American Ballet Theatre
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
7 July 2012
Saturday was a day of farewells at American Ballet Theater, and I was happy to catch soloist Gennadi Saveliev’s final performance, as the pirate Conrad in ABT’s nicely reduced staging of Le Corsaire, by Anna Marie Holmes. Wait, there was someone else?
Ten or so years ago, I was watching ABT soloist Gennadi Saveliev dance Lankendem, the red-pajamad slave-dealer in ABT’s nicely condensed Le Corsaire, when he uncorked a step that made my jaw drop. It was in the coda of the Pas d’Esclave, the pas de deux he dances with the slave-girl Gulnare, showing her wares (at least her balletic ones) to the lecherous pasha who’s about to purchase her. He stepped back onto his back leg, in a big preparation for something, and launched himself into an aerial contortion like nothing I’d seen, his legs spinning about his crazily off-center torso like an off-kilter egg-beater, turning more times than seemed wise, or even possible, before landing improbably, but safely, on his knee. He immediately repeated it before I had time to say to myself, “What the hell was that?” It was an attention-getting step for sure, like a barrel turn on crack, and it seemed to inspire Julio Bocca, who was Conrad that night, to even wilder and crazier heights than usual, as if he were determined to put this young whippersnapper and his trick in their place.
For the longest time I called that step a “Gennadi,” until a dancer clued me in that they’re called 540s, for the number of degrees you spin in midair. (The first ballet dancer to perform one may have been the Bolshoi’s Yuri Vladimirov, whose 540, funky tricks, terrible form, and horrible Seventies haircut can be seen on YouTube in his 1976 performance of Diana and Acteon with Nina Timofeyeva.) Saveliev threw 540s into other roles when he could, and it’s only recently I’ve seen them done by any other ABT dancer (Daniil Simkin). Unsurprisingly, this, and a certain stiff demeanor, quickly got him tagged in my mind (and many others) as a one-hit wonder, nickel rocket trickster. (God forbid I should look up his bio.)
Then he surprised me a second time, partnering Paloma Herrera in Ballet Imperial, where he suddenly became the very model of a romantic cavalier, with beautiful understated port de bras always guiding your eye back to Herrera, and a stylistic purity that belied everything I thought I knew about him. I began noticing his refinement of his schooling as he worked his way through any number of second-banana and bad-guy roles. (He would also stick in my mind for other reasons, like his unfortunate stumble over the scenery as his Orion ran offstage with Michele Wiles’ Sylvia in an overhead lift.) Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a more fitting choice for the Russian soldier in Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dneiper. I only learned recently that Saveliev was a student of the Bolshoi’s legendary Petr Pestov, which would explain both his refinement and his 540s (in both of which Pestov would imbue his students).
Despite all this, Saveliev never made it past soloist, and it wasn’t hard to see why. His square-jawed face augmented a certain stolidity in his acting, which tended to be serviceable, stiff and sometimes distant. This impassiveness made him a dandy Tybalt or Hilarion, but made him unlikely to be cast as Siegfried or Albrecht. It could also lead others to conclude he didn’t really care about his roles, as a critic friend of mine recently asserted. I think he cared, but wasn’t always good at selling us on it (kind of odd for a Bolshoi-trained dancer, come to think of it). You could also see this effect in his dancing, in which an odd tightness in his upper torso and shoulders often undermined his otherwise clean style and phrasing.
I appreciate everything Ethan Stiefel meant to ABT and ballet in general, and he certainly was a tremendous dancer, but I couldn’t find it in myself to get worked up over his retirement, however undeniably epochal it would prove. Looking back over the years, especially the last five or so, I don’t recall actually seeing him dance that much, due, perhaps, to the vagaries of my schedule and his not-infrequent injuries. He was a great dancer, and I’m content to leave descriptions of his passing to others; I was happy enough to be there for a dedicated journeyman like Saveliev, whatever his strengths and faults.
Both of these were evident in his Conrad on Saturday afternoon. He was a properly hearty, if not ebullient, pirate captain. His dancing was, for the most part, cleaner and stronger than the disconcertingly sloppy Johan Kobborg I’d seen Thursday night, although leavened with the occasional nonchalantly negligible jump. In the pas de deux a trois (or whatever one calls it these days), he threw in a couple of his signature 540s in the coda, and I was happy to see them, almost like old friends. He may have gotten a bit ahead of himself in his third-act solo, in which he circled the stage in a manége of double assemblés to a piratical pose on the knee with oddly muffled bravura, although he kept enough powder dry to finish his last steps at ABT with two more of those 540s. (I imagine he’s fond of them; if I could do one, I would be, too.) When you perform most steps beautifully, the odd underachieving bits seem strikingly incongruous, and, while I’ll forgive most things in a farewell performance, throughout his career Saveliev occasionally showed puzzling inconsistency, which, again, may have kept him a soloist. Never mind, I’m going to miss him, tricks, Dick Tracy chin, and all. I wish him nothing but the best in the future as a teacher, and running the Youth America Grand Prix with his wife, Larissa.
I’ll also miss Irina Dvorovenko should her sparse casting this season be any indication of her future at ABT. Looking fit and almost alarmingly thin in her bare-midriff first-act costume (I imagine legions of dancers starving themselves for fear of what these merciless costumes might reveal), she gave us a Medora almost entirely devoid of the hard-sell presentation and questionable aesthetic choices that have spiced up her performances over the years. She never once reminded me of Kitri, although her alligator smile surfaced ever more frequently as the night wore on. I think that, as with Paloma Herrera, Dvorovenko has been inspired (or intimidated) into polishing up her technique by Natalia Osipova’s arrival on the scene a few years ago. I enjoyed Dvorovenko’s balances, her lightning-fast pique turns, and her rapid-fire fouettes (on-the-beat singles, leavened with an occasional double). Having just seen Osipova’s Medora on Thursday night, I was saddened that for all her improvement, the still-bravura Dvorovenko falls far short of Osipova’s standard. One example: the chassés en tournant with which Medora throws herself at Conrad in this production’s swoopy, Soviet-style bedroom duet. Osipova shot up for the turn of each chassé, her feet pointing perfectly down towards the stage like twin arrows. Dvorovenko’s chassés were more pedestrian, her main focus on building up her speed towards Saveliev than showing off such tidily academic form. (The only ballerina who hold a candle—more likely, flamethrower—to Osipova is probably up in Saratoga Springs walking her dog as I’m writing this.)
However, technique, as has often been observed, isn’t everything. Dvorovenko’s leggy line and runway-model looks added up to a glamorous and thoroughly enjoyable Medora, and if her relationship with Saveliev’s Conrad seemed more collegial than romantic, these two longtime pros made sure to accentuate all the necessary high points, as when she triumphantly draped herself upside down across Saveliev’s chest (imagine a sash made of ballerina) at the end of the aforementioned bedroom pas. In other places, I couldn’t help but notice her backing away from challenges she once easily mastered, as in discreetly declining to hold her balances between the friezes of flower-girls in the Jardin Animee.
As for Vasiliev, that crouching orange leopard sans spots, he didn’t run the gamut from sublime to ridiculous, he embodied it. It’s nice to know that in eighteenth-century Adrianople, even a slave can find a good bronzer, or at least a powerful one. As bare-chested Ali, Conrad’s slave and porteur-on-demand, Vasiliev morphed from an orange-tinged tan to Oompa Loompa over his week-long run. And why he would so often seem to mime brushing away invisible cobwebs is beyond me, although he did it with marvelously constrained power and grace. Like Osipova, Vasiliev mimes his character with such detail and precision, you can follow the inflection of every unspoken word, as in: “Boss, I heard them say in the market that a beautiful slave is on her way. You might want to check her out.” His dancing? Spectacular, and not entirely bombastic. In addition to his sky-scraping elevation, he’s a master of the ever-slowing pirouette, teasing his audience into cheering rapture as he went from turning demon to roulette wheel. I’m not sure why he would stick five or six double assemblés into his pas de deux a trois (there has to be a better name for that!) coda, but they were damn’ fine ones, as were combinations like moving along the edge of the stage with two huge barrel turns leading into one of those indescribable bravura leaps with his ever-scything, seemingly changing position a half-dozen times (well, three?) before plummeting to the requisite deep backbended finish on his knee. Great stuff, and there were times I even recognized a step or two of the actual choreography (actual as in “what Nureyev did”), as with the hammy attitude pose that began his solo. Did I mention the outside sautes de basque?
In the supporting roles, Yuriko Kajiya was Gulnare, Medora’s friend who gets rescued from the pasha’s harem only to (presumably) drown in the adorably kitschy shipwreck at the ballet’s end. Despite her undeniable technical strengths, I’ve never found her interesting to watch. She either oversells her steps with those little pauses that say, “Yes, I nailed it” so common in Japanese-trained dancers, or undersells them with a kind of enveloping blandness of affect that leaves me yawning even as she executes a perfect double pirouette in second. As Gulnare, she was the most affecting I’ve seen her, dancing with authority and calm that shows signs of an awakening artistic maturity. I still wish she had given more emphasis to the “shy slave-girl” motifs in the Pas d’Esclave with Jared Matthews’ Lankendem. Matthews makes a fine slave-dealer, gleefully counting out the invisible coins he never quite keeps, and dancing his solos with verve that speaks of his character’s glee at his anticipated paydays (but no 540s). You do have to wonder about the professionalism of a so-called slave dealer whose lack of security allows Medora to be almost spirited away not once but twice, by Conrad and Ali.
Along with Matthews, Arron Scott, as Conrad’s second-in-command, Birbanto, represented the depth of male talent Kevin McKenzie’s accumulated, burning up the stage with bravura in his solos, and in the pirate character dances with Luciana Paris’ fiery Lead Pirate Woman. Of the three Odalisques, Simone Messmer skimmed across the stage in the first solo’s traveling brisés with her familiar haughty charm, Adrienne Schulte jumped nicely in the second, and Devon Teuscher deservedly won great applause for making every pirouette save one a pretty triple in the third Odalisque’s tricky diagonal of arabesques and turns. As Seyd, the lusty pasha, Roman Zhurbin was a master of double takes, mugging to the audience and inducing laughter with his comic, backwards-leaning run. It’s like his pot belly and hips were in a race to escape from his head and shoulders, which, in their turn, struggled valiantly to keep up, however far behind. Charles Barker kept the orchestra pressing enthusiastically through even the most stultifying sections of this mishegas of a score.
However silly Le Corsaire may be (and it’s very silly), it shows well the current depth and strength of ABT’s dancers, which will persist, despite this weekend’s farewells.