Two Premieres: Juice and Drama
Usually, ABT schedules premieres (and major revivals) on various (and, no doubt, strategic) programs during its City Center season, but this year it placed its two major calling cards on the same night. This certainly made Friday night a must-be-there special occasion, especially since the company has snagged Christopher Wheeldon, who has created so many fine works for New York City Ballet, for the first time—and any new Wheeldon work constitutes a major event. Also notable was ABT's first commission from Trey McIntyre, who's been an increasingly busy and high-profile choreographer but who has not created a work for a major New York company since NYCB presented his "Steel and Rain" ten years ago.
The premieres were programmed back-to-back—Mr. McIntyre's opened the program, while Mr. Wheeldon's was its centerpiece—and they certainly provided plenty of contrast. "Pretty Good Year," the McIntyre ballet, is a fresh, engaging, buoyant piece of work, riding along on the impetus of Dvorak's bittersweet, vibrantly rhythmic Piano Trio in B-flat major and featuring primarily fresh, younger members of the company. Mr. Wheeldon, on the other hand, has restaged and revised "VIII," a compact, moody dramatic work about Henry VIII, his queen and his mistress, and provided juicy roles for three of ABT's most high-profile principal dancers.
"Pretty Good Year" is densely packed with steps, but they unfold with a gracious naturalness, and Mr. McIntyre keeps the stage picture vibrant and unpredictable. Stella Abrera and Herman Cornejo are presented from the opening moments as the lead couple, yet it is the ravishing Zhong-Jing Fang and the impressively elegant Bo Busby who perform the central duet. A sprightly trio—Sarawanee Tanatanit, Alexandre Hammoudi, and Mathew Murphy—completes the cast.
Mr. McIntyre has no gimmicks up his sleeve, and I guess some would find this ballet "old fashioned" in that it doesn't' strive to look cool or ask its dancers to glower angrily or convey a subtext about contemporary issues. It has a bracing energy, and conveys the feeling that he has truly drawn inspiration from the music. Dvorak's lilting flow and hints of wistful folk melody inspire an openness and directness, and in the two fast movements, a charming friskiness.
Mr. Cornejo, naturally, is given quite a bit of bounding, space-eating opportunities, but he is also an intriguing figure of reflection. Twice, he lies down calmly on his back at the side of the stage, as though the dancing going on around might be a vision in his head. During the passages where he's paired with Ms. Abrera, they don't seem to have quite settled in together. A dancer who radiates glamour and seems more at ease in expansive, sweeping choreography, she stands out a bit within this gathering of deft, buoyant dancers, and seemed tense during a particularly fleet, conversational duet passage with Mr. Cornejo.
The adagio duet set to the Trio's second movement unfolds with unforced lyricism; Ms. Fang and Mr. Busby convey a Robbins-like air of the movement being made up on the spot, rather than "performed." She shapes classical phrases with refinement and a gentle, luminous quality, and is mesmerizing to watch. It's clear that Mr. McIntyre is fascinated by the unexpected ways bodies can connect or counterbalance each other.
What's not so clear, at least on first viewing, is why Mr. Cornejo intrudes on their duet, entering with a yearning, questioning air during a particularly melancholy portion of the music. In a surprise ending, Mr. Busby sweeps him up and carries him off, leaving Ms. Fang to gaze after them. The final section (set to the Trio's fourth movement—the third is not used) features new arrangements of the dancers, as Mr. McIntyre sustains the element of the unpredictable right up to the end, when Mr. Cornejo is left lying on his back, gazing upwards.
"Pretty Good Year" struck me as the same type of sweet, unaffected surprise as Richard Tanner's "Soiree" made for NYCB a few years ago. Like that work, Mr. McIntyre's piece is a well-crafted, chamber-scaled ballet that does not veer in any grandiose directions. And like that one, it is a delightful coming-out party for young dancers from the corps.
Its costumes are by Liz Prince, a well-known dance costumer making her ABT debut. In shades of pale yellow and grey, they are fascinating and beautifully made, but perplexing. The women's costumes, each individualized, consist of bustier-like tops and very short, flouncy layered skirtlets. The men's costumes include knee-length tights and, with the vast-like tops, evoke a vaguely 18th-century look. Mr. Cornejo looks more like a stylized Greek hero, with short simulated boots, he could almost be Mercury.
Mr. Wheeldon chose a very English composer—Benjamin Britten—for his somber, moody evocation of an episode in English history. The score has often been used for ballet; nine years ago, Twyla Tharp used this same imposing composition—"Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge"—when she made the intriguingly allegorical "How Near Heaven" for ABT. It has a ponderous, murky quality that is not ideally suited to dancing, but it definitely sets a mood.
He has created powerful, eloquent roles for the two contrasting women who play crucial roles in Henry VIII's life. As his troubled wife Katherine, Alessandra Ferri is a figure of dignity and composure, with an undercurrent of apprehension and unease barely kept beneath the surface. As Anne Boleyn, Julie Kent is fascinating and quietly sensual, and seems quite sure of her effect on Henry from the first moment she appears from within an ensemble of women. Kent has returned from maternity leave with a new layer of warmth and lusciousness to her dancing.
Caught in the middle—and often surveying the people and developments around him from the center of the top step of a low upstage staircase—is Angel Corella as the king. He is not costumed to suggest royalty; his pale blue top and royal blue pants have an almost contemporary look. The role presents him quite differently from his usual outgoing persona, and requires him to move with deliberation and weightiness.
Mr. Wheeldon opens the work with a row of courtly ladies-in-waiting in period costumes, facing the audience and then slowly, deliberately making their way upstage. But what follows has very little to do with that kind of Masterpiece Theater grandeur; the choreographer is working on a sleeker, more abstract plane.
Mr. Corella partners Ms. Ferri in a dutiful, disinterested manner, with some moments hinting at an undercurrent of danger. Once Ms. Kent insinuates her way into his consciousness, confident in her powers of attraction, he is more engaged and reactive. All three dancers gave powerful performances and coped well with the stylized, somewhat (Antony) Tudoresque approach that Mr. Wheeldon takes in this ambitious work. On first viewing, it came across as more a mood piece than a story ballet, and Mr. Wheeldon has a skillful way of suggesting undercurrents and intentions. It is certainly a work that will reveal further layers on repeated viewings. The moody, churning swirl of propriety, manipulation and betrayal was definitely enhanced by the beautiful costumes, by Jean-Marc Puissant, with their palette of rich, subdued dark colors.