writers on dancing


A New Ballet at ABT

"Les Sylphides", “Afternoon of a Faun”, “Paquita (pas de deux)”, “Kaleidoscope”
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, New York
October 20, 2005

by Leigh Witchel
copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchel

A new ballet—an actual ballet that looks, waddles and quacks like a ballet—is news. A new ballet commissioned by American Ballet Theatre is even happier news.

ABT’s first repertory evening at City Center began with one of ABT’s first ballets, “Les Sylphides” and ended with its newest. “Kaleidoscope” is a world premiere choreographed by Peter Quanz to Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5. It’s straight ballet and recalls many Balanchine ballets, most particularly “Ballet Imperial”. There are three movements, a large corps (four female demis, eight women and six men) and two lead couples. Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy danced the first movement, Veronika Part and Maxim Beloserkovsky the second and all returned for the finale.

The ballet involved hints of a romantic quest for both couples. Stiefel pursued Murphy among the women in the first movement; in the second movement it is Part who searched as Beloserkovsky vanished among the men. The corps work was interesting and demanding though it seemed under-rehearsed at the premiere. Quanz made form express meaning, especially in the second movement during a diagonal procession of men. It was both a design and a metaphor for Part’s quest, and at the end of the line Beloserkovsky reappeared. This is an interesting trend to note in classical ballet; the area in which almost all choreographers working in classical ballet today make their most confident statements and innovations is in the geography and patternings of the dance.

Quanz’ assessment of his ballerinas was the oddest note in the production; he made both Murphy and Part look very much unlike themselves. Murphy was all downcast glances and Part came onstage like a sexpot at a carnival sideshow. Quanz had her enter alone and gave her off-balance pointe work at the opening that she didn’t have a handle on technically or dramatically. She didn’t know what to do when she slinked onstage so she looked out—directly at us. When Veronika Part decides to relate to the audience in the absence of a partner, everyone in the audience knows it.

“Kaleidoscope” is an amiably crafted and competent, but not immediately distinctive work. I’m unsure where Quanz is heading with this ballet but often one can’t easily get a handle on classical works. It may take several ballets to know what’s a reference and what’s a rip-off—although Quanz’ ending is a rip-off of the trademark Balanchine scudding-and-shuffling-back-and-forth-in-unison big finale. There are echoes of a lot of Balanchine ballets in there, but as with Christopher Wheeldon, there’s also a clean classical voice that could develop with time. We can’t develop new ballets without new ballet choreographers and ABT has to commission new classical works as well as crossover novelties. The company can’t only rely on “Ballet Imperial” or “Symphony in C” to close a mixed bill program.

“Les Sylphides” was originally set on the company by Michel Fokine himself and performed at their very first performance in 1940. The phrase “of historical interest” has become a synonym for “dull” but “Les Sylphides” is genuinely of historical interest. Watching “Les Sylphides”, you can see the influence to both Ashton and Balanchine in ballets as diverse as “Serenade” and “The Dream”. As for dull, the ballet has gone through dull periods—when it’s been performed badly or carelessly but the company seems to be taking it more seriously.

The dancers are digging further into their plié as well as digging into the ballet. Erica Cornejo has always looked right in the Waltz because of her ability to sustain her plié. Maria Riccetto danced a gentle Prelude and Stella Abrera danced the Mazurka and pas de deux with David Hallberg. The sustained legato of his solo variation didn’t give Hallberg any problems; it’s the natural way for his long limbs to move. Abrera was lightweight in the lead; she danced well but didn’t yet communicate what the ballet means to her.

Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel gave a well-calculated performance of Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun”. It was theatrical legerdemain rather than verisimilitude—adults showing us adolescence. Kent is still weirdly believable as a teenager and delivered an understated performance. Stiefel pushes much harder by nature, but it doesn’t seem inappropriate here. There’s detail in his reading even if it’s pointed, but then the ballet itself is not particularly subtle.

It’s odd to see the grand pas de deux from “Paquita” denuded of its corps and turned into an after-Petipa bonbon. “Paquita” depends even more heavily then some of the other standard pas de deux on the corps de ballet. The corps is not just a framework; by echoing and intensifying the same steps as the principals they’re part of the architecture. Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreño made their debuts in this version and it’s as naturally suited to the both of them as the “Don Quixote” pas de deux.

Carreño is at his best in isolated pas de deux. They show off all his virtues: the impeccable training, his unshakeable axis in turns and his unflappable partnering. Even if his technique is one step off his Parnassus of a few years back, it’s still pretty amazing. A multiple turn in attitude en dehors unrolled perfectly in a textbook position and coasted to a stop. He’s a master of the unforced finish, even in others. As Herrera finished fouettés that were threatening to spin out of control, Carreño stepped in, put his hands round her waist and suddenly all was poise and equilibrium.

Herrera also did a souped-up variation with multiple attitude turns ending in arabesque plié and other goodies. As for Stiefel, age is doing good things—it’s calming her down and opening her up. The arms still are unruly, but her presence is more expansive.

Photo: Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel in Peter Quanz's new "Kaleidescope." Photo: Marty Sohl.

Volume 3, No. 39
October 24, 2005
copyright ©2005 Leigh Witchel



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last updated on October 24, 2005