American Ballet Theatre
May 18: Giselle
May 21 Gala: Excerpts from Harlequinade, Praedicere, Afterite
May 22: Firebird, Afterite
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
18, 21, 22 May 2018
Spring Season at the Met
After a week of Giselle, during which Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg had their much-awaited re-match, the company began its season in earnest on May 21, with a spring gala that included two new works and excerpts from a third. A word on that starry Giselle, which took place, after much expectation, on May 18: Osipova, now based at the Royal Ballet in London, danced excitingly, spectacularly. She has an uncanny ability to project herself across space, both vertically and horizontally, apparently without effort. She is astonishing; her legs should be studied by scientists. How does she do it? Her diagonal of hops in Act I made the Met stage look small. In the series of backward-traveling jumps in the second act, people actually began clapping in time – you almost couldn’t help it.
Meanwhile, David Hallberg, recovered from a serious injury that took over two years to heal, is a different artist than he was before the injury, and indeed, before leaving to dance for the Bolshoi. He is more careful now, more selective in how and when to unleash his energies. He seems to be saving himself just a little, just in case. He is also a better, more conscientious partner. He clearly adores Osipova, and the two have wonderful chemistry, but where her acting is naturalistic (and a little over the top) his is more self-conscious and stylized. They could almost have been performing two different versions of the ballet. In his, beauty and a kind of exaggerated classicism were emphasized; hers was improvisational, wild, eccentric. The two dancers, who once seemed like a pair of untamed children, have grown in different directions, technically and stylistically. But the crowd at the Metropolitan didn’t mind; the ovations were loud and heartfelt. There was even a chorus of “Happy Birthdays” – both were celebrating.
The gala on May 21 included the usual curtain speech, this time given by Hallberg and Stella Abrera, who stressed the company’s mission “to preserve and extend the classical ballet canon.” There was also a shout-out to the jewelry house Harry Winston, gala sponsor, whose diamonds graced the swan-like necks of several ballerinas. A little crass, but what is to be done? There are tutus to pay for.
Then it was down to the serious, or at least semi-serious business. To start out, the dancers performed two excerpts from Alexei Ratmansky’s new reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s comic ballet Harlequinade. The staging is based on notes recorded in Stepanov Notation in the years after the ballet’s premiere in St. Petersburg in 1900. (Ratmansky was assisted in the reconstruction by his wife, Tatiana Ratmansky.) Since I’ll be reviewing the full production in a couple of weeks (it opens on June 4), I’ll just say that the most striking feature of these excerpts was their detailed musicality – the little accents and pauses that made the phrases feel like sentences, rather than long ribbons of movement – and the pliant and full use of the torso. The costumes, by Robert Perdziola, are wonderfully colorful, full of detail.
Michelle Dorrance’s Praedicere, made for the occasion, showed off the dancers’ ability to feel and show rhythm with their feet and bodies. Dorrance is a tapper and tap choreographer, and an experimentalist; this was a primer in rhythm. To a rumbling, droning score by the jazz trio Dawn of Midi, the dancers slid (often backwards), tapped their pointe shoes against the floor, jumped, shuffled, clapped. Often several lines or groups of dancers moved across the stage simultaneously, creating visual and aural layers. There was a solo for the soloist Craig Salstein, who is retiring. He was the only dancer to do some actual tapping in the traditional sense, and he acquitted himself respectably, looking happy to be there. Praedicere is more a sampler or a rough sketch than a real, finished piece, but it’s exciting nonetheless to see these dancers moving in a new way; they looked energized, intrigued. A few, like Catherine Hurlin and Breanne Granlund, seem ready for more, and they’ll get it in the fall when Dorrance will create a new, more fully-realized work for the company. She has threatened to put the men on pointe – she likes the sound of pointe shoes striking the stage. We’ll see.
After the intermission came the premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Afterite, a re-interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. McGregor has said he would not follow the libretto of the original, but the dance concerns a ritual sacrifice of some sort, as well as a community. The program note refers to “the last colony” of humanity, in which “a mother must choose what she holds most dear and what she can afford to lose.” At this performance the mother figure was danced by the veteran ballerina Alessandra Ferri, who has collaborated with McGregor on several occasions. From the moment she arrives, about a third of the way into the score, she becomes the center of attention. The men circle around her; she shares a slow, grappling pas de deux with Herman Cornejo, full of deep backbends and twisted limbs. He pulls her foot behind her back; she encircles him with her leg. Her drama is the ballet’s drama.
On the left side of the stage stands a greenhouse, with neon lights illuminating rows of plants. Two young girls stand inside. At one point, the community bangs on the windows. Eventually Ferri steps in and emerges with the two girls. She lets one – the blonde – go. The other is led back into the greenhouse by Cornejo to meet her end. A battle ensues in the form of a violent pas de deux, in which Cornejo grabs Ferri’s arm, throws her to the ground, swings her, drags her. She fights back.
What is all this violence about, really? It’s difficult to tell. The main problem with Afterite is that everything in it feels arbitrary; it gestures at violence, but without much conviction. It’s a drama-less drama, set in a futuristic time and place, outside of time. The projections (by Ravi Deepres) suggest planets and the night sky. The dancers are clad (by Vicki Mortimer) in what looks like beige sleepwear. A camera is set up on a tripod, and then never touched or alluded to again. Dancers come and go, walking slowly, deliberately, but aimlessly. Ferri shows the enviable pliancy of her leg and spine, and the incomparable curve of her instep, but is barely given the chance to move on her own. Mostly, she is manipulated – twisted, tossed, folded, carried – by others. Even Stravinsky’s score, and its harrowing finale, feels sapped of its energy.
For the rest of the week Afterite is paired with Ratmansky’s Firebird, from 2012. What a strange ballet this Firebird is, and yet how effectively it uses its score, also by Stravinsky. Ratmansky has translated the story to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, dotted with grotesque tree trunks that emit clouds of smoke. The maidens, clad in torn green dresses, move with skittering, spiky steps that make them look like eccentric elves. The sorcerer Kaschei is half Wicked Witch of the West, half Edward Scissorhands goth.
What is striking is that, despite and in part because of these oddities, the ballet manages to be both funny and moving. Ivan and the lead Maiden are like teenagers, awkwardly negotiating a crush. She watches him dance his classical steps with an expression of wonder; he observes her odd little dance with equal admiration. Soon enough, they’re trading steps, and dancing a hybrid of their two styles. In the final tableau, after the death of Kaschei, dancers emerge from prison-like rooms, wobbly and confused, as if released from a long captivity. The maidens reappear, now in long white dresses. A new era begins. I’ve often wondered if Ratmansky’s finale is meant to allude in some way to the end of the Soviet Union, the dropping of masks, the rising of hope for a bright future. At the same time, the fact that the characters are all dressed in identical clothing suggests that this story has repeated itself many times before. There are many Ivans, many maidens.
The May 22 performance featured a new cast. Thomas Forster, tall, lanky, ardent, was an extremely sweet Ivan, silly with love. With his long lines and pliant frame, he can be both lyrical and funny at once. And he doesn’t stint on Ratmansky’s full-bodied movement style. Catherine Hurlin, as the maiden, showed once again that she is a born comedienne (a talent first glimpsed in Whipped Cream, last year). Her relaxed dancing gives free rein to an unaffected, vivid acting style. Duncan Lyle, as Kaschei, was elegantly malevolent, if maybe still a bit too understated. Christine Shevchenko did not yet exhibit the timing or attack to make the Firebird stand out against the flock of firebirds Ratmansky has introduced to the ballet. The choreography for the bird is tricky – it is the least well-defined in the ballet – and depends on fiery delivery to create an effect. Lest one forget, it was created for Natalia Osipova.
Both Firebird and Afterite will be danced by several casts this week. Two early Stravinsky scores subjected to post-modern reinterpretations. Hard not to wonder what Stravinsky would think.