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The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Taste of the Sublime,  A Dollop of Kitsch:
ABT Opens at City Center

Fall Gala
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
October 22, 2003

by  Eric Taub
copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub

It's always a happy occasion to welcome American Ballet Theatre back to NYC, in this case for its fall City Center season. The program showed the great range of ABT's repertory, focusing on works celebrating the upcoming centennials of Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine in 2004. The evening promised well for the next three weeks—especially once the dancers start dancing as well as they've shown us they can. Unfortunately, last night, despite some fine moments, there were times when it looked as if everyone needed a good jolt of caffeine

The evening started with ABT's Designated Heritage Revival of Agnes de Mille's 1934 work, Three Virgins and a Devil. Although it's sometimes sad to see these revivals of Tudor, Robbins and de Mille works come, stay for a year, then go, when once they were an integral part of ABT's ongoing repertory (usually just when their casts are beginning to get a handle on them), I must confess I don't think I'll miss this very, very slight work when it returns to the warehouse. Set to some very pretty music by Ottorino Respighi, and with rather winning scenery and costumes by the Motley Group (beautifully recreated by John Jensen). De Mille uses what was once a familiar ballet-Modern-Dance hybrid style—very theatrical and expressive, as opposed to later ballet-modern-dance hybrids, which tend to be athletic, formal and abstracted—to tell a story of how a Devil (Carlos Molina) uses various trickeries to steal three virgins away to Hell. Each virgin has a distinctive character: The Fanatical One (Erica Fischbach), The Greedy One (Adrienne Schulte), and The Lustful One (Kelley Waddell). I will not spoil your surprise by relating just how the Devil manages to ensnare these three women, other than to say that, while De Mille's choreography, as restaged by Dennis Nahat, sketches out the story clearly, it is a very slight one, and it needs performers of great presence and personality to bring it to life—such as Nahat, a celebrated Devil in his time. Carlos Molina was game, but seemed more like a bad boy playing Trick or Treat than a Devil, or even devil. The three virgins were all adequate—Fischbach perhaps more so—but this period piece never really came to life; sadly, I think it's probably not a great loss for the choreographic canon, either.

After some brief words by ABT's artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, in which he explained that the gala's programming would offer a taste of the various choreographic eras covered by the company's eclectic repertory, the curtain rose on Sir Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations. An abstract ballet set in much the same Ashtonian land of infinite calm and repose as Monotones I and II, this ballet, to César Frank's Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, demands much from its dancers—not so much in technique, although there are certainly tricky bits, but in establishing an atmosphere. There's a vaguely Olympian theme, with three women and three men dressed in luminous white tunics, and headgear reminiscent of the panoply of various Greek dieties. Again, though, the ABT dancers fell a bit short, not from lack of technique (well, not entirely from lack of technique—nobody was having a great night), but more from an inability to create the sense of place for which Ashton is striving. While, at first glance, this seemed to be a ballet well-suited to Ashley Tuttle's unforced, inward-looking demeanor, it soon became clear that the kind of aloofness needed here isn't that of the shrinking violet. And, while Maxim Belotserkovsky looked appropriately god-like in his off-the-shoulder tunic, he seemed to have forgotten how to finish a pirouette cleanly, or land from a double tour without a little hop to pull his feet back into the tidy fifth position in which he should have landed in the first place. It should go without saying that a god should not have to fudge such things. Let's hope the cast grows into this ballet as the season progresses, or at least wakes up.

Some more-specific Classical imagery followed, although from a less-refined plane, as Gillian Murphy and Jose Manuel Carreno danced the adagio and coda from the Diana and Acteon pas de deux. After the exuberant, if occasionally unrefined, Cubans who were at City Center last week, Murphy's ice-goddess style—cold, clean, and precise—couldn't have been more of a contrast. It was good to see that among the assets Murphy has gained over the off-season is a welcome smidgen of playfulness and even flash. Of course, you don't need to sell very hard if you can do perfect triple fouettes! Speaking of Cuban exuberance, what more can be said about Carreno's appearance in this Soviet-era showpiece? From his first bounding entrance, he had the audience in the palm of his hand, and even if his much imitated "ever-slowing pirouette" may almost be a cliché now, it's always entertaining, as are his kitschy in-character curtain calls.

Kitsch is often in the air when Irina Dvorovenko tackles a showpiece pas de deux, and she did not disappoint as she body-slammed George Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (adagio and coda only) with Angel Corella. Although it's true that the music here was once used in Swan Lake, I doubt that Dvorovenko's Odile-in-a-pink dress characterization was intended to be a textual commentary on the music's history. But I could be wrong. In any event, it takes quite a strong dancer to punctuate this tricky adagio with the variety of come-hither glances, embellished developpés and self-satisfied smirks with which which Dvorovenko confronted Corella (and us). Balanchine probably would have dragged her offstage with a hook, yet I think he would also have appreciated how she never backed down from any technical challenge, making very clean work, for instance, of the step-up turns in the coda which too many dancers simply turn into fouettés. As for Corella, I'm not quite sure what he was dancing out there, but, given his high-flying jeté coupés and searchlight smile, it hardly mattered. I've never seen a man precede the big fish dives at the end with such mammoth assemblés, or a couple make such a big deal out of them (not that I'm complaining). They perform the complete pas de deux this weekend; wild horses won't keep me away.

Still more kitsch came in Christian Spuck's Le Grand Pas de Deux, apparently a showpiece for a gala in Germany which should have stayed there. Xiomara Reyes was a easily befuddled ballerina in pointy-cornered eyeglasses always fishing through her shiny pink handbag, and Vladimir Malakhov was her easily flustered partner. While those balletgoers who find Reyes often saccharine presence too cloying might enjoy the moment where Malakhov, in a fit of pique, spins her like a figure-skater in a death spiral and almost throws her bodily offstage, they might also admire her comic timing (she did the "dizzy-ballerina" bit after her fouettés quite nicely). Malakhov looked in better shape than he had at the Met this summer, and clearly enjoyed the clowning around with Reyes. However, regardless of the occasional chuckle and quote from better-known warhorses, Le Grand Pas de Deux derives far too much of its humor—or tries to—from such rare devices as prominently flexed feet and considerable twitching of derrières. Twyla Tharp did this a long time ago, and orders of magnitude better, in Push Comes to Shove.

Going from the ridiculous to the sublime (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), the evening concluded with Balanchine's Theme and Variations, presented, as McKenzie had proudly noted, in the original version Balanchine first choreographed for (then) Ballet Theatre in 1947. This explains the lack of gargouillades at City Center—Balanchine didn't put them into the ballerina's variation until he revived the ballet for Gelsey Kirkland in 1970. Not that such niceties really mattered. This was a sketchier performance from the principals—Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes—than Symphonic Variations. Hererra, looking very much as if she'd tried to pass through a turnstile wearing Theoni Aldridge's overly-puffy pink tutu, seemed content to mark her way through the tricky bits, perhaps saving herself for tonight's Raymonda Grand pas Classique. Gomes, while elegant and willing, is not really enough of a virtuoso for Theme, and had his share of problems, particularly in the first solo with its tricky barrage of pirouettes. Gomes was reduced to stopping for preparations between his last few turns, which breaks the flow of the choreography, and, in the second solo, fudged his double tours even more than Belotserkovsky. At least the orchestra sounded fine for the final polonaise, and Michele Wiles and David Hallberg (one of the soloist couples) were both welcome, and leggy, breaths of fresh air.

Pictured above: Marian Butler, Maxim Beloserkovsky, Ashley Tuttle and Maria Riccetto in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Marty Sohl

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 23, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub



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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 Octobe r20, 2003