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Flash Review 3, 11-6: ABT Wrings the Juice Out
Mixed Program Displays Many Talents

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

In one of the most varied programs of American Ballet Theatre's season at City Center, the company last Thursday showed that it is just plain game for anything. Beginning with an explosion of light and muscle in Natalie Weir's "Jabula" and ending with the utterly classical lines and forms of Harald Lander's "Etudes" -- and in between, exploring some of the richest, most demanding fare available to dancers in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" -- the ABT dancers seemed to want to wring the juice out of all the possibilities available to them.

"Jabula," a world premiere this season, got a raucous response -- not just because of the marvelous choreography and the heart-pounding music of Hans Zimmer (on tape, from the score of "The Power of One"), but because of the amazing investment of the dancers. They all put their hearts into this piece. Weir comes to us from the Australian Ballet; this work was created for the Queensland Ballet Company, the program note says, "to showcase the dancers and their individuality. Jabula means joy, and is the choreographer's response to the power of the music, and the inspiration of the dancers." Weir obviously loves her dancers, whether Aussies or Yanks, and through her fine work they love her back.

The piece begins with a burst of light from the back of the stage, illuminating eight men in long, full pants who start the piece off on a note of strong, earthy, full-to-bursting passion. These men were like young warriors, though there were really only suggestions of tribal ritual in Weir's choreography. Mostly we saw pumped-up modern movement, with deep plies and leaps in all directions -- a gorgeous expanse of bare backs and fabric. Among these men Sean Stewart stood out; he continues to be one of the most rewarding young dancers around, indisputably present every moment he's on stage, with a magnetic style that looks like nobody else's.

It was great to see the stage full of Weir's gorgeous steps (to which the lighting, originally designed by David Whitworth and designed here by Brad Fields, was a sensational complement). But the strongest parts of "Jabula" were not the full-ensemble pieces (which, despite some dramatic moments, looked awkward in too much of the partnering) but the smaller groupings and solos. Sandra Brown burst onto the stage in ecstasy, energy shooting out from every part of her body; her solo and her later duet with Carlos Molina were masterpieces of balance between abandon and control. If she ran out of steam a bit in the middle of her solo, she more than made up for it with the elation she showed at the end -- you could almost hear her laughing with ... well, with jabula! She gave a hugely generous performance. A duet between Eric Otto and Sascha Radetsky was full of power, and an extraordinary solo for Herman Cornejo gave that excellent dancer a chance to put it all out there in taut turns and explosive floor work. In all, this was a confident and exciting piece with choreography that challenged the eye, made very successful indeed by the intensity and dedication of these dancers. They reminded me of photographs of those giant rocks way out in Australia's wilderness, standing peaceful and strong in all their glory, bathed in light.

A week ago, when Angel Corella danced his highly dramatic, highly athletic "Prodigal Son," it was impossible not to think, "What's Ethan Stiefel going to do?" The two of them have lately been engaged in a game of "dueling virtuosi": they have upped and upped the ante for each other, revealing new dimensions of their roles in the process. This match-up, like the others, did not disappoint (though I worried when one critic covered Stiefel's debut in "Prodigal" with two cutting words: "good enough"). Corella's Prodigal was a spitfire, a kid who couldn't not run away; when he pounded on his legs in the opening scene, it was with a giddy glee that signaled that he just couldn't keep from having an adventure. Stiefel's Prodigal could not have been more different. He was almost a prince at his entrance, well-mannered and gentle with his friends, a young man formed by the ordered love of his family -- so that, far from sensing it at the outset, we began to see him having the idea to run away. He was trying it on for size in his leg-pounding solo (not as technically potent as Corella's, but three times as complex), getting a feel for it when he broke out of his family's circle on the ground, still convincing himself that it's what he really wanted when he's all the way out in the boonies with creatures of whom he, with his gentle upbringing, is instinctively afraid. (His scene of introduction to the Drinking Companions was painfully nuanced; you could see in every thought and every notch that he was falling, forcing himself to join in and learn how to have fun with that scary "protoplasm.") This is a Prodigal who knows exactly what he's doing, exactly what he's giving up, and who goes ahead with it. His open-mouthed, splayed-fingered pose looks like a pose, and like he likes it.

Julie Kent's Siren took Stiefel's Prodigal at his word: if this is the game you think you want to play, she seemed to say, then I'll play it with you. I didn't think it was possible for the Siren to be a cause of laughter, but Kent's Siren was playing the game so obviously, and so well, that she became a knowing caricature -- and when she knelt in the front corner beating her breast, everyone laughed, because we were in on the agreement: she comes to him with an offer to seduce, he realizes that he is looking to be seduced, and she agrees -- and seduces him with more skill than he could ever have imagined. It's a terrifying gamble, but Stiefel had us prepared for it. Kent lacks some of the sheer physical strength this part requires (she couldn't hold on in the famous shin-busting episode, among other things), but she invented here a Siren of monstrous proportions -- with her chalk-pale skin and sharp-edged cheekbones, she was more snake than woman.

Stiefel's Prodigal finally realizes that he is in a world of evil, where things that you know are creepy but shake hands with anyway not only suck you in but turn you inside out. But the power seemed to go out of Stiefel's performance once the chance for fine nuance was over -- once he was left near-naked in the dark, the best he could come up with (in contrast to Corella's crumpled, out-of-the-blue, utter devastation) was "damn it all, it didn't work." Maybe his Prodigal was too knowing all along. Corella's return was total emotion; it seemed to take forever, and he looked like the Christ in a Spanish procession, crushed and abandoned, a little boy who's seen the pit. Stiefel looked, at the end, like he'd just crashed his Harley. He was in pain, he was hungover, he was ashamed of himself -- but when he pulled himself into his father's arms, it was less as repentant son than failed young buck. It was a coherent performance, but that very coherence was the problem: Stiefel's relentless pursuit of complexity in the Prodigal's first two worlds led toward an ending, in the third world of his father's embrace, that could not be deeply, simply true.

After the richness of "Prodigal Son," Harald Lander's "Etudes" was light and yummy as a bit of marzipan. The same small problems Susan Yung observed a few days back were there again last night -- with such a nonstop display of pure technique, there are bound to be a few things mussed up -- but in general the ensemble held its own. Amanda McKerrow looked not terribly strong and even a little worried in the ballerina role, but she made it through gracefully and, at the end, seemed very happy to have done so. Maxim Belotserkovsky of the elegant legs and wicked mane was a smooth, delicious partner. As for Joaquin de Luz, filling in in the Tasmanian Devil role for Jose Manual Carreno, he was predictably sensational -- I say predictably because he often is sensational, but also because after the first series of seven pirouettes or however many it was, he just set himself to "high" and barreled through. He seemed to be having a good time up there, though. It would just be nice to see him show it in more ways than the two (namely, fast turns and more fast turns) he showed Thursday night.

It has been noted that relying on sheer technique is a big temptation for this company. But as they work with Sandra Brown and Ethan Stiefel and others on the roster whose depth is their great strength (and, most important, as they get some serious coaching), those who at the moment have only speed will learn deliberation too.

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