writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

10 November 2003.
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

American Ballet Theatre is winding up its fall season at City Center as I write, and although the company still looks imbalanced in favor of its men, it does seem to be trying to strengthen its repertory for the women, and one could discover a host of brilliant performances on both sides of the gender gap. To my eye, the most memorable ballerina triumph was Amanda McKerrow’s debut as Hagar in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire. McKerrow didn’t perform steps; she built a character. From the opening moments, sitting alone on the steps of her house, her limbs trapped shut as her face began to open, her dance-acting sustained a subtle tension and an animal intuition that gave the impression she was living the role. It isn’t clear how long McKerrow will stay with A.B.T.: she has publicly voiced dissatisfaction that she isn’t given enough to do there, and the programs bear her out. This season, in addition to two performances as Hagar, she danced one performance of the adagio from Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading with her husband, former A.B.T. soloist John Gardner. (Tudor, himself, coached her in this role.) McKerrow is the finest stylist in the title role of Giselle the company has, yet she rarely gets to dance that at the Met, where A.B.T. programs its evening-length classics. At City Center, where it can take more chances with new works and older repertory that would be swallowed up in the vastness of the Lincoln Center theater, McKerrow’s name is still rare on the bill. Among recent guest choreographers, only Mark Morris, in Gong, has seemed willing to use her; he did so with insight, presenting her in a landscape of snowy reverence that showcased her meditative spirit and crystalline execution of the classical vocabulary. As her Hagar showed, McKerrow speaks more dance languages than that of pure classicism, however it is true that she has to be presented in a special context, where her silvery style and filament silhouette register as positive qualities. At this point, A.B.T. offers few ballets of any kind in which the aristocratic elements of McKerrow’s mastery wouldn’t get lost. Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and Ashton’s Symphonic Variations would seem obvious candidates. Both enjoyed marvelous productions this season, all casts triumphant. However, she wasn’t chosen for either of them. (For comments by A.B.T. ballet master Kirk Peterson, who restaged Theme and Variations for the company this past summer, please scroll down.)

Without McKerrow and Julie Kent (who is about to take maternity leave) to set a standard of lyricism as well as of decorum on stage, the company is going to be a very different arts organization. Kent also essayed Hagar, and she did reasonably well, presenting an unusually vulnerable version of the character. It was an unorthodox performance yet, for me, a persuasive one. Still, it was in her role as the Sybil Vane figure in Dorian, Robert Hill’s new ballet based loosely on The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, that Kent really bloomed. The ballet presents Vane as a Victorian-era elocutionist, half Bernhardt, half Isadora; and, in the stage-within-the-stage limelight, Kent melts from attitude to attitude with the fluency of a chandler pouring molten wax into molds. Sybil Vane is only a cameo role in Dorian, though; the ballet offers the meatiest parts to the men: two full-out classical dancing roles for Dorian and “The Picture” (danced respectively by either David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes or, in the cast I wasn’t able to see, Jesus Pastor and Carlos Lopez), a dance-acting role for the painter, Basil Hallward (Carlos Molina), and a mime role for the arts patron Lord Henry Wotton (Victor Barbee). Hill’s effort was valiant, yet, apart from the sequence for Kent and a mirror dance for Dorian’s living and pictorial incarnations, it looked rushed and half-hearted. The other company premières—Jirí Kylián’s Mozart-and-the-wind-machine bookends Petite Mort (the dying Mozart) and Sechs Tänze (the rustic Mozart), William Forsythe’s workwithinwork—are group pieces for ensembles of individuals. The women in all three have to dance with a sort of collegial armor, or, in the case of Forsythe, of scrappiness or toughness, that highlights their individuality as dancers while crushing any prospect of what Arlene Croce once described as “ballerina glow.” Alas, the audience that A.B.T. is chasing with its “Innovative” and “Contemporary” programs isn’t much interested in the illumination, and neither, it would appear, are most of the choreographers. In a recent Arts & Leisure profile, Rosalyn Sulcas quoted Forsythe as saying, “I hate choreography; I love dancing.” What this results in is a situation where the women have to dance with that element sometimes called “edge” in order to hold the stage. The one thing that Hill understands thoroughly is that ballerinas don’t develop and flourish in such a situation. To make their power register usually requires a casting in which the women simply outnumber the men in the cast; if that isn’t possible, then they have to be treated as Hill treats Kent, as ones of a kind. Symphonic Variations has a cast of three danseurs and three ballerinas; however Ashton was very careful to place the women in image patterns where they are not competitive with the men. He creates an intricate stream of movement, based on the way the women’s pointe shoes touch the floor, that is theirs alone; the difference in the sexes on the basis of the exquisitely nuanced choreography is the glory of the ballet.

Wendy Ellis Somes, who has restaged Symphonic for A.B.T. this year, also selected two fascinating and differently accented casts. The first, with Ashley Tuttle (dancing at the height of her powers this season) in the Margot Fonteyn role, emphasizes the ballet’s organic lyricism, its interior warmth; the second cast, with Stella Abrera in the central role, was evidently chosen for how the dancers look in the opening tableau; yet this cast, too, dances beautifully, although in a more ornamental way, and the inclusion of Zhong-Jing Fang, one of the side women, who is merely an apprentice, is a stroke of visionary casting. In overlooking company hierarchy and going for dancers who pleased her, Ellis has changed the significance that Symphonic Variations once had for The Royal Ballet, yet she has served its reality at A.B.T.

In the unitard or bare-legged ballets, most of them with the women off point, that constitute A.B.T.’s outreach to audiences who aren’t old enough for an AARP card—Nacho Duato’s churchly yet affectingly tender valentine to Schubert, Without Words; the variously breezy or vulgar sections of Within You Without You, the shambling George Harrison tribute—there are no ballerinas, only virtuosas, and their virtuosity comes at a price. As vivid and brilliant as A.B.T.’s men are—from Marcelo Gomes in the princely lead of Theme and Variations to Craig Salstein, excavating every bit of boisterous sunshine from the Harold Lang Sailor in Fancy Free—ballet without ballerinas offers an appeal that I don’t understand. Two current soloists who would be ballerinas if they were so showcased, Monique Meunier and Veronika Part, might redress some of the imbalance, but they hardly appeared all season.

Gillian Murphy, Tuttle, Michelle Wiles, Paloma Herrera: these principals are capable of jaw-dropping virtuosity and bravura, but too often they aren’t presented as treasures so much as powerhouses, as big guns in a war between the sexes. Sometimes, they dance as if they don’t think of themselves as ballerinas, and that’s a problem a company can’t begin to fix in a season, or even a decade. Principal Irina Dvorovenko does present herself as to the manner born, even though, in comparison, she’s underpowered as a technician. Her extraordinary success in Christian Spuck’s comic charmer, Le Grand Pas de Deux—a showpiece that seems to answer the question “What if the girl with the glasses in The Concert were made a star in her own tutu vehicle?” and which Dvorovenko dances brilliantly with her husband, Maxim Beloserkovsky—owes much to the fact that Dvorovenko presents her grand manner knowingly, within quotation marks. It brings out her soubrette nature and, apparently, shrewd theatrical intelligence. It’s not A.B.T.’s fault that its production of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (which I saw danced by Tuttle and Herman Cornejo, making his debut in it and still, alas, unsure about the intricate partnering) is the bald version that even the New York City Ballet currently dances. The George Balanchine Foundation’s videotape of the original cast, Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, putting back the choreography’s detail in the course of coaching N.Y.C.B.’s Jennie Somogyi and Peter Boal, has yet to be edited. (This coaching session, which took place at the Rose Building in late October, was revelatory in how much of the pas de deux has been changed or lost since 1960, and everyone who dances it would benefit from studying that film.) The Raymonda suite that Anna-Marie Holmes has put together from what is going to be a full-evening ballerina vehicle still looks like a work-in-progress, an impersonal swatch of classical opportunities. Its insinuating, czardas-like solo for the ballerina has her doing air claps rather than real ones, and although I understand the reason for it (Hungarian aristocracy thought that real clapping was vulgar), in the context of A.B.T.’s ballerina issues, the air claps make the Raymondas a little more remote than they could be. At Barnard College in October, Frederic Franklin, in his 90th year, dropped into a variations class taught by Barbara Sandanato as part of his duties as the 2003 Virginia C. Gildersleeve Professor, and for the same Raymonda solo he got up and danced the version that Alexandra Danilova used to do with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. “It’s really demi-caractère,” he explained, and when he clapped, you could hear it and feel it. At A.B.T., Wiles offered a compromise—a real clap with a very soft sound. It was lovely, but, perhaps I’m alone in this, I wish Raymonda’s voice was louder, more like the Danilova that Franklin momentarily brought back to life.

A.B.T.’s production of Theme and Variations was restaged this season by ballet master Kirk Peterson, and that restaging has brought back the spirit of the ballet, absent for a couple of decades. I asked Peterson if he could speak about what he did to restore its warmth and detail, and to evoke the best performance in it by Herrera I’ve ever seen her give in any ballet: big, careful, sensitive, and joyous. Essentially, Peterson seems to have returned Theme to something approaching its condition before Balanchine tweaked it for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, in the 1970s—a version that has its own virtues, yet whose impersonality does not wear well with most other casts.

Peterson, who was a principal dancer at A.B.T. in the ‘70s, frequently danced the leading role in the work, and he also spoke often on his own with Igor Youskevitch, on whom the part was made and who remembered very well what Alicia Alonso, the original ballerina and his frequent partner, did. “I learned the role from [A.B.T. ballet master] Michael Lland, who staged it for Balanchine, himself, in repertory at N.Y.C.B. when it was brought over there, I think for Violette Verdy and Edward Villella, in 1960,” Peterson said. “Sallie Wilson was his [Lland’s] assistant. It wasn’t in Balanchine’s immediate memory. I’m sure he could have put it together without help; he had an incredible memory, but Michael Lland had also danced with N.Y.C.B.” In the five or six years that Peterson danced in Theme at A.B.T., he doesn’t recall Youskevitch ever having been asked to look at the ballet and consult on its condition, although Peterson does remember him being brought in “briefly for a rehearsal after 1980." In the case of Herrera, Peterson “studied videos of Alonso a lot: the way she presented herself in a grand classical manner. That’s also the way Michael Lland taught it. Igor also used to give me little stories about the partnering, and demonstrations. In one passage [where Youskevitch and Alonso would pass by one another closely], he said that in the passing they would touch each other’s waist and each other’s hand.” Peterson also drew on comments that Alonso made regarding her role in a coaching session with Herrera and Angel Corella for The George Balanchine Foundation several years ago.

A.B.T. received permission from The George Balanchine Trust to return Theme and Variations to its older condition eight weeks prior to the City Center season. “It had become very en face [frontally presented],” Peterson said. “Igor and Alicia were academically focused, very pure. Igor would say that he and Alicia were in an abstract scenario, but they would find a way to create a story as a springboard. As the ballet evolved, it got a little wilder and more adventurous technically. Changes of the head and shoulders had become blurred. It’s [the restoration of the Youskevitch-Alonso version] is going to be an ongoing process. I’ll continue to do it [work on it] throughout the year. David Hallberg is the first person [recently] who’s never done the ballet to get the Youskevitch version.”


It was standing room only in my neighborhood for, as Ed Sullivan would say, the REALLY BIG SHOW of the week, i.e., the Lunar Eclipse on Saturday, November 8th. Curtain time was 8:06 p.m. sharp for the Totality phase, which concluded at precisely 8:30, although there was some pretty great pre-performance activity as well. Around 7, a sharp, inky shadow began to slice away at the Full Moon in a spectacular feat of editing, so that some unsuspecting theatergoers didn’t realize they were watching a lunar eclipse, rather than the regular newsroom activity of a Crescent Moon, or maybe of a New Moon holding the old one in its arms. “There’s no change at all!,” one anxious neighbor said, adding after a moment of celestial concentration, “Wait! I was looking at a streetlight.” When Totality began, however, we realized that here was an embrace with a difference. According to my main source of the science on this—the home page for AOL—lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through the Sun’s reflection of the shadow cast by the Earth. It turns out that the Moon isn’t really obscured. Instead, at the climax of its Totality, the eclipse actually has the effect of a sheer grey veil dropped over a lit globe; you could also think of it as a temporary shading-in of the Moon with pencil, a kind of large drawing of a luneria petal. (The petal has a reddish cast because “the atmosphere scatters the other colors present in sunlight in greater amounts than it does red.”) At first I thought of a pas de deux, but that’s not really accurate; it would have to be a pas de trois—the Earth, the Moon, and the Earth’s intervening shadow—or maybe a pas de quatre, if you add the Sun, which has to be “nearly in a straight line” with the Earth and the Moon for the show to go on. Indeed, there were a handful of demi-soloists, too, in the form of needle-nosed jets, streaking one by one through the firmament the way the Girl in Red streaks through the action in Diversion of Angels. I use concert dance as a reference point because the line-up only has to be “nearly” exact. If it were exactly exact, we could start talking The Rockettes.

Whatever it was metaphorically, it was a great show optically: dignified, simple, sustained, like something choreographed by Eiko and Koma. And extremely professional, with a running time exactly corresponding to that announced, and with weather so clear and lighting so brilliant that it might have been designed by Jean Rosenthal. With temperatures in the ‘30s, a couple of theatergoers wondered whether to drop a note to The Management regarding maintenance of the boiler, but since the show was free, they decided to let it go.

As it happens, the lobby of the theater also proved the site for an astrological Happening called The Harmonic Concordance. Most people I know missed seeing it, perhaps because it involved the line-up of The Sun, The Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Chiron to form what, since 1977—when Chiron was discovered by astronomers—astrologists have liked to call a Star of David. Everyone seems to agree that Chiron isn’t a planet, but that it is something: suggestions include an asteroid, a comet, a planetoid, and an adenoid. Felissa Rose, an astrological historian (, has noted that Chiron is referred to as “the wounded healer,” and that, since “chiropractic” and “Chiron” share the first five letters, “the discovery of Chiron has correlated with individuals’ increased awareness of their body and health.” Indeed, among the spectators for the Lunar Eclipse, I spotted a number of young couples who seemed to be exploring one another’s trachea with considerable vitality. Medical diagnoses of this type are customarily practiced indoors when Saturday nights get nippy; however, the conjunction of a Lunar Eclipse and a Harmonic Concordance is very rare.

American Ballet Theatre
City Center of Music & Drama
22 October to 8 November, 2003

Lunar Eclipse
Harmonic Concordance
8 November 2003
The Night Sky
Choreography by Solar System
Music by The Spheres
Costume and Lighting Designs by Mother Nature
Dancers: The Earth, The Moon, The Sun, The Earth’s Shadow, Some Jet Planes (Lunar Eclipse); The Sun, The Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Chiron (Harmonic Concordance)

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 76
November 10, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Mndy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on November 10, 2003