writers on dancing


Danceful and All Different

Choreography by Michel Fokine
American Ballet Theatre
Opera House,
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
February 4, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright © 2005 by George Jackson

Presenting its four Fokine revivals, American Ballet Theatre treated Washington to a true premiere, not a try out. "Petrouchka" was the big hit on the program, something of a surprise, but the feeling of having feasted on a full menu of dance, each course different and delicious, prompted people to want to return despite the only other performances being two on the very next day.

Michel Fokine wanted each of his ballets to be new, not a variant of something he had done before. ABT's four revivals differ from each other in crucial respects. Looking down at them, the floor plans differ. Looking flat on at them bounded by the proscenium, they differ as paintings. Seeing them along a time line, they are distinct, dynamically and musically. Each ballet has its own sensibility in terms of mood and, again, music. Movement—step vocabulary, density, configuration, syntax—is individual in each. So is narrative and drama.

"Les Sylphides" is the most familiar of the pieces. Its groupings and pathways resemble garlands and streamers. Its color pallet contrasts pure white with cool darks. It has depth but not layers; rather the stage space is a continuum with the forest in back being an indefinite distance away. Both the choreographer's long brushstrokes, the solo and duo dancing across the stage, and his dabs are done as if with the finest of brushes. Poses and steps, academically refined, are harmoniously combined. The vocabulary gives the impression of having been carefully culled from the ballet lexicon lest there be excess, but on review it is richer than one first suspects. Its protagonists are creatures of the air, dancing sylphides and a poet whose head is in the clouds (at least in clouds of chiffon), yet they repeatedly touch the ground and there is a scooping of earth movement in the man's solo. The elements of "Sylphides" compound into a reverie, a musing. Time runs and yet stands still. It is difficult to clock today, but so worthwhile.

Kirk Peterson's staging lets one see the ballet clearly, not just the structure but the substance. Of the dancers, it was the Maxim Beloserkovsky's Poet (not identified as such in this production, or even as a Youth) who suggested the ballet's sublimated passion. Undoubtedly he should, more so than the women in the cast, yet they ought not to be unresponsive. Of the principal three—Gillian Murphy, Enrica Cornejo and Maria Riccetto—it was Riccetto who was perceptibly touched by feelings. Murphy looked a little ungainly. The female corps was more cohesive than in the previous three days of "Giselle", but at this first iteration of the Fokine program they were overly careful, and would that David LaMarche had taken a faster pace with the music.

"Petrouchka" moved me. It never had before. I've not seen many performances, yet a good number of those available since the mid-20th Century. Gary Chryst's staging gave us, for once, a vivid crowd. The individuals in it were distinct, yet congealed into a mass that could pulse and breathe as a single being. The movement and drama of "Petrouchka" are painted in broad strokes although carefully layered. The foreground of the ballet, which includes the imaginative space above (represented by Alexandre Benois' front curtain of goblins in the night sky over St. Petersburg), is practically empty of humans. Only the two drummers who appear at the first curtain drop inhabit this zone; some of the fairground crowd comes forwards to its edge. Yet the foreground remains a significant emptiness. The midground is the public world, where the crowd roils and subsides, reacts and disperses. In the background is the private, semi-secret world of the Charlatan and his puppets. We are given glimpses deep into it as Petrouchka's cubicle and the Moor's quarters are zoomed forward for our benefit, yet most of the time we only sense it behind a drawn curtain.

To simplify, two triangle dramas happen in "Petrouchka". In the play within the play, there is the romantic triangle of the heartless, mindless beauty and the two very different men who desire her; all three are very life-like "puppets". In the encompassing play, there is the triangle of the Charlatan (choreographer), his three puppets (dancers) and the crowd (we, the audience). The first play deals with fairness, fate and desire; the second with issues of reality and responsibility. Very different means are used to tell and tie together these stories. The puppets move approximately like dolls. The sadsack Petrouchka is floppy, like a stuffed doll and his solo in his cell is extremely expressionist. The beauty, the dancer doll, is more like a mechanical puppet and uses caricatured ballet steps. The Moor is sensual and violent; although slightly stylized, his movement is the most nearly human. Totally astonishing, though, is the choreography for the crowd, drawn from human behavior including dance behavior. It is more than a shrewd and musical depiction, it is a critical appraisal of mortal life.

Although individual performances are important in "Petrouchka", what counts is teamwork. Chryst had Ethan Stiefel, Amanda McKerrow and Marcelo Gomes as his first night puppets. Stiefel was a too frantic Petrouchka; McKerrow's vain doll and Gomes's sensualist seemed just right. Frederic Franklin's Charlatan was wonderfully shrewd and wily and then, cowed by events, frightened but wily still. Standing behind his puppets at first, the movements he made after playing his flute were the pulling of their strings. No one had made that clear to me before. Monique Meunier, Roman Zhurbin , Guillaume Graffin, Stella Abrera, Kristi Boone, Maria Riccetto, Misty Copeland, Carol Lopez, Buck Collins, Craig Salstein and too many others to mention contributed to the teamwork. Charles Barker conducted Stravinsky's music, as he did the following two Fokine ballets.

"Le Spectre de la Rose" melds the bravura aspects of male ballet technique below the belt with a plasticity in the upper body akin to that of Rodin sculpture. Herman Cornejo had the virtuoso leg work for the title role in full splendor. He conjured a torso fluidity despite his slim chest proportions (by no means should he weight lift just for this role). And, he kept the continuity of the dancing in tact seamlessly. Xiomara Reyes did not disappear in the dreamier role of the Girl returned from a ball. Leon Bakst's seductive designs (recreated by Robert Perdziola) and Carl Maria von Weber's inviting waltz set the mood for the simple yet lush staging of this duet by Peterson (assisted by Maria Youskevitch).

"Polovtsian Dances" from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor" was staged clearly by Franklin. This character suite shows several types of dance. Each is based on the specialty of a segment of the tribal Tartar society in whose encampment part of the opera's story takes place. There are warrior dances with weaponry for the men, harem dances for the presumably captive women, preparatory dances for the local girls and dances based on games of boys: the contrast between them is considerable. Simple block and grid patterns with accelerating pacing and mounting tension convey strength. Exotic coloration is abetted by the music's and designs' orientalism. The company, led by Gennadi Saveliev, Stella Abrera and Misty Copeland, gave an inkling of the wildness the 1909 audience saw in this work. Besides that hint, the value of "Polovtsian" today is kaleidoscopic.

Photo: Gillian Murphy in "Les Sylphides;" photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by George Jackson


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