writers on dancing


Where There's Smoke.....

"Les Sylphides," "Afternoon of a Faun," "Le Corsaire" Pas de Deux, "In the Upper Room"
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
Saturday October 29, 2005 (evening)

By Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

The shorthand recap of her ballet that Twyla Tharp embeds within the exhilarating race-to-the-finish final section of "In the Upper Room" (what she refers to in her autobiography as re-stating the proceedings in "Reader's Digest form") served a different purpose at Saturday evening's performance. During the first two sections of the ballet, the stage had been so enveloped in excessive smoke that most of the action was nearly invisible, so the recap gave the audience some idea of what it had missed.

Lengthy intermissions preceded the ballet both times I saw it last week, as the necessary smoke-plus-lighting effects were being set up. On Saturday, smoke was billowing out into the house during the intermission, and clearly someone had set the smoke machine on overdrive. The opening moments are supposed to feature a haze through which the dancers appear, but the two powerful, iconic women whose grounded movements open the ballet and set the tone were barely visible, and one could not see the brief entrance of the three "stomper" men who appear briefly and withdraw. This created an uneasy feeling, but that was nothing compared to having the entire, extended second section, which introduces the ballet contingent of the cast, proceed while thick smoke continued to fill the stage. Two downstage couples were visible, albeit mostly in silhouette, but the two mirror-image pairs of upstage women, whose churning, purposeful sequences form a kind of visual ground bass to the ballet dancers' melody, were completely lost in the fog.

While waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the air to clear and allow the patterns to be visible, one worried about the dancers' safety—how could the third ballet couple, leaping in from opposite wings to meet in the center find each other?—and about what newcomers to the ballet would think was going on. A few audience members lost patience and left. I had a vision of the dancers' bravely doing the whole ballet within this blur, and the theater being nearly empty by the time the two women closed the usually riveting action with their final pull of an imaginary light switch or shade.

Mercifully, things began to normalize as the third section opened. The proper magical effect, of dancers emerging from an upstage void into a luminous sheen, was restored, in time for one of the most electric sections, a fierce face-off between the three "stomper" (sneaker-clad, more grounded) couples. Striding towards and away from each other, swinging their arms forcefully, launching into feats of leverage where the women plunge forward while holding onto the men's legs, they end in a stand-off. Embracing but then releasing and pulling away from one another's touch as though they'd received an electric shock.

As this was the first performance by the second cast (the first cast did it twice in the week), the already tense experience of getting through this complex, demanding ballet for the first time was made more challenging by the smoke situation, but everyone forged on bravely, if at times frantically or shakily. Michele Wiles and Kristi Boone anchored the work as the primary "stomper" women, their long lean bodies finding the juice and dynamic drive that their movement requires. Wiles, in particular, seemed to revel in the muscular propulsion and full-bodied energy, and sustained a gleaming intensity throughout the ballet.

Also coming through with exceptional daring and wattage were Yuriko Kajiya and Luciana Paris, as the speed-demon virtuosas who slice across the stage, their red pointe shoes practically leaving smoke (no pun intended) in their wake. They attacked the sharp, precise, space-devouring sequences with verve and joy, and their precise unison was admirable. Each time they appeared they seemed to ascend to a higher level, and they brought back memories of Claudia Alfieri and Shawn Black, who set such a high standard in the first ABT cast to perform the work.

Irina Dvorovenko was the more melancholy, isolated ballerina who has an extended sequence weaving through three men but somehow remaining aloof. When Paloma Herrera performed this part in the first cast on Wednesday, she was so serene and pure that I saw her as a sister of "Deuce Coupe"'s ballerina in white, who never wavers from her pure classicism amid the more playful and contemporary activity surrounding her. Dvorovenko, though technically facile, verged on the frantic and pushed too hard. She seems to need to have a specific attitude or persona to project for each role, and was trying to impose some misguided idea on the role instead of just dancing it.

Most of the men in this cast were still working on getting through it, and they came across competently but without the blazing force and individuality the ballet ideally requires. Sasha Radetsky, one of the "stomper" trio, seemed most attuned to the choreography's capacity to build and excite as the work progresses, and to evoke transcendence. Overall, this was a performance that most of the dancers probably wish had just been their dress rehearsal, netween the uneasy opening minutes and the bits of carelessness that crept in towards the end. One man made an obvious too-early entrance during the increasingly busy finale and quickly headed back into the wings, and some of the final tosses and lifts were messy and imprecise. One wishes them a clearer stage for their second try.

This evening opened with a more bracing than usual account of "Les Sylphides." Not that the tempos were any faster, but it was performed with a welcome lack of preciousness or overlaid finicky touches. The four principals honored the history and stylistic requirements of the 96-year-old work, but let their contemporary bodies find their own way into it. Melanie Hamrick, a sweet-faced young corps dancer who is starting to take on major roles, swept through the Waltz with clarity and openness, while fully inhabiting the music's romantic flow. As with her debut in "Apollo," there were moments when one noticed that she is not as strong as she could be in her legs, and because of this does not always phrase the movement as persuasively as she might. Maria Riccetto's admirably precise, strong feet were put to eloquent use in the Mazurka and the pas de deux; her effortlessly skimming backwards bourrees, perfectly in sync with the music, were ravishing. Yet she has a two-dimensional quality in her upper body, to which Veronika Part, with her innately expressive torso and plush fullness was quite a contrast in the Prelude. The poetic male role suits Maxim Beloserkovsky better than many others do. He partnered elegantly, danced neatly and buoyantly, and was every inch the Romantic hero.

The program also included a sensational performance by David Hallberg in Jerome Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun." Although this was only his second performance in the role he conveyed the idea of being absorbed with his image in the mirror with amazing naturalness and conviction. One was never aware of him striving for the effect; he just did it. The eloquent spontaneity of his performance began with his very unaffected waking, stretching luxuriantly as he became aware of his surroundings and exploring the space around him. Suddenly aware that his private realm had been invaded, he seemed to lost all interest in his explorations, until he was drawn to the possible images that two bodies, exploring space together, might create.

Stella Abrera chose to maintain a rather mournful expression once she entered, as though she had sought refuge in the studio, in the predictable regimen of the barre, from some offstage sorrow. This threw her one brief moment of delight, as Hallberg lowered her gently from a lift and instinctively drew his hands away from her waist, into relief. She was an exotic and beautiful invader, and together they found inspiration in the possibilities they could create together in the mirror. But the actuality of the connection, sealed by a kiss, was too much reality to sustain. She wistfully withdrew, stepping backwards reluctantly to the doorway, and he retreated to his dreams

Volume 3, No. 40
October 31, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



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last updated on October 31, 2005