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American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomes in Christopher Wheeldon's "Thirteen Diversions." Rosalie O'Connor photo courtesy ABT.

Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- This year American Ballet Theatre's annual visit to the Metropolitan Opera House (May 16-July 9) began with an opening night gala that can only be described as "historic." Artistic director Kevin McKenzie, executive director Rachel Moore and honorary board chairman Caroline Kennedy appeared before the curtain as usual to deliver the obligatory thanks due an audience that had paid greatly inflated ticket prices, but this evening no one spoke any longer than a mere three minutes apiece. McKenzie also spurned another opportunity to generate tedium by avoiding the ritualistic naming of every key donor and committee chairman who had "made this occasion possible." Their names are all listed in the Playbill, he told the insatiably curious among us, and he stepped behind the curtain so the dancing could begin. I had left my stopwatch at home, worse luck, but I suspect this occasion had set a welcome new low in wasted time.

The gala began and ended with populous excerpts from ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky's "The Bright Stream," created for the Bolshoi in 2003 and new to ABT this season. The two other gala novelties will not return although each deserved further exposure more than John Neumeier's "Lady of the Camellias" or James Kudelka's "Cinderella," which would later usurp entire evenings apiece. (The latter, a product of the National Ballet of Canada, was enough to make one seriously consider closing down the border.) Raymond Lukens's "Karelia March," a premiere to Sibelius, was perfectly matched to the gifts of Level 7 students of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where Lukens teaches. While not a work for the ages, it was certainly gala worthy; JKO's budding professionals were a joy to watch.

The other novelty was Georges Garcia's "Majisimo," a pas de huit to music from Massenet's "El Cid" that had been created for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1965. Essentially an evanescent bauble, it was obviously scheduled here to coincide with the impending retirement of the still admirable principal Jose Manuel Carreno. While his partner Paloma Herrera is from Argentina, everyone else in "Majisimo" was, like Carreno, Cuban born. The women included ABT's own Xiomara Reyes and the Feijoo sisters Lorna and Lorena, partnered respectively by Reyneris Reyes, Joan Boada and Nelson Madrigal. The companies of San Francisco, Boston and Miami were well represented by these visitors.

Inevitably, Tchaikovsky was the most excerpted composer of the evening. Predictably, his Big Three Ballets were represented, least successfully by Michele Wiles -- who subsequently left the company in midseason for reasons the company did not reveal -- and Cory Stearns in the start and finish of the Black Swan Pas de Deux; most spectacularly by Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg in Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" (set to music composed for the original "Swan Lake," remember?

The June 30 "Swan Lake" was Carreno's choice for his farewell appearance with ABT in New York. (Officially, retirement would begin after performances on ABT's tour of California and Japan in July.) At his request, Julie Kent was Odette, Murphy was Odile and former ABT colleague Joaquin De Luz, who had defected to New York City Ballet in 2003, was Benno. Regrettably, Ormsby Wilkins's conducting didn't catch fire until Act II, after McKenzie's low-cal divertissements were past: The trumpets sounded, the great doors opened and Murphy escorted by Hallberg (Rothbart as Aristocrat) strode in amid swirling clouds of dry-ice fog. Hallberg's mesmerizing solo -- easily the best of McKenzie's impositions on this beloved Petipa and Ivanov classic -- and Murphy's fouettés interspersed with multiple pirouettes, coupled with Carreno's a la second turns not only kept excitement at fever pitch, but built enough momentum to get us through McKenzie's enfeebled scene-changing choreography for assorted swans, the reconciliation with a glowing Kent, the defeat of Isaac Stappas (Rothbart as Muscular Fiend in a Bodysuit) and the Apotheosis of Lovers United in the Clouds After Death. Not even Tchaikovsky, in full throbbing crescendo, could prevent this finale from suggesting D.W. Griffith at his worst.

It would be satisfying to report that Carreno took his leave of the New York stage on waves of adoration from the audience and assembled colleagues during a deluge of confetti. Adoration and confetti were there in abundance but as it turned out Carreno had to return to the Met stage once more after an unexpected shortage of danseurs nobles abruptly opened up. Ethan Stiefel, who will take charge of the New Zealand Royal Ballet in the fall, resigned before the season began. Herman Cornejo, whose merry image tantalized us from the cover of the June Playbill, was prevented from setting a foot onstage by a shin injury. Maxim Beloserkovsky made the injury list soon after, and when Hallberg was briefly sidelined, Carreno loyally returned to partner Kent in the July 2 "Swan Lake" so Marcelo Gomes could replace Hallberg in that evening's "Swan Lake" with the Bolshoi's Polina Semionova -- the one performance this summer I did not get to see. If ABT kept flow charts of casting, the one for this weekend would have looked like an early Jackson Pollock.

Daniil Simkin in American Ballet Theatre's production of Petipa's "The Sleeping Beauty." Gene Schiavone photo courtesy ABT.

Another major cast shuffle occurred after visa complications prevented Natalia Osipova from dancing the July 6 "Sleeping Beauty" with Hallberg, but this dilemma was easily resolved: Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, who were to dance 'Beauty' two days later, danced this one as well. It so happened I had seats to both performances, as well as to the July 9 matinee with Murphy and Gomes, because I wanted to get an idea of how this beloved classic fared in ABT's multinational casting. I had conducted a similar survey last season with MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" and survived. Being served a double helping of Cojocaru and Kobborg this season, while it frustrated my game plan, was hardly an annoyance; the supporting casts were different and, in intriguingly subtle ways, so were the leads' performances.

There were a few indications of a hasty rehearsal in Cojocaru's first 'Beauty.' She had made a joyous exit stage left after her triumphant Rose Adagio, the four princely suitors at her heels; when she returned with them a few minutes later, they all entered from -- stage right? The second night they exited and returned stage right. The fish dives with Kobborg went more smoothly the second night, too. My hopes that a couple of yards of material might have been ripped from her obtrusive, unflattering tutu between performances proved in vain. Some surgery seems to have been performed on Willa Kim's top-heavy costumes for the women courtiers in Act I but amputation is what's needed throughout this infamous production. For example, why must Carabosse's insect-like attendants hobble on, each supporting itself with a pair of canes as long as ski poles, if they promptly discard those props at the earliest opportunity? The four princes carry the unconscious Aurora up the stairs from the courtyard, past the veranda and into the palace, yet when Désiré dashes up the stairs he discovers her sacked out on the veranda where she has apparently been for a hundred years? It goes on.

Cojocaru's Aurora, her command of balance and phrasing matched to an endearing personality, didn't seem a day over 16. No ballerina holds her head higher or maintains a sweeter expression when a 180-degree extension bursts into view. Murphy's Aurora looked at least 21 and while her authority didn't kick in until midway in the Rose Adagio, it was soon fully present, alternately charming and awesome as required. Kobborg was a dashing, attentive Desire but he didn't exactly dominate the stage when he entered among four corps men his height. When Gomes bounded on, his entrance was like a neon sign flashing, "Principal! Principal!" His partnering in the fish dives was uniformly smooth, his presence never less than royal.

ABT had no difficulty providing each couple with a strong supporting cast and an excellent corps. I would hate to have to select the best among such fairies as Simone Messmer, Misty Copeland and Hee Seo. Murphy and Gomes were blessed with the best Lilac Fairy in Veronika Part, whose presence, artistry and command proved as compelling as her champions have always insisted. Cojocaru and Kobborg, however, got Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in their Bluebird Pas de Deux, the most polished pairing despite his less than virtuosic lifting. Simkin's strength is concentrated in his legs and his leaps and beats are so sensational it comes as a jolt to realize that partnering obviously costs him effort; at least the flattering costume made his upper body look muscular. To their credit, he and the unflappable Lane resisted all opportunities to oversell this winsome showpiece which I find difficult to enjoy, no matter how well it's danced.

There had been no shuffling of principals earlier in the season when I went comparison shopping among the "Giselle" casts: Cojocaru and Hallberg, Seo and Hallberg, Diana Vishneva and Gomes -- all passed in review and nothing onstage distracted from their dancing. Gianni Quaranta's 1987 production, originally designed for "Dancers," a justly forgotten movie starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, has never generated much controversy. McKenzie's staging of the Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa choreography remains traditional (i.e., rational). All that interfered with my considerable satisfaction was dismay that Seo, whose delicate "La Sylphide" had stood up well against Osipova's feather-weight sprite, keeps getting relegated to matinees (June 1 in this case). I never doubted I was watching an outstanding Giselle at any time in her touching, scrupulous performance. Need I add that Hallberg, ever the aristocrat, was equally attentive to Cojocaru? That Cojocaru left nothing to be desired as a fragile peasant or faithful spook? I thought not.

For several reasons, however, the June 2 "Giselle" with Vishneva and Gomes came closest to the ultimate performance. Two reasons: Vishneva and Gomes. Their partnership has become a pairing for the record books, a matching of personality, technique and ardor that strikes fire every time I see it. She is always achieving extra eloquence by the simplest, but rarely the easiest, means, like the deft ritard after she had diagonally crossed the stage on one foot. Vishneva's Mad Scene began with her wild loosening of her hair before she fell to the floor instead of letting her mother (Susan Jones) undo it. Yes, she may have gotten the idea from Balanchine's "Serenade," but could he have gotten the vision of an abandoned ballerina with her hair down from "Giselle"? (It would have been just like him.) Her furious repetition of the he-loves-me petal plucking was truly the act of a mad woman. The agitation of her arms as she spun about before Myrtha was the first example of the urgency she brought to Act II without reducing her status as a spectre. Vishneva seems to do everything with more authority than anyone else.

My sole disappointment with Gomes as well as Hallberg was their continuing to substitute that repetitious set of entrechats huit for the traditional, far more exciting brisés in Act II. I did, however, appreciate the way they turned agonized glances toward the implacable Myrtha, seeking her pity without missing a beat. Gomes had the most awesome Myrtha in Veronika Part, in yet another compelling performance. Gennadi Saveliev acted and danced Hilarion with such intensity he gave the role an unprecedented tragic status. Finally, the orchestra, that most accomplished of pick-up ensembles, delivered more clarity and brio for Charles Barker than it had earlier for Wilkins. After a performance as marvelous as this "Giselle," I have no patience with those who dismiss ABT as -- that most philistine of pejoratives -- "a museum" because it concentrates on the classics bolstered by superstars. Dear old "Don Quixote," a mercilessly high-spirited work that I feel takes almost as much out of me as it must the dancers, was nevertheless ultimately treasurable with Cojocaru and Carreno cast as the leads (May 10).

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

For such fervent neophilliacs, Ratmansky's "The Bright Stream," which entered ABT's repertory on June 9, is already compromised; it was not only premiered by the Bolshoi all of eight years ago but the first version, choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov, premiered at Leningrad's Maly Theater way back in 1935 to great popular acclaim. When it opened in Moscow, however, it ran afoul of an audience of one: Stalin found its rowdy plot set on a Soviet collective farm disrespectful of our agricultural comrades. No other choreographer dared touch its rambunctious Shostakovich score until Ratmansky took it up and ran with it. I was soon panting to keep up with him.

Pay attention now. Zina (double cast with Herrera and Kent), an "amusements organizer" for the Bright Stream collective farm, has booked Ballerina (Murphy, Isabella Boylston) and Ballet Dancer (Hallberg, Simkin) for the harvest festival. Zina's husband Pyotr (Gomes, Carreno) is instantly smitten with Ballerina, as is Old Dacha Dweller (Victor Barbee, Julio Bragdo-Young) whose wife (Martine Van Hamel, Nicola Curry) fancies Ballet Dancer. The objects of this unwanted affection decide there is nothing to do but pretend to be one another, cross-dressing if necessary, to teach their wooers a lesson once it gets dark, and the darker the better. No one would've accepted Hallberg or Simkin as Ballerina in pointe shoes and tutu in broad daylight.

A similar but more modest contrivance worked better in the last act of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," where it had sublime music going for it. 'Stream,' steeped in Shostakovich, encourages such gratuitous kookiness as having Tractor Driver (Jared Matthews, Craig Salstein) prevent Accordion Player (Salstein, Sascha Radetsky) from having his way with the schoolgirl Galya (Maria Riccetto, Lane) by riding around on a bicycle dressed in a dog suit. There are a couple of other characters I could bring on but you get the idea.

If all this seems a bit much, well, quite often it was. I soon came to think of Ratmansky as a charioteer who keeps a tight rein on a dozen or so charging horses as he goes careening around and around the amphitheater without ever losing a wheel or hitting the wall. Once you get past the image of Charlton Heston, a merry Ben-Hur won't seem oxymoronic and you can enjoy "The Bright Stream" as much as the dancers obviously do.

American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland, Paloma Herrera, Gillian Murphy, and Sarah Lane in Alexei Ratmansky's "The Bright Stream." Rosalie O'Connor photo courtesy ABT.

Regrettably, Ratmansky was less successful with his contribution to the program of three newly commissioned ballets (May 24-26). His "Dumbarton" went nowhere because its score, Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto," is an arid example of neoclassicism-by-the-numbers that comes alive only in a fleeting stretch of funky rhythm some three-quarters of the way through. Balanchine never set it, not even for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. Instead he generously passed it along to Robbins, whose "Dumbarton Oaks" soon vanished from the repertory, while he had to make do with half a dozen masterpieces. Five ABT corps couples in street clothes, among them the power pair of Meaghan Hinkis and Arron Scott, came and went with little to show for it.

"Troika" was an example of Benjamin Millepied's making use of a superior score for a change, then not putting it to a proper use. A performance of selections from Bach's second and third suites for unaccompanied cello really should not have accompanied three hunky guys doing guy things. Matthews, Thomas Forster and Blaine Hoven went about flexing their muscles, catching one another in a soaring leaps and bouncing about so exuberantly I began to fear for our onstage cellist Jonathan Spitz and his noble instrument. That dread was my limit of emotional involvement.

Ah, but gratification and gratitude were regularly aroused by Christopher Wheeldon's "Thirteen Diversions." By using almost twice as many dancers as Ratmansky and Millepied combined and by choosing to set Benjamin Britten's rarely performed but eminently worthy "Diversions for Piano and Orchestra," Wheeldon offered a banquet of visual novelties fully in synch with unexpected aural pleasures. Sixteen corps dancers and four couples costumed by Bob Crowley in black or grey never get in one another's way because Wheeldon knew exactly how many dancers he -- and Britten -- needed onstage at any time. Brad Fields's lighting, shifting from a triangle on stage left into streaks of color spanning the stage, was astutely choreographed as well, although it often kept the stage rather murky. I saw everything the dancers did with their bodies, but their faces didn't always register with equal clarity. Gomes and Boylston stood out among the four couples, who were thoroughly shuffled around by several last-minute substitutions. These "newcomers" were announced in a wispy little insert in the Playbill which I promptly lost. I fully appreciated every move made in the wry pas de quatre that abruptly concluded with the men saying the hell with it, picking up the women, setting them down in the wings and walking away. I've seen so many pas de deux I wish had ended that way, but I cannot specify who had given me this pleasure here, having also left my opera glasses at home. My apologies all around for this senile fumbling. Fortunately I had no difficulty appreciating the vital conducting of Wilkins and the playing of soloist Josu de Solaun. I am also in Wheeldon's debt for selecting this worthy score [which] I want to hear again.

The good news is that I had to see Antony Tudor's "Shadowplay" only once. Including this amorphous oddity made for the Royal Ballet in 1967 with the three premieres was yet another example of ABT's loyalty to a founding choreographer taking precedence over its audience's pleasure. What is "Shadowplay" really about? (In this case "About 27 minutes" is as good an answer as any.) Initially, the lead character, Boy With Matted Hair, created by Anthony Dowell in a grotesque wig and danced here in his own hair by Simkin, was thought to be Kipling's Mowgli. After all, the score composed by Charles Kochlin was excerpted from music inspired by "The Jungle Book."

The corps, referred to as Arboreals and Aerials, scamper onstage to clamber over Michael Annal's jungle-gym setting in a simian-like manner, however they are not wearing monkey suits but ancient Indian costumes topped by headgear that resembles a pagoda. Enter Terrestrial (Roddy Doble), an erect authority figure as imposing as a warlord who dominates Boy. Enter Celestials, a seductive Lane on a litter borne by Stappas and Grant DeLong who entices Boy. What happens? Aside from a couple of moderately steamy pas de deux, not much, really, and that seems to be the point. When ABT brought it over for Baryshnikov in 1975, astute U.S. reviewers considered the Mowgli tie-in a red herring; what actually concerned Tudor was Boy's journey to maturity via a Buddhist-like conquering of sex.

I can think of few topics less enticing for a kinetic art form, but if you think of one, please keep it to yourself. James Kudelka might hear of it, and within three years the result will be crossing over our porous border. Reyes and Radetzky were sacrificed to his "Cinderella" this season. I am still haunted by the memory of a furious little girl striding fiercely up the aisle at intermission the last time ABT danced "Cinderella," angrily demanding of her mother, "Where are the mice?" I was wondering that myself.

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