American Ballet Theatre
Les Sylphides, Clear, Theme and Variations
New York, David H. Koch Theater
2 November 2013 (matinée)
Ballets about Ballet
American Ballet Theatre’s fall season, currently underway at the Koch Theatre in Lincoln Center, is turning out to be a compelling overview of ballet’s varied approaches, from theatrical (Frederick Ashton’s Month in the Country) to breathlessly virtuosic (Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita and Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1), with a foray into the playfully off-kilter (Mark Morris’s Gong). The Saturday matinée featured two ballets that are meditations on the history of the form: Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides (1908) and Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (1947). In many ways these two works illustrate what we think about when we think about ballet. The first is a vaporous homage to the aura of mid-nineteenth century works like La Sylphide and Giselle. The latter, a luminous affirmation of the classical style, specifically the high classicism of the Russian Silver Age and its exemplary ballet, Sleeping Beauty.
At the time it was made, Les Sylphides was both radical and backward looking. Fokine, a dancer and choreographer brought up in the world of the Russian Imperial ballet, was an innovator and a nostalgic. On the one hand, his Sylphides is the first plotless ballet, a dance that did not need to tell a story in order to justify its existence. The story was in the music (and the steps). In this respect Sylphides was the harbinger of the most important trend of the twentieth century, a precursor to Balanchine’s Serenade and Concerto Barocco. It was also one of the first ballets to be made to “serious,” pre-existing music rather than a score composed for the sole purpose of being danced to. It was innovative in other ways as well. The dancing for the lone man – a melancholy poet type, originally danced by Nijinsky – was more integrated than male dancing had been before. Instead of simply assisting his ballerina and saving his energy for his own solos, he danced alongside her, elaborating on her phrases. Then there is the quality of the movement itself, so self-consciously “antique”: soft wrists, demure angles of the legs, downturned eyes, hovering bourrées and the like. At the time it was made these things were already old-fashioned; Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty dates from 1890, Gorsky’s “naturalistic” Don Quixote from in 1900. It’s true that Fokine was fascinated by the poetry of the past. But in his eyes, this poetry had a modern counterpart in Isadora Duncan, whose extremely musical dancing had been rapturously received in the Russia of the new century. The rippling hands and fluid torsos of Sylphides owe almost as much to Duncan as they do to the original sylph, Marie Taglioni.
Fokine drew his musical inspiration from the wistful melodies – and lilting rhythms – of Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas, and preludes. As Lincoln Kirstein aptly wrote in Movement and Metaphor, the tone of the ballet is one of “tender, urgent lyricism,” difficult to maintain convincingly without succumbing to sentimentality. The orchestrations that have accompanied Sylphides in the past (generally by Glazunov or Roy Douglas) have tended to magnify this cloying quality with gauzy textures that obscured the melodic line and muffled the underlying rhythms. This season, ABT has supplanted the Douglas score, which it has been using since the seventies, with one composed by Benjamin Britten in the forties. Its leaner sound and crisper colors are an improvement (though there are some Hollywood-esque harp runs). And yet, for all the potential mawkishness, Sylphides represents something essential about ballet, a delicacy and lightness that few other Western art forms can achieve. Even in the rarefied art of ballet, it comes as a surprise that we, made of flesh and blood, are capable of such lyricism. A lyricism laced with a subtle eroticism; for what is romanticism but sublimated desire?
It’s good to see the company perform this work again after a hiatus of eight years. The style hasn’t eroded. The women of the ensemble drift from one lovely garland-like tableau to another, their pointes warbling softly like a brook, backs and arms breathing, energy flowing. The dancers believe in it. The principal cast at the Saturday matinée – Polina Semionova, Melanie Hamrick, Veronika Part, and Cory Stearns – was able to capture the ballet’s poetry without falling prey to its doe-eyed atmosphere. Semionova, especially, seemed to dance as if in a dream, with a slight, almost private smile on her lips. The more she settles into American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire, the more expressive and less showy she becomes. In the mazurka, she flew across the stage in one diagonal after another like a sudden burst of wind, disappearing into the wings only to reappear again in another corner. Each entrance was a surprise. Her delicate bourrée steps, traveling backward as Stearns drew her toward him without actually touching her – an example of the eroticism I mentioned – skimmed the stage as if carried on a current of warm air. Usually cast in bravura roles, Semionova looked almost grateful to bask in the choreography’s fine-spun lyricism.
Her partner, Cory Stearns, danced with style and finesse, his cabrioles buoyant and his turns crisp and fine-tuned. The two are well-matched in height and physique, long-limbed and wide-shouldered. A passage in the pas de deux in which the two advance toward the audience, performing the same steps side by side, was especially beautiful. But Stearns doesn’t project enough intensity; he doesn’t fully inhabit the role, which is a shame because he is a beautiful dancer, and an elegant, skillful partner. The St. Petersburg-trained Veronika Part, dancing the prelude that precedes the pas de deux, deployed her broad, lush back to maximum effect, moving the air around her beautiful shoulders as she reached down, down down, before rising back up. That back! If only she didn’t look so tragic all the time. Her shoulders are drama enough. In the third, sunnier role, Melanie Hamrick (a member of the corps) was more fluid, more commanding, than I have ever seen her.
The program closed with Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, led by two young dancers, Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin. Both looked nervous at first, his tightness translating into a slight rigidity in his face and shoulders and lack of weightedness in the steps. Boylston, who started off stiffly, soon became more expansive, and by the end, almost rambunctious, taking evident pleasure in the way the steps fit into the music. She reminded me of Nancy Reynolds’ description of Alicia Alonso, for whom the role was created, in No Fixed Points (if not of the dancer herself): “energetic, unmannered, and technically outstanding.” But Simkin and Boylston are not particularly well suited; he’s too slight for her, and the lifts never look very comfortable, even though his partnering has improved immeasurably in the past two years. And there’s no chemistry. A layer of meaning – the tension between majesty and attraction – is lost. But there is a deeper issue here. One of the most miraculous things about Theme is the way one enchaînement of steps leads inevitably into the next. Closely mirroring the expanding structure of the “theme and variations” that closes Tchaikovsky’s third orchestral suite, the ballet’s internal logic progresses from an almost ritualized formality to an exuberant burst of happiness at the end – think fireworks – full of high kicks, quick spins, and springing leaps. (The men don’t even show up until after the pas de deux, but when they do, they flood the stage with energy.) From the private and feminine to the public and grand. But in the two performances I’ve seen so far, this effect has been muted by a general softness of execution; the contrasts are not pronounced enough, the accents not strong enough, the steps not crisp enough.
The season includes its share of crowd-pleasing bonbons, thrown to the audience like kisses from a party float. Stanton Welch’s Clear, the middle work in today’s program, falls squarely into this category. Welch pours on the blasts of balleticized virility like heavy cream, complete with chest slaps, squats, leaps from the wings, and fierce looks for a handsome cohort of shirtless men (always a hit), led by the resident heart-throb Marcelo Gomes. (This is not a criticism, by the way. Gomes is a justifiably beloved dancer with enormous panache.) The choreography, which in its most energetic moments owes much to Paul Taylor, uses as its musical backdrop two of Bach’s “greatest hits,” the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor and movements from the Violin Concerto in G minor. In order to imbue the proceedings with a touch of soulfulness, one presumes, the men repeatedly shield their eyes, as if from a blinding light. A solitary female (Julie Kent) periodically glides through, only to return for a final pas de deux in which she is lifted, carried, tossed, flipped and swung by Mr. Gomes. With the final notes, the two reach searchingly toward an overhead spot – you get the picture. But, for all its artifice, the performance of Clear did provide one genuine dividend: the opportunity to witness the evolution of one of the company’s most promising young male dancers, Calvin Royal. Since being given a leading role in Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1 last season, he has become a commanding presence. How do these things happen so quickly? He doesn’t have to “sell” the choreography to attract our attention. In fact his demeanor is quietly interior, even modest. But the dancing – sharp, clear, elastic – sells itself. This season he has been cast in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. Could there be a Theme and Variations in his future?