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Flash Review, 12-14: Yummy Ballet
ABT Youngsters' Winning Night at the Kaye

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

There were moments of yumminess in last night's performance by the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company to rival any yumminess produced in New York in recent months (except maybe Asha Thomas in Dwight Rhoden's house party Wednesday night at the Ailey!). This company, under the direction of John Meehan, is ABT's farm team, as it were, providing onstage experience for twelve up-and-coming dancers, ages 15 to 21 or so, as well as a fresh canvas for emerging choreographers and composers. With dancers so young, one expects both ardor and uncertainty, and there were quite a few instances of both at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse last night. But in a couple of dancers in particular, and especially in the two world premieres -- "Helix" by Robert Hill and "Won" by Julia Adam -- there was a smart and confident sweetness that took me by surprise.

Before the surprises, though, came something more along the lines of what I expected to see, an unimaginative piece on the general theme of... well, here's what the program note said: "'Blackberry Winter' is a vigorous, youthful, athletic ballet that remains extremely positive throughout moments of falling and death. The dark moments always evolve and morph into a burst of energetic movement, constantly reinforcing the overall themes of joy and life." (The choreographer adds: "...the piece is about letting go of something or embracing our sadness in order to feel joy.") When there's that much description happening in the program, you can usually bet there won't be half as much happening on the stage.

"Blackberry Winter" is set to a lovely (and, in fact, sort of vigorous) concerto for strings and dulcimer by Conni Ellisor, a young American composer in the tradition of Aaron Copland who inspired former Joffrey dancer Ann Marie De Angelo to the same bland ballet-jazz-and-hokum seen last season in Miriam Mahdahviani's "Appalachian Waltz" for New York City Ballet. It wasn't the intermittent peasant steps that were so troublesome here, or even the stuff straight out of Star Search. It was the utter inappropriateness of such a piece for young people aspiring to a career in classical ballet. This may be just a prejudice of mine, but why would a choreographer give these primed-and-ready kids so much stuff they can already do? They come to the Studio Company steeped in the exact same dance party moves and gymnastics stunts and basic strutting with which Ms. De Angelo packed her piece. No wonder the classic roles are looking so drained of life these days, at ABT and elsewhere; at a critical stage of their development, the most promising candidates for those parts are being taught pieces like this, encouraged to dance on stage in a style no different from the one they learned on MTV. This is the easy road, people, and it leads to the end of ballet! Sure, these dancers can slam out the technique -- the energy was popping in this performance, especially from the boys (several of the girls looked somewhat pudgy and glazed-over, their pointe-shoed feet strangely disconnected from their bodies). But too many pieces like this and they'll be well-prepared for a future of nothing but ballets by the likes of a certain O'Day, which conveniently require of them absolutely zero and give back just the same. Shouldn't they be prepared for something richer?

My little fit of pique about Ms. De Angelo's piece was interrupted by the arrival on the stage of a young woman who began to assuage any fears about what these young dancers are really being taught. Misty Copeland danced the Act III pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty" as if her joy at having been awakened by the prince had suddenly created little springs of pure clover honey all throughout her body -- she was breathtakingly sweet. Copeland has a languorous port de bras (marred only by hands held flat as a pancake); long, strong feet she hasn't quite grown into; and an arabesque that looks like an announcement. The technique is very impressive, but not as impressive as the style. When she did her slow diagonal of little developpes, her arms showed us a young girl's combination of confidence and modesty ("Look, what lovely feet I have!"), and it looked utterly genuine. One couldn't blame her partner, Craig Salstein, for looking overwhelmed. His jumps and turns are heading on towards excellent, but he has no idea what to do with his head when he finally lands after six pirouettes (he just goes "whump" and stares at us), nor how to get from phrase to phrase in a natural way.

Masayoshi Onuki, the sole dancer in Robert Hill's new "Helix," is one of those people who appears to have come into the world a full-blown star. He has danced in his native Japan for almost a decade, and like many of the Studio Company dancers has picked up a lot of prizes in ballet competitions along the way. In addition to the requisite virtuosity -- and his was more eye-popping than anyone else's last night -- he has an uncanny connection to his body's motivations, to its flow of energy and torque. You could see him understanding what his muscles were doing and how they were doing it. Plus, he was thoroughly engrossed in the dance made for him by Hill, an ABT principal who has recently turned to choreography (and whose "Baroque Game" was part of ABT's fall season at City Center this year). In a weird sheer shiny purple urban cowboy jumpsuit by Edward Sylvia (who designed all the costumes), to a potent percussion score by Reijero Koroku, Onuki bounded and punched and stretched and spun with atomic energy on diagonals and in corners and around the perimeter of the stage, with his shadow projected, giant-size, behind him. This was dance as dynamism, "merely" a body in space, whose velocity has stillness in it, and the other way around. (The long main line of movement in the piece repeated twice -- for the "double" in double helix?)

Copeland, Onuki, Hill -- yummy moments all -- and finally Julia Adam, a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet and a fast-rising choreographer. She is a two-time nominee for the Bay Area's Isadora Duncan Award for Choreography (which she won in 1997). The premiere of her "Won" last night was an especially surprising little chocolate. The flavor is set at the opening pluck (live in the pit) of the Carpentier Quartet's strings, and it's a rare one: wit!

A tall blond curly-haired boy in a black and white unitard springs out at the back corner of the stage, so swiftly that the audience laughs, and he begins to echo the deadpan gestures of Matthew Pierce's music: silent-movie motions, crouching in starting blocks, getting ready to go, a couple of quick releves and an odd sideways half-wave/half-salute that reminded me of certain flattened figures in ballets by Nijinska. Another dancer pounces out, and another and another, until there's a diagonal of seven contrapuntal figures moving incrementally toward the stage-right light, making lines and rhythms and crosshatch patterns that are witty and fast and very demanding. It was, to say the least, a very vivid picture, with lightning-quick turns and entrechats six providing additional activity underneath. The speed with which Adam got these kids to move was amazing. What's more, her choreography didn't ask the dancers to ham it up; the wittiness in the steps was focused rather than tossed off, which made it all the more appealing. It was the special wittiness of serious teenagers, relaxed and intent at once.

Eventually that line breaks into groups: a duet made of tightly circling orbits, a trio of men lifting women slowly into a mid-sprint shape, a series of duets in which the main action is two dancers pushing each other ahead and holding each other back, the whole cast climbing on each other's backs and such. This second section might have gone on less long; when the first section's sharper patterns returned toward the end of the piece, I was somewhat relieved. But those inner parts gave us the dimensions we needed to appreciate the very last moments. The surge of movement toward that stage-right light (the finish line, or something like it) becomes a unified push, and the curtain goes down on glowingly lit dancers massed in the shape of a chariot, leaning in quiet triumph into the wing.

Adam's choreographic language is clearly a dialect of ballet, but not ballet at all. It is intelligent, fresh, and not remotely grim or ugly. It also seems unselfconscious, unpretentious, and unfussy, qualities that don't always go with choreography that tries to use the classical language in a new way. I have no idea what Adam had in mind for a meaning behind these striking pictures. But I'm not sure I want to stop thinking about them in order to come up with one. "Won" was interesting and vision-charging, good for the eyes as well as the brain (and whatever it is that rules delight). I wanted to see it again right away.

In addition to those already mentioned, the dancers were Leyla Fayyaz, David Hallberg, Megan Knickerbocker, Alana Niehoff, Patrick James Ogle, Renata Pavam, Dartanion Reed, John Michael Schert, and Catherine Sebring. (Special hats off to the live musicians who gave extra momentum to "Won": Romulo Benavides, Francisco Salazar, Samuel Marchan, Danielle Guideri, and Matthew Hoysak.) The ABT Studio Company will perform at the Kaye Playhouse again in the spring.

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