American Ballet Theatre
Program 1: Les Sylphides, Pillar of Fire, Fancy Free
Program 2: Theme and Variations, Pillar of Fire, Fancy Free
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
11, 13 May 2015
There are times when a dance lover just can’t believe her good fortune and one of those times comes around once a year in New York; the month or so during which New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre overlap at Lincoln Center. Night after night, the two companies perform across the plaza from each other. Sometimes their repertories even overlap a little; after all, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins choreographed for both, especially in the early years.
This season, ABT marks a three-quarter-century of existence. On May 15, public television will be airing a somewhat odd documentary by Ric Burns (brother of Ken) about its history, filled with lugubrious slow-motion shots of the dancers executing pirouettes while smoke curls around their feet. At the gala on Monday, the company will present an avalanche of excerpts from its historical repertoire, including bits of Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove and Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. The opening week’s mixed bills, too, make up a mini-retrospective of ballets performed during company’s first decade: Jardin aux Lilas, Rodeo, Fancy Free, and more. Fokine’s Les Sylphides, which opened the current season, was on ABT’s very first program, on January 11, 1940.
So far, I’ve caught two performances, on Monday the 11th and Wednesday the 13th, a total of four ballets, with alternate casts: Les Sylphides, Pillar of Fire, Fancy Free, and Theme and Variations. The first thing one notices is how the dancers’ technique differs, overall, from City Ballet’s: the footwork is less crisp, the upper bodies more plush; the dynamic is less propulsive, the arms more lovely. At ABT there is a far greater emphasis on acting and projecting with the face, on making theater out of dancing. As my companion noted after Wednesday’s performance, at ABT it’s more about entertainment. On Monday night, during Fancy Free, someone in the audience actually whistled when third girl vamped in her off-the-shoulder blue dress. That would never happen at City Ballet.
There’s something about the Met stage, too. It’s too big for most of these chamber works, but its gargantuan dimensions have an old-fashioned opulence about them. Of the four works, Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, the ones with the largest ensembles, work best here. They represent, in a way, the yin and yang of ballet, the yearning and poetry of romanticism, the crisp lines and almost spiritual grandeur of classicism. Both are reinterpretations of earlier styles by twentieth-century choreographers, innovators who advanced the art of ballet by distilling its past.
Monday’s performance of Les Sylphides was led by a young cast: Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston, Melanie Hamrick, and Thomas Forster. Having watched a rather wooden performance by the Mariinsky a few months ago at BAM, it was lovely to see how much more these dancers seemed to believe in the work, the intention with which they executed the steps. The corps moved with exquisite softness, the women’s backs and arms breathing as they hovered in floating balances. (The ballet is filled with images of women gliding backward into space on their pointes.) Their gazes were soft, their fingers as delicate and relaxed as the petals of an exotic flower. The conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, seemed determined to slow down the score – Chopin piano pieces, orchestrated by Benjamin Britten – to the very brink of stasis. The effect was almost hallucinatory. It slowed the breath. Across this moonlit reverie streaked Isabella Boylston in the Mazurka, in diagonal after diagonal of leaps that seemed to catch a second wind right when they should have begun their descent. Thomas Forster, as the lone male in this nymph-filled world, danced with convincingly poetic countenance and soft, lilting curves in his upper body, but looked uncomfortable with the sustained balances and legato phrasing. Too, there were some opening-night jitters and a slip or two, but all in all a spell was cast.
At the same performance, Gillian Murphy gave a spellbinding display in Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire. Her Hagar – a young woman torn between sexual desire and self-loathing – was white-hot, a marvel of contained, controlled rage and shame. Such restrained emotion is possible only with complete mastery of technique. The technique isn’t shown off in the steps – Tudor is anti-bravura – but it’s there, the architecture underpinning the emotion. Devon Teuscher, débuting on Weds, gave a less complex, but touching performance. Her Hagar was more frail, a victim rather than a woman torn apart by contradictory desires. This wasn’t just reflected in her acting, but in her dancing. She’s less of a physical powerhouse, and so movements were more delicate, less explosive.
Cory Stearns, as the man before whom she prostrated herself, was fabulously lascivious, with a leering smile and a obscene way of framing his crotch with his hands. (Marcelo Gomes, in the same role on Monday, was sexy but less creepy.) Both of the women who danced the role of the hateful younger sister – falsely innocent and secretly mean – were excellent, and very different from each other. Skylar Brandt (Weds.) emphasized the character’s ersatz sweetness, the quality that draws everyone to her. This made the moments in which she taunted Hagar seem even more treacherous. Cassandra Trenary (Monday) made the character more blatantly vile: a vain little showoff with great pointework.
Robbins’ Fancy Free is one of those works that never gets old, no matter how often it’s put on the stage. Made for ABT in 1944, it is performed just as frequently by New York City Ballet. The guys at City Ballet tend to dance it light and fast; ABT’s men give it more heft, and place more emphasis on acting out the characters. Either way, it’s a ballet about male camaraderie whose success depends on the chemistry among the dancers. Monday’s cast – Herman Cornejo, Cory Stearns, Marcelo Gomes, Luciana Paris, and Isabella Boylston – had a slight advantage in this respect. As in a good play, everyone fed off of everyone else. The rapport between the girl-in-pink (Boylston) and the second sailor (Stearns) was particularly touching.
The Wednesday cast, which included a début – Sterling Baca as the second sailor – was more musically fine-tuned but slightly less well-balanced temperamentally. Baca made a strong impression as the sweet young sailor who falls in love, ever-so-briefly, at the bar. He alternated convincingly between feigned bluster and boyish vulnerability. Though slightly outmatched by Gillian Murphy in the pas de deux, he shows promise as a leading man.
Due to an injury, at the Wednesday performance Boylston and Stearns were thrown together again in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. It was an inspired pairing. Boylston, who grows with each new season, is dancing with thrilling freedom and amplitude. The music buoys her, animates and flows through her movements. She communicates this sense of pleasure to her partners. Stearns is an elegant cavalier; with Boylston he becomes an expansive one. The ballet, with its series of variations building up to a giddy finale, becomes a conversation between the two, a celebration of order and splendor but also of male-female partnership. It’s not an easy ballet; the corps could look more unified and the footwork should be sharper. There were times during the pas de deux when Boylston and Stearns looked a little rushed. But the spirit is right.
This is an important season for ABT, a milestone but also a season of farewells (Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes, and Julie Kent). And then there is Alexei Ratmansky’s new Sleeping Beauty, a production inspired by historical texts and images, which opens on May 29. And so, as so often happens in ballet, the past, present, and future collide.