writers on dancing

Letter from New York

Amanda McKerrow’s Juliet at ABT
Interview: Julia Moon, The Universal Ballet

July 5, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
Published July 5, 2004

Every so often, the ballerina Amanda McKerrow is allowed on the Met stage to dance with American Ballet Theatre, where she is on the roster as a principal dancer. Her Juliet, to Ethan Steifel’s Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet version of Shakespeare’s tragedy this past Wednesday evening, under the baton of David LaMarche, was her fourth—and final—performance of the Spring season, and it was, as they say on the Rialto, not to be missed. Although obviously derived from another source of inspiration than the wild abandon and willfulness of The Royal Ballet’s standard-setting Lynn Seymour and Antoinette Sibley and ABT’s own standard-setting Juliet, Alessandra Ferri, the Tudoresque depths of McKerrow’s delicately realized and persuasive interpretation lead one to reconsider the merit of the entire ballet, to look and listen harder, and to pay close attention not only to the virtuoso title roles but also to the tiny interchanges among the corps and supers who, Zefferelli-like, endow the milieu of the story with life. In the past decade, nearly every performance I’ve seen McKerrow give has been memorable in this way, as well as utterly individual: her ultimately shattering Giselle (with Vladimir Malakhov, also giving an unexpectedly superb performance several years ago at a matinee), which was constructed from hundreds of tiny stylistic details; her Hagar last spring, resisting her victimization from far, far within the character; her Art Nouveau ballerina in the central pas de deux of “The Leaves Are Fading”; her sacred ballerina (with Sean Stewart) in the piercingly silent pas de deux of “Gong”; even her idiosyncratic incarnation as Swanilda impersonating a doll—as thin yet as tough as a filament of steel—in the pièce d’occasion that ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, devised in homage to Frederic Franklin, stager of the company’s “Coppélia,” for the opening-night gala this season.

McKerrow builds her Juliet patiently, from the dance material and its coordination with the Prokofiev score (rather than, like Irina Dvorovenko, for instance, from her own bravura specialties). To someone who has seen this ballet many times, it is clear from the very first scene between the young girl and her Nurse that McKerrow has fully thought through the visceral connotations of classical steps, such as the bourrées in parallel position that take Juliet across the stage like roller skates. MacMillan used this step throughout the ballet as a leitmotif for Juliet’s character, and although one needn’t know its name to feel its power there, one does need to recognize it in each new context and to sense its association with both strength and youth. In this comparatively early work of his, MacMillan’s choreography for Juliet can be understood as an inheritance from Tudor, with the dancer’s legs and feet functioning as unconscious, elemental aspects of her person, and her upper body and head registering conscious action and decision. Juliet is complex, the most complex figure on the stage, always. Even in the astonishing pas de deux for her and Romeo in the crypt, when he believes she’s dead yet tries to animate her lifeless body anyway, MacMillan retained the distinction in her between legs and torso: the sudden stiffening of her legs in a pose give Romeo a momentary hope. He becomes overwhelmed by the emotional implications of the technique, itself. No other character in the ballet is drawn in this way: the choreography for Romeo and his chums, Mercutio and Benvolio, is either integrated classical dancing or pantomime; the same holds true for the townspeople of Verona. Juliet’s friends are dancers; her family are mimes. If there is a flaw in McKerrow’s approach, it is that her emphasis on detail asks the audience for more alertness and focus than it may be able or willing to accord a balletic entertainment. She doesn’t burst through the fourth wall to seize one’s attention; rather, she quietly magnetizes it. I heard her dancing described as “plain,” but although that may be the projection of her understatement, it isn’t the reality, at least to my eyes. Her performances are rather fancy, in the sense that she offers many polished and exact details and much underground motivation; however, they are all hard won and to appreciate them requires concentration, which may help to explain why she thrives when playing opposite a gregarious partner with a streak of glamour.

At the performance I saw, she was given a wonderful one. Ethan Steifel danced a joyfully “West Side Story” kind of Romeo with McKerrow—open, almost bluff, a sexual innocent with a twinkle in his eye. Although they had some awkwardnesses in the treacherous partnering during the balcony and bedroom scenes, they made a most watchable pair of lovers. And they were surrounded by an excellent cast. Herman Cornejo’s Mercutio was a dance poet-fighter of high distinction, both as a classicist and a character who, in another Shakespearian ballet, might play Oberon. The Paris of Gennadi Saveliev is a true creation: aristocratic, deferential from unexpressed affection as well as from station, and so adept at the difficult partnering passages he’s assigned in the ballroom scene and Juliet’s bedroom that, for the first time in watching this ballet over three decades, I had the impression that this Juliet might have been much happier in the long run had her marriage to this Paris not been derailed. Even the final attempt of Saveliev’s Paris to force Juliet to accept him as her suitor registered as frustration in love rather than as an attempt at domination. Erica Fischbach’s Lady Capulet was also built up of isolated, Jamesian detail—a hand placed unexpectedly on Tybalt’s shoulder threw open wide the window on the prospect of their love affair. Carlos Molina’s Tybalt was right on target, stylish and sly, a Frank Sinatra of thugs. Stella Abrera’s Rosaline offered a textbook example that in the theater there are no small parts: her Act I entrance, which occupied perhaps a minute, was imperious, deceiving, and brilliantly concise; it established the entire world of the ballet. Frederic Franklin’s Friar Laurence, who creates all of Renaissance theology by raising his sightline and opening his arms skyward, is, at this point, beyond my capacity to praise. Ethan Brown’s Lord Capulet—marked by Brown’s typical what’s-a-nice-guy-like-me-doing-in-a-place-like-this? approach to unpopular characters—conveyed a modern parental anxiety, which I, at least, preferred to his “What?—Me, a sadist?—I’ve got real gripes!” real gripes!" Tybalt, seen later in the week. (In a slip added to the program on Saturday, ABT explained that this would be the last ABT performance by Brown, who comes from a dynasty of ABT dancers, and who is, in the word of the message, beloved in the company. He has been a trouper, unquestionably, and he deserved the extravagant bows and flower-throws, I guess, but his Tybalt wasn’t his shining hour.) Finally, in the words of an enthusiastic colleague, Clinton Luckett’s engraved authority and nobility in the bit part of Escalus, Prince of Verona, was the best account I’ve seen of this role since The Royal Ballet brought MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the Old Met in 1965. One could not ask for a more harmonious surround to the Juliet of Amanda McKerrow.

In studying ABT’s roster in the program last Wednesday night, it was called to my attention that the names of Robert Hill and Vladimir Malakhov were no longer listed among the principals, and I began to wonder how soon McKerrow’s might also be disappeared. In an interview last year with Gia Kourlas in “Time Out New York,” McKerrow gave the distinct impression that she wanted to dance more with ABT but that the company didn’t want her services. Is she not considered sufficiently hot? I wondered about this, too, in conjunction with the fine young soloist Sean Stewart, who received rave notices for his elegant sense of style and the understated bravura of his dancing in a number of print publications last year and who has also vanished without a trace from ABT this Met season.

The reasons for the men’s absences in each case are probably different: Hill, for instance, is pursuing a career as a choreographer after a performing career with ABT that began in 1982; on the other hand, his “Dorian” ballet last year, a vehicle for the up-and-coming David Hallberg, wasn’t very well received. Malakhov (whose bio, unlike Hill’s, is still posted on ABT’s Web site) may have his hands full as the designated director-general of a new ballet company in Germany called the Staatsballett Berlin, which—as Harmut Regitz, the co-editor of ballet-tanz, has recently reported on the Web site of the Goethe-Institut — “is meant to be one day the biggest dance troupe in Germany, comparable only to the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, Covent Garden in London or American Ballet Theatre in New York.” (Indeed, Malakhov may have already been refocusing his energies last year, when, at the Met, he turned in the worst performance of Romeo for ABT in living memory.) For Stewart’s disappearance, however, there is no explanation at all. He hasn’t disappeared from dance: a month ago, he turned up, looking very fit, in a City Center studio showing by Henning Rubsam’s Sensedance. Still, I missed him at the Met. Like McKerrow, he provided another way of thinking about certain roles—a cooler imaginative temperature and a less blatant display of personality, as Mark Morris so astutely recognized when he put them together in “Gong.”

The ABT “Playbill” for the last week included an illuminating feature by Robert Sandla on the company’s dance photographers Myra Armstrong (“MIRA”), Nancy Ellison, Rosalie O’Connor, and Marty Sohl, with examples of their work and statements by them. O’Connor, a former dancer with ABT, has the sensibility of an artist; I wish she were still dancing, too. Armstrong, a longtime staff member of the company’s press office, registers the heat of performances in her imagery; she doesn’t have the technique of Martha Swope, however she has that kind of instantaneous perception. Ellison makes lovely studio portraits. The examples of Sohl’s work—Ethan Steifel posing without a shirt, in the George Harrison tribute, “Within You Without You”; and, a few pages later, in an ABT ad, David Hallberg and Carmen Corella in a pose from William Forsythe’s “workwithinwork”—are technically fine, and their emphasis on male muscularity is in keeping with what ABT’s audiences now seem to seek in ballet. Nevertheless, it’s gladdening to people who are interested in ballerinas and danseurs that some photographers exist to represent them, also.

Finally, although the company’s orchestra often plays the classical scores with gusto, at a number of performances this spring the effects from the stage were marred by difficulties emanating from the pit’s horn section. Admittedly, the French horn is a difficult instrument to play; and ABT’s orchestra isn’t alone in its problems. I remember the days when I cringed to see that “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was programmed at the New York City Ballet, because the opening solo for, I think it’s the Double Oboe, always would flat out, thereby compromising the beauty of the dance. On the other hand, in a theater with the level of acoustics offered by the Met, one would hope for improvement in this area.


For balletomanes who can’t get through the summer without a double dose of tragedy in love, the Universal Ballet of Seoul, Korea, is bringing its hugely populated (100-member company with a 60-piece orchestra), evening-length production of “Romeo and Juliet” to the New York State Theater (July 30-31).

The choreographer is Oleg Vinogradov—formerly the director of the Kirov Ballet (in a 23-year tenure) and, since 1992, an associate of the Universal Ballet, becoming its artistic director in 1998. He originally choreographed the ballet in 1965, in Novosibirsk, with, as his first Juliet, the Bolshoi’s Nina Timofeeva, who was rehearsed in the part by Galina Ulanova. From the choreographer’s notes to the press:

“When I produced my first ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in Novosibirsk in 1965, I chose to exclude the pantomime sections and built the story in a completely choreographic style. As it happened, I had never seen Lavrovsky’s choreography before I created my ballet at age 27. . . .Much later, after the completion of my work, I saw the Bolshoi Theater version, and thanked God that I had not seen it before, as its sparseness was bound to have exerted an influence on my creative thinking. . . .Later, I added an epilogue where young men and women (today’s Romeos and Juliets) light their candles from the flickering light on the grave of the two lovers from Verona and carry the light of hope from the stage to the audience. I did not alter the choreography [for the Universal Ballet], as I wished to show the syle in its entirety, just as it was in 1965, at a time when Western culture had no knowledge of the contemporary trends in Soviet choreography. . . .”

In March, the Universal’s founding director, Julia Moon, visited New York, at which time I interviewed her about the production, the company, and its attendant schools in Seoul and in Washington, D.C. I had seen the company’s performances at the State Theater in 2000, and, like many in the packed audience, I had been very touched by the evening-length staging, by Moon’s own former teacher Adrienne Dellas, of “Shim Chung,” a ballet based on a Korean folktale. The company, which also performed Vinogradov’s more or less Kirov staging of “La Bayadère,” was not the Kirov by any stretch, but, without question, it was dancing real (and sumptuously produced) classic ballet.

Moon explained that the students (who have included ABT’s Michelle Wiles and Sascha Radetsky) learn Vaganova technique during the year and get “tastes” of modern dance and jazz during breaks and vacations. Moon, a soft-spoken woman in business attire when I saw her, is, of course, the daughter-in-law of the Rev. Moon, leader of the Unification Church and, most recently, a self-proclaimed “messiah” during an unconventional meeting at the Capitol with a number of U.S. congressmen. I asked her about the (understandable) suspicion of the press that her company was somehow tied in with religious proselytizing.

“The Reverend Moon has sponsored the company since 1984, the beginning,” she said. “He was the founding patron. When we first came to America [in 2000], about 75 per cent of the previews [advance stories in the media] were not about the ballet. They say, ‘There’s got to be some ulterior motive’ [for the existence of the Universal Ballet]. Then they saw the performances. We’ve proven it’s a purely artistic endeavor. He [the Rev. Moon] does not involve himself [with the company]. And, contrary to what many people think, the dancers are not members of our church. There’s only one girl who’s a member of our church, and she had to lose weight, and I told her that if she didn’t she would be asked to leave.”

Moon added that, although she is now working primarily in administration for the company, rather than in the studio, she still requires that the dancers’ movements not be “empty.”

“If they’re not giving their souls or hearts, I don’t want to look at it,” she said. “I work hard for this company. Inspire me! Make it a performance people can remember.”

I also asked her about the staging detail at the conclusion of Vinogradov’s “Romeo & Juliet,” in which the dancers carry their candles into the audience. The State Theater, which has continental seating, has no center aisle. She said that detail had yet to be resolved.—Mindy Aloff

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 25
July 5, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on July 5, 2004