American Ballet Theatre
21 Oct: The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Her Notes, Daphnis and Chloe
22 Oct, mat: The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, Daphnis and Chloe
New York, David H. Koch Theater
21, 22 (mat) October 2016
A Room of Her Own
On Friday Oct. 21, American Ballet Theatre unveiled the second new work of its fall season, Jessica Lang’s Her Notes. It is Lang’s first piece for the company (though I seem to recall one of her concept pieces, featuring a giant dress, being performed at a gala). There has been a lot of talk about the scarcity of female choreographers in the ballet world, and rightly so. Lang is a notable exception; she directs her own group (Jessica Lang Dance) and has been busy making work for larger companies for years.
Lang is a maximalist; she not only choreographs but also designs her own sets, which often involve some sort of concept: ropes, ink blots, architectural shapes, blocks that the dancers can move around. This time she opted for a simple look – a white backdrop with a square cut out, like a window. This elegant set piece creates the illusion of a private space at the rear of the stage, like a house or a room. (The translucent material is reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun.) The lighting, by Nicole Pearce, is warm and inviting, and makes evocative use of silhouettes. The costumes, gauzy ballet skirts in pastels that fall just below the knee, by Bradon McDonald, are incredibly pretty – very much an updated Degas ballerina look. Her Notes is certainly pleasing to look at.
The music, five selections from Fanny Mendelssohn’s piano suite Das Jahr, is also a savvy choice: an underappreciated female composer, overshadowed by her more famous brother, Felix. The pieces, beautifully played by Emily Wong, were composed over the course of a year spent abroad, in Italy, and have been described as a musical diary of her experiences. They are Romantic, in the style of Liszt, evoking different moods, from brooding to light and teasing.
Indeed, Her Notes is a lovely and poetic work, though one with a slightly subdued effect. It is almost too tasteful. There is so much loveliness to behold, and yet the ballet somehow amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the problem is that it never truly shows its cards. What’s at stake? It’s unclear. It centers on a woman, danced here by Gillian Murphy, who appears to be observing events (and people) in her life. She is both part of the action and outside of it. The ballet begins with her peering through the “window” at the back of the stage while Marcelo Gomes walks forward. A group of dancers come together in a graceful configuration – architectural figures made of multiple dancers are all the rage these days. Then Murphy steps through the window, pulling the other women with her.
Trios, duets, and solos unspool from there. The choreography is delicate, full of fine-spun pointe-work and rippling arms. The cast of ten has plenty to do, though it’s a little difficult to tell the dancers apart at times, even though Lang has chosen the crème de la crème: Cassandra Trenary, Skylar Brandt, Devon Teuscher, Jeffrey Cirio, etc. The climax is a melancholy pas de deux for Murphy and Gomes which crescendos into a series of big upside-down, open-legged lifts. Then follows an enigmatic scene in which Murphy is partnered by three men who hold her ankle as she slowly unfurls a shapely leg. Murphy is wonderful here: sensual, ultra-feminine, and authoritative. (She’s having a great season.) The last section, too, is lovely. The music has a quasi-religious feel; it is chorale based on the Bach melody “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist.” Because it is quite brief, the ballet ends somewhat abruptly. For all its craft, Her Notes still feels like a collection of suggestive moments than a coherent whole.
At the matinée the following day, a new cast took over Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. The work continues to astonish – it is the ballet to see this season, along with Twyla Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations – and reveals new facets with each performance. The company’s new Danish dancer Alban Lendorf danced the central role originally created for Herman Cornejo, adding a note of hopefulness. In the opening solo, his face was tilted upward, as if he were trying to direct the other men’s gaze toward an ideal. The clarity of the shapes he creates brought out other details as well, particularly the endings of phrases, if the fastest passages are still a challenge for him. He made clear a detail I had lost track of since the première, an opening and closing of the arms, with wrists crossed and fingers curved, reminiscent of the Indian dance form bharatanatyam.
Thomas Forster brought an almost Petrouchka-like quality to a floppy solo sprinkled with folk accents. A lonely ode, set to a keening violin melody, was touchingly danced by José Sebastian. Joseph Gorak moved as delicately as a butterfly in a solo in which the crosses his wrists daintily and flutters his feet in beaten jumps. The ballet’s most enigmatic moment, a pas de deux for one of the men and a woman who appears mid-ballet in a shaft of light, was danced by Alexandre Hammoudi and Hee Seo. Seo’s hieratic, impersonal approach, combined with his brooding quality, augmented the duet’s tragic dimension. They danced slowly, heavily, her body arcing into a stunning upside-down crescent in his arms.
This was followed by a second cast of Benjamin Millepied’s Daphnis and Chloe, led by Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomes. (Original cast reviewed here.) The overall impression was the same: The ballet has cool-looking colored set-pieces by Daniel Buren and attractive costumes by Holly Hynes in a kind of Mykonos-beach-vacation style. The Ravel score is sumptuous. But the choreography and characters lack definition. It’s a story without a story.
The company looks great in it, though. Boylston and Gomes, less smiley than the first cast, had a glowing, natural connection. The ballet’s sunny style suits Boylston; Gomes is his usual gallant and generous self. The final pas de deux was as melting and sensuous as one could hope for. There’s little more to say, really.