -- I repeat, running -- off and on and off stage again to a fiery etude. But give Neumeier credit: He's very good at fleshing out minor characters. Julio Bragado-Young, Carlos Lopez, Xiomara Reyes, Simone Messmer, Hee Seo (recently promoted to soloist), Maria Riccetto and Roman Zhurbin expertly filled out these cameos. Pianists Koji Attwood and Soheil Nasseri and conductor Ormsby Wilkins saw to it that Chopin was treated more respectfully in the pit than onstage; 2010 is his bicentennial, after all.

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in Ameican Ballet Theatre's production of John Neumeier's "Lady of the Camellias." Rosalie O'Connor photo courtesy ABT.

ABT's 90th birthday tribute to Alonso on June 3 promised to be a gala all by itself: a performance of "Don Quixote" in which Kitri and Basilio were danced by a different superstar couple in each act. (Actually, Alonso won't be 90 till December 21 but you must not bring cold logic to bear on joyous occasions.) With energy to burn, Herrera and Gomes danced Act I like there was no tomorrow, performing sensational feats with daring to spare. Basilio has little to do in Act II so Herman Cornejo found himself in the rare position of being upstaged by Daniil Simkin as a bare-chested gypsy scamp with all his tricks and bones on display. Reyes as Kitri joined Veronika Part (Queen of the Dryads as well as Mercedes) and Sarah Lane (Amour) to enliven the ever-tedious Dryad ensemble as best they could.

Only Act III dipped below gala standards. Jose Manuel Carreno looked diminished and Osipova seemed downright hostile as she tossed off steely fouettés with icy, Bolshoi precision. Perhaps she was as eager as I was to get through this box of crumbling bonbons and bring Alonso down from her seat in the Grand Tier so we could all give her a standing ovation and go home. The great lady was overdue adoration after the mini-movie that had opened the evening. A part of a work in progress by documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, it had offered only muzzy glimpses of Alonso's dancing among harshly lighted close-ups that left her looking like she'd been made up by the Joker. Such indignity was obliterated by the roaring greeting she received when she appeared, escorted by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie and leaning on the arm of her fellow Cuban Carreno, to be saluted by a brace of glitter cannons.

A personal note: I was converted to classical dance by Ballet Theatre on tour in Austin, Texas, in 1954. Of course I had seen "The Red Shoes," even the Oscar-winning "An American in Paris," but after Alonso and Igor Youskevitch had danced a tremendous Black Swan Pas de Deux and Rosella Hightower and Erik Bruhn had given a roof-lifting performance of Balanchine's seven-year-old "Theme and Variations," ballet onstage, living and breathing before me, moved to the forefront of my life-enhancing essentials. I remain in Alonso's debt.

Jose Manuel Carreno, Alicia Alonso and Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre's tribute to Alonso. Gene Schiavone photo courtesy ABT.

Royal Ballet principal Alina Cojocaru's stunning ABT debut in "The Sleeping Beauty" (June 19) was another special event, all the more precious for Cojocaru's failure to dance another 'Beauty' or anything else this season. The pressures of superstar scheduling are a likely reason for so short a stay, but some wags speculated she had fled to avoid further involvement with the most frumpish production in ABT's repertory. Although Aurora's unflattering tutu made Cojocaru appear short-waisted, the undulant line of her upper body was enough to endear her throughout the vastness of the Met. Only the hardest heart could have resisted her Rose Adagio. The shyness of her glances at her princely partners, the awesome steadiness of her balances and the purity of the joy she radiated must have carried to the last row of the Family Circle. Aided by Stella Abrera's Lilac Fairy, Cojocaru did as much as any other Aurora to bring a sorely needed sense of wonder to the pedestrian muddle of the Vision Scene. Carreno, Cojocaru's Désiré, danced an adequate solo but he was a rock as her partner in the wedding Pas de Deux. I have never seen its intricate risks conquered with more daring authority. He assumed a lunge, extending his left arm straight out to his side and summoning Cojocaru to him with an elegant flick of his wrist. She bore down on him, turning like a whirlwind. Carreno stood, pulled her to his side and bent forward again with her glued to him in a perfect fish dive. And there's more. The unbroken ease with which he stood and set her on her feet was as stunning in its own calm way as the preceding steps had been sensational. And then they did it all again. And again. At the end of the ballet she not only awarded him the traditional rose, she knelt before him in gratitude.

Changes to ABT's 'Beauty' have done little to blunt the notorious miscalculations of its designers, Willa Kim and Tony Walton, and the gaucheries of its choreographer/director troika, McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and Michael Chernov, after Petipa. Its Garland Dance has worn so badly it looks like it was bought at Woolworth's. Not until the great traditional Petipa pas de deux is danced by such marvelous artists as Cojocaru and Carreno does this 'Beauty' finally awaken.

Alina Cojocaru in American Ballet Theatre's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." Gene Schiavone photo courtesy ABT.

The programs of short works and repertory excerpts whose presence reviewers welcomed as relief from the tedium of attending evening-length classics proved to be the predictable mixed bags. The "All-Ashton" bill was a tepid pot of Twining's, with the insistently fey setting of Shakespeare, "The Dream," a particular annoyance for the havoc John Lanchbury's arrangements wreak on Mendelssohn's incidental music. The classic Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein "Fancy Free" was a welcome inclusion on the "ABT Premieres" and "All-American" bills; at ABT no one ever thinks the girl with the red purse is being sexually harassed because she always gives the impression she can put these sailor boys in their place anytime she wants. Ethan Stiefel, Carreno, Cornejo, Murphy and Abrerra were the strongest cast -- maybe ever! Paul Taylor's "Company B" proved a great showcase for guys Arron Scott, Joseph Phillips, Mikhail Ilyin, and Lopez, and gals Misty Copeland, Murphy, and Messmer. Although Ratmansky's "On the Dnieper" to a forgettable Prokofiev score proved no more memorable this time around then when it premiered last season, Gomes, Hallberg, Herrera, and Part certainly supplied ample compensation. Has this company ever been so overstocked with artistry?

Two surprises awaited me in these programs of shorter repertory. Twyla Tharp's "The Brahms-Haydn Variations" came unexpectantly close to being a worthy setting of a 19th-century Romantic classic, music Twyla has not exactly been attuned to. She still made a plié look as inelegant as a squat, particularly when the dancers bobbed their heads while in it, and having decided to use 30 dancers, she repeatedly disrupted Brahms's noble continuity with tiny pestiferous gaps of silence between variations when exits or entrances were in progress. Otherwise, 'Variations' showed an unusually sharp sense of form in its on-spot manipulation of steps. A sunny pas de deux, particularly well done by Reyes and Cornejo, provided a welcome contrast to its incessant traffic patterns. If only Tharp would close up those pernicious gaps....

Even more astonishing was the ardent performance of the Act I pas de deux from MacMillan's "Manon" that Reyes and Gomes danced on the June 30 matinee "All-Classic" program. Having no fond memories of the entire ballet, I looked forward to this excerpt only because intermission and then "Company B" would follow and I really needed both that afternoon. Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante" had not caught fire, the "Thais" thing was as soggy as before and 'Romeo's Farewell to Juliet,' the fragment of Tudor's "Romeo and Juliet" that ABT loyally clings to, had cast its usual pall. The last thing I expected was that the orchestra would suddenly surge to life for conductor LaMarche and unleash a virtual tidal wave of gorgeous Massenet to invigorate this manipulation of clichés. Even the obligatory tussle on the floor had a transfiguring intensity this afternoon that went beyond dancing, although Reyes and Gomes were certainly doing that with artistry to burn. I would have brought out a glitter cannon to salute all concerned.

Knowing full well what I was letting myself in for, I still saw three performances of MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" because it offered the season's only opportunity to compare Murphy, Vishneva and Osipova in the same role (partnered by either Hallberg or Gomes) and a further chance opportunity to contrast this 'Romeo' with Peter Martins's controversial "Romeo + Juliet," recently seen at New York City Ballet. There was a big bushy head of hair blocking my view of a third of the stage at ABT's last performance, but by then I was so groggy from overexposure to MacMillan's ponderosities that I rather welcomed the obstruction. I bobbed and weaved only to watch Gomes and Vishneva rise above choreography burdened with the repetition of arid difficulties. Osipova was the most involved actress; her eyes seemed to have doubled in size since last season. Her Sylphide had never expressed such anguish -- but then no sylph ever had to contend with Juliet's woes. Only she mimed a silent scream of desperation when left alone after Paris had been foisted upon her. Her dash to Friar Laurence recalled the heady desperation of Galina Ulanova, whose Juliet I saw repeatedly when the Bolshoi first played the old Met in 1959. I have never forgotten the piercing urgency of her exit, with her right arm reaching out before her, the shawl billowing behind. Vishneva's Juliet was the most aristocratic but never lacked warmth. If Murphy brought up the rear, she was but a couple of steps behind. Only ballerinas and partners of such brilliance could have lured me into this marathon and then gotten me through it. Martins's 'Romeo' I'm now convinced holds up very well in comparison, despite the indefensible ugliness of Per Kirkeby's garish production built around a slummy unit set. NYCB pianist Richard Moredock's surgically precise reduction of the score permits a sleeker, wasteless staging that has few drawbacks. Having all the guests at the Capulet ball conveniently turn their backs so the lovers can bond on a preposterously crowded stage is one. Martins's Verona is also drastically underpopulated compared to MacMillan's, but what's the advantage of bringing the entire corps onstage if you soon run out of rewarding things for them to do? NYCB's depopulated square has its advantages: tedious processions are at a minimum, robotic mandolin players and Brillo-headed whores are nowhere in sight and sword fights -- staged by Nigel Poulton of Weapons Specialist, Ltd. -- are rousing melees of slashing steel, not a by-the-numbers routine fought with what a City Ballet partisan dismissed as "car-radio aerials." Matthews and Craig Salstein, ABT's Mercutios, wouldn't have survived three passes with NYCB's corps.

Faced with the need to have Nicholas Georgiadis's scenery changed from Juliet's bedroom to her tomb, MacMillan lets the orchestra describe the impact of her presumed death. He drops the curtain soon after Lord and Lady Capulet discover her body. Violins screech in pain, a death march begins and when the curtain reopens, another of those fabulous MacMillan processions (hooded figures -- torches!) is, for some reason, filing through the Capulet crypt. Martins fully matches his staging to both the cataclysm and the music. The horrified Nurse mimes a silent scream to the agonized violins; the stunned parents clamber onto the bed during the death march; Juliet's limp body falls backward in Capulet's arms to a snare-drum roll as he attempts to lift her; the bed with its load of grief disappears into Kirkeby's unit set (functional at last!) and re-emerges as Juliet's bier with her body upon it, awaiting Romeo's arrival -- all in plain sight and all the more powerful for being so. The curtain comes down on a corpse-strewn stage in MacMillan's 'Romeo,' while Martins, blending Montagues with Capulets among the mourners, demonstrates that the sacrifice of these young innocents has ended the corrosive, all-consuming feud between their houses. Shakespeare would have approved; he used the same ending.

Here's a thought: Now that ABT has today's leading Russian choreographer on call, perhaps Alexei Ratmansky, once he gets his "Nutcracker" up and running at BAM and does some judicious pruning of Prokofiev's sprawling score, will do full justice to what is one of the world's great stories. I already leave almost any performance of "Romeo and Juliet" with tears in my eyes. I want the entire audience choking back sobs.

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