"Symphonie Concertante," "The Dream,"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
May 29, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2007 by Leigh Witchel

The big news on Tuesday night at American Ballet Theatre was the debuts of an entirely new cast of leads in Ashton’s masterpiece, “The Dream.” Ashton’s softer curves aren’t natural to Diana Vishneva’s extended limbs, but there’s still a sense of fairy magic. Her arms are like wild tendrils, her bourrées like dandelion seeds tossed about by the breeze. The small hopping turns Ashton put into Titania’s solo threw Vishneva momentarily but she gave a major performance; the role fits her even though the choreography isn’t what she’s used to.

Angel Corella took the turns in Oberon’s scherzo a tempo; an impressive feat. The conductor usually slows down for them and Ormsby Wilkins continued his driven pace, racing with the Mendelssohn. Corella managed every turn, even those into a treacherous pitched ending. He’s quite fine in attitude turns; he has to take them more slowly. In the more common en dehors turn, he doesn’t turn, he spins. Corella has also bulked himself up, and Oberon isn't pumped up. The role calls for a lithe, sustained line. Oberon isn’t Puck and “The Dream” isn’t “Rhapsody.”

Completing the leads who made debuts, Craig Salstein was an extroverted and jovial Puck. All the lovers, (Jennifer Alexander and Sascha Radetsky as the happy couple and Jared Matthews and Marian Butler as the mismatched pair) had fine comic timing; Butler was particularly, yet gently, funny as the frustrated Hermia.  Julio Bragado-Young made Bottom’s final monologue poignant.

Looking past them to the corps, Ashton’s brilliance in “The Dream” is his ability to keep the corps uniform yet with moments of flickering individuality. Unlike the identical costumes of the Balanchine’s “Symphonie Concertante,” the fairies are all in beautiful Victorian dresses of the same style but different colors. They move in regular lines, but often tipped on the diagonal so we aren’t so aware of the grid. They scamper off on their own pathway. Ashton’s narrative gift lets him use the corps both individually and as a sisterhood.

“Symphonie Concertante” looks like a teaching ballet, and it is. The work, originally made for the School of American Ballet in 1945, uses 24 women and a single man. Set to Mozart, the dance is as straightforward as they come.  The corps moves in patterns as grid-like as a formal garden. The steps are extensions of classroom steps; at the end of the first movement the woman all dutifully close into sissonne fermée in absolute unison as if this were center practice in ballet class. This is their lesson in how to be a corps de ballet. Their uniformity is important not as a way of losing their individuality, but because they are more than individuals; they are an idea.

The corps de ballet is the most unique aspect of the art form, and the one that’s endangered.  Misconceptions about homogeneity aside, the corps costs a fortune to maintain and only a few companies have the resources to have a great corps de ballet. ABT has always given short shrift to the corps (Exhibit A:  the company’s fitful attempts through the years at a school that would produce such a corps) yet ABT’s corps danced “Symphonie Concertante” with more spirit than I’ve seen previously. In “The Dream,” the lead quartet of fairies did not falter in the blistering pace of the scherzo.

Dancing one of the leads in the Balanchine, Stella Abrera took the part classically rather than neoclassically. That’s within reason; a classical ballet to Mozart can handle a straighter axis and softer arms. Abrera gave one of the nicest performances I’ve seen from her with lovely suspension and breath. She was well-paired with Maria Riccetto, who turned particularly well in her debut.

In a sea of women, the man’s job here is illusory support. As in “Concerto Barocco,” he doesn’t show up until the adagio and much of the time he’s only holding the ballerina’s hand as she balances. Occasionally, the women ignore him entirely and partner each other.  He’s supposed to have presence, yet stay out of the way — doing both is less easy than it looks. It’s not a grateful task and Gennadi Saveliev didn’t look committed to making something of the part.  He was wooden in the few jumps he did and landed unsteadily from his turns.  Among the six demi-soloists one noticed Adrienne Schulte; she has the long proportions for Balanchine.

Balanchine’s own company has not danced “Symphonie Concertante” in decades; when it was revived at the New York State Theater in 1993, it was danced, appropriately enough, by students from SAB.  It’s hard to think of dancers who could make this ballet looks less like a teaching ballet; it would require a native style so strong that it would come to the fore over the steps. The Paris Opera Ballet is my best guess. Perhaps its true home is its original one, at a ballet academy. Talented, hardworking students intuitively understand the dutifulness of the steps and give them an unaffected tenderness.

Volume 5, No. 22
June 4, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Leigh Witchel

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