writers on dancing


Back To Their Roots

American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
Opening Night Gala
October 20, 2004

Les Sylphides, Pillar of Fire, Sinfonietta
October 21, 2004

By Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel

ABT opened their fall season in New York with a welcome effort to reclaim some of the repertory of one of their founding choreographers, Michel Fokine. Both “Les Sylphides” and “Le Spectre de la Rose” are being revived this season, leading up to a full evening of Fokine’s works according to a curtain speech by artistic director Kevin McKenzie.

ABT had not performed the full version of “Spectre” since 1980; an excerpt was performed at a gala in 1997 by Vladimir Malakhov and, amazingly, Alicia Alonso. Mr. Malakhov typifies how the role is usually cast; the phantom spirit in “Spectre” is both exotic and fantastic. Herman Cornejo emphasized the animal nature of it; more powerful and masculine, less androgynous than we’ve grown accustomed to, but looking at photos of Nijinsky, one saw the same power in the legs. Mr. Cornejo’s technique is honest and clean, including a string of beautiful double assemblés. As the dreamer who conjures him, Xiomara Reyes was a bit bubbly and school-girlish in the part but on its own terms both dancers made you believe what was happening on stage.

“Les Sylphides” gets lost in the cavernous stage of the Metropolitan Opera and benefits from compression onto the City Center stage. The ballet looks elementary, but it’s fiendish because it takes a virtue that’s not emphasized in current ballet training: strength in the ability to hold a position. Going into an arabesque or a plié arabesque and staying there is called for in countless ballets more than two generations old, from “La Bayadère” through “Les Sylphides” and “Monotones”. Dancers wobble through these positions in performance and we think they’re untrained or that the choreography is static and grueling. I don’t think this is true; rather there’s a discontinuity between older ballets and current training. ABT’s corps started off shaky, but improved as the ballet progressed and should continue to improve with repetition.

Maria Riccetto and Erica Cornejo performed the Prelude and Waltz respectively at both performances. Ms. Cornejo has the old-fashioned virtues needed for the Waltz; strength married with soft curves. Julie Kent and Gillian Murphy alternated in the Mazurka, though only the first Nocturne was performed by Ms. Kent at the gala. Her long, straight body seems made for contemporary ballets, but paradoxically the romantic repertory energizes her. She’s comfortable with the port de bras and she gave the performance life.

The gala excerpt had a limited role for Maxim Beloserkovsky; Marcelo Gomes partnered Ms. Murphy the next night. Mr. Gomes has strength and placement to spare; he took the seemingly simple variation and turned it into a showpiece for sweep, control and line. The slow tempos got to Ms. Murphy, but by the coda she looked as I'd hoped she would in the rest of the ballet.

While the emphasis of the City Center season is on the repertory that’s too impractical or not mass-market enough to sell out the Met, the gala gave us several Opera House tidbits. Mr. Gomes handled Paloma Herrera beautifully in the “Black Swan” pas de deux. Irina Dvorovenko has everything she needs for “The Dying Swan”; the technique, the training, the arms—everything but the ability to convince you that she’s dying. Jose Manuel Carreño and Ms. Murphy performed the “Corsaire” pas de deux. Mr. Carreño is slightly diminished from a few years ago, but still a delight in the heroic repertory. Ms. Murphy did triple fouettés in the coda. The turns are pretty amazing, but unfortunately they’re not amazingly pretty.

It’s interesting to see “Other Dances” on a program with “Les Sylphides”; they share a Mazurka. Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella seemed to enjoy themselves greatly. Mr. Corella’s eager attitude was most ingratiating in his variation during the series of chaînés where he loses his spot; he made it into a charming moment instead of a forced gag.

On Thursday night, “Pillar of Fire” seemed disconnected; there were good individual performances but it looked as if everyone rehearsed in separate studios. As Hagar and The Friend, Ms. Kent and Gennadi Saveliev made their own emotional states clear, but one couldn’t tell how they felt about each other, why she wanted him or why he was willing to be so patient with her crippling self-doubt. Mr. Corella played the Young Man from the House Opposite as a thug, which flattens the role. This may be a contemporary and crude misunderstanding, but to me, the Young Man is the sort who thinks that all any woman needs is “one good [expletive deleted]”. He’s callous, not nasty. The silver lining to the disconnected performance was that it was easier to look at the components of the ballet and admire the craft. Tudor puts the parts together masterfully; his exploration of pointe work is fascinating, particularly the hobbled relévés for Hagar. Currently, if pointe work is not used classically it’s used as some sort of weapon. Tudor finds new emotions in pointe work that make it integral to the work and impossible to imagine a character as unlikely to be on pointe as the Eldest Sister in soft slippers.

Both evenings concluded with Jirí Kylián’s “Sinfonietta”. This is one of those perpetual motion ballets that’s probably more satisfying to dance than to watch. The driving kinetics give the dancers an endorphin rush and the audience whoops it up as well, but if you’re looking for an underlying structure or logic amidst the swirl you’ll leave unnourished. Mr. Kylián also has a depressing gift for homogenization. Balanchine could take a corps of dancers and make them all look like themselves. The cast in “Sinfonietta” includes some of the most disparate principals and soloists in the company yet the relentless choreography manages to make them all look alike.

Front page photo: Herman Cornejo in "La Spectre de la Rose." Photo:  Marty Sohl.
Volume 2, No. 40
October 25, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel


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last updated on October 25, 2004