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The DanceView Times, New York edition

An Elusive Pillar of Fire, a Divine Symphonic:
ABT's Master Works Program

Master Works
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
October 23, 2003

by  Mindy Aloff
copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

For its three-week City Center season this fall, ABT has divided its repertory into four categories, each represented by one program of three or four dances: “Master Works,” “Family Friendly Works,” “Innovative Works,” and “Contemporary Works.” Surely, the packaging is intended to appeal to audiences who don’t know much about ballet, would like to try it, and need some guidelines. What those audiences are going to make of the fact that a ballet entitled Three Virgins and a Devil is on the “Family Friendly” program would require a disquisition by Dr. Ruth; but let that pass. What matters is that the company is attempting to get people into the theater—perhaps with the hope that the dancing and the choreography will win them over to the point that they can begin to think independently, to question, for instance, why some dances by living choreographers are considered “innovative” while others are considered merely “contemporary,” or why innovation is so decisively separated from mastery, or why families with small children who have been exposed to countless acts of violence and mayhem in Saturday morning cartoons should require “friendliness” in their ballets. These questions touch on some core preconceptions about the art and culture of our time, of course, and it is to ABT’s credit that it is not only willing to raise them but also that it would do so indirectly, through its marketing, using what used to be called reverse psychology.

One might also make the case that Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire—which features a heroine who, impregnated by one guy, gets engaged to another whom she likes much better and who is going to raise her baby with her as his own—is about as Family Friendly as one can get these days. Having said that, though, one still has trouble explaining why the heroine seems so blue in the midst of what the plot synopsis tells us is a happy ending. The program note to Pillar of Fire, whose ABT revival this season is the centerpiece of its “Master Works” program, reads: “Hagar, whose elder sister is a spinster, foresees the same fate for herself. When the man she unrequitedly loves seems to show preference for her younger sister, Hagar in distraction gives herself to one she does not love. The resulting crisis, however, unites her with the man she really loves. The ballet is set in the period around 1900 because it was then that Schoenberg composed the music.” Ah, the music—the lovely, tonal, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Could it be that the couple, whom Tudor conceived in England in 1939 and finally was able to embody on stage with Ballet Theatre in New York in 1942, are thinking about what Schönberg was going to perpetrate on the world of classical music as they make their final walk together into what looks like a gloomy and cobwebby forest, while half the population of the town in which they live streams off in the opposite direction? Surely they are thinking something more than, “Whew! We got through it!”

“Tudor’s ballets have obvious weaknesses,” Edwin Denby wrote in 1948, in the Kenyon Review: “Their shock value, thrilling at first, does not last; their shaping force is discontinuous; they have a weak and fragmentary dance impetus; they peter out at the end.” Quickly, he also enumerates their “exceptional virtues: They are perfectly serious. Their sentiment is real till toward the end; they are full of passion, of originality, of dramatic strokes, of observation, of brilliant pantomime ideas and fastidiously polished detail. Tudor discovers dramatic gifts in his dancers and shows them off to striking advantage. There is no vulgarity in his obscene images. His ballets are not primarily dance conceptions, but their sustained expressive intensity is clearly large-scale.” No one has bettered Denby’s connoisseurship of Tudor’s ballets, and I’m certainly not going to try. If you want to understand the nature of this choreographer’s genius, I commend you to Denby’s Dance Writings, notably pp. 93-95, 129-131, and 523-524.

If you want to try to see the Pillar of Fire to which Denby is referring, however, you won’t find it—at least, not yet—at ABT this season. What you will find is a mildly noirish and, in many places, quite blurred facsimile of the ballet, which has about as much relevance to the ‘tudes and dudes of our era as whalebone corsets and darning needles. The fault is not Tudor’s. Every effect that Denby describes can be revived for dancers today, at least for dancers who are open to reproducing them: Donald Mahler, the Tudor protégé from the 1950s who staged ABT’s current revival, demonstrated this handily last month during a Works & Process program about Pillar of Fire at the Guggenheim Museum. Of course, the dancers there were wearing Jo Mielziner’s original Edwardian costumes, whose weight and constriction forced them to fight a little to accomplish even a simple walk. That fight is part of the ballet’s text. (“As a footnote, the weight of the materials of the costumes, and the cut, especially of the little girl’s dresses, were miraculous,” Denby wrote of the ’42 première.) At City Center, however, audiences saw a brand-new set of “updated” costumes by opera designer Robert Perdziola, who has also updated Mielziner’s scenery. From the seventh row in the orchestra, the updating seems to consist of lightening the fabrics in order to give the performers more freedom to move, to give their movements more “swing,” and to make them look more stylish. Lovingly cut, colored, and ornamented to resemble the originals without producing the actual weight and awkwardness of them, these costume revisions embody all the good intentions and all the destructive results of ABT’s revival. They look just like the real thing, but they aren’t, as one recognizes as soon as the dancers have to move. When Gillian Murphy’s Hagar tugged at her stiffened collar, in one of the character’s most immediately revealing gestures, it looked as if she were merely scratching her neck: there was no stiffening from which she was desperate to be free.

Murphy, the strongest and most stylish ballerina in the company, is a beautiful woman and a dancer of breathtaking virtuosity; with her knitting-needle point work and her industrial-strength pirouettes à la seconde, below the waist she was a Hagar of steel. Above the waist, unfortunately, she gave us a Hagar of dry, unsweetened cereal, spending much of the acting part of the role hunched over, her incomparably transparent child’s face wrenched into an expression of unvarying anxiety. She looked as if she had to struggle in order to represent Hagar’s anguish, and, after about three minutes, at least one observer in the house wanted to call in the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Artists and Audiences to stop the performance until Murphy can get a little more sense of the depths of the role. Where she’s going to get that sense is a very big question, indeed. Murphy’s range as an actress up to this time has been narrow, and her achievements in that regard have been confined to big star dancing parts where she can be an aggressor—Gamzatti in La Bayadère, Odile in Swan Lake. To ask her to portray a homely outcast and a neurasthenic victim is like asking the sun to please take the part of an asteroid. It’s a concept that seems good on paper, but one doesn’t want to stand around watching it being tried out.

Indeed, the ideal cast for Pillar might well come from principals and soloists of the lower rankings, as they did when Tudor first staged the work with Nora Kaye, Annabelle Lyon, Hugh Laing, himself (as The Friend), and, as the spinsterish elder sister, a relative unknown named Lucia Chase, none of them top stars in the company at the time. Actually, it was their performances in Pillar that made top stars of Kaye and Laing. (The fact that Miss Chase happened to have been the co-founder and a major patron of Ballet Theatre was important off stage: as Charles Payne wrote in his landmark company history, American Ballet Theatre [now out of print], she “liked!” the ballet, and it was thanks to her enthusiasm for it that the work was even given its première, despite machinations by producer Sol Hurok and Ballet Theatre’s business manager, German Sevastianov—who dubbed it Pills of Fire—to let it go.) For ABT’s first cast, Mahler did call on some dancers from the lower rankings (Erica Fischbach as the Eldest Sister, Xiomara Reyes as the Youngest Sister, Kristi Boone as the most prominent of the Lovers-in-Experience), and they did well enough, although the choreography for all of them suffered passages where key details were erased or at least scumbled. The casting of Marcelo Gomes as the hot hunk with whom Hagar loses herself is brilliant: the role hasn’t raised the stage temperature that high in decades. Yet Carlos Molina, in the role of The Friend—Tudor’s own role for himself—is simply too good to be true. Molina, one of the handsomest men and most accomplished performers at ABT these days, could have played Gomes’s role, and that defeats the drama of the ballet, one of whose major moral premises is a disjunction between the beauties of flesh and of spirit. Tudor cut an interesting figure on stage, but he was no matinee idol, like Laing, and the idea that Kaye’s Hagar was really in love with Tudor’s Friend all along—so deeply in love that only her despair at the prospect of having lost him to her flirtatious younger sister would drive her into the arms of the fleshpot with the throbbing crotch across the road—is crucial to what about this ballet is meant to make an audience reflect (and to what makes those who have scorned it scorn it). Regardless of who her hunk or her Friend are, Murphy would have to undergo such an extreme sort of restudy, a type of breakdown, in order to put over the conflicts—the humiliating attempts at emotional self-censorship and the searing self-consciousness about being in the world, which momentarily interact to define Hagar—that one asks why make her (and us) undergo the torture, at least in the limelight of an opening-night? (Although the mistimings and effacements of the production in general are not likely to be remedied in the next two weeks, one looks ahead hopefully, as ABT is fielding two more casts: Julie Kent’s Hagar makes her debut on Sunday evening, October 26th, with a repeat on Saturday evening, November 1st; and Amanda McKerrow’s Hagar makes her debut on Wednesday, November 5th, with a repeat on Friday, November 7th. Murphy will also perform the role again on Tuesday, October 28th.)

Pillar of Fire, when staged with all its bitterest details intact and performed in its original skin with all of its muscular hysteria and musical exactitude accounted for, speaks beyond its libretto to men as well as to women. Figurative versions of this plot are inked across the front page every day—in politics, in business, in education, in the media, in every institution that makes up our national identity. It is possible for any adult who has experienced, as Denby put it, “the thrill of needing, not the delight of having,” to understand what Hagar feels. The strangeness of the dance construction, also—its choreographic phrases that deliberately and precisely cross musical bar lines and accent recessive musical particles while freezing at musical climaxes; its weirdly launched lifts; its hauntingly bizarre tableaux (the final procession of women hanging from their partners’ backs like dying animals of prey being hauled off by hunters, reminds one that Tudor was on the faculty of The Juilliard School when Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, and Martha Clarke were students there)—evokes the Surrealism that touched all the arts of the interwar decade of the 1930s, as well as the surrealism that was realized literally around the globe during the years of World War II.

In putting together its “Master Work” program, ABT has been extremely sensitive to some of these elements. Preceding Tudor’s ballet are Frederick Ashton’s 1946 Symphonic Variations—which Wendy Ellis Somes, former Royal Ballet dancer and the widow of Michael Somes, the ballet’s original male lead, newly staged this year—and Martha Graham’s 1948 Diversion of Angels, which former Graham dancers Takako Asakawa (a heralded exponent of the role of the Girl in Red during the 1970s) staged for ABT in 1999. All three works concern marriages of one kind or another, and all three suggest an element of the spiritual beaming down through the dark night of a soul; these are “happy endings” in the sense that The Divine Comedy has a “happy ending”; they conclude a process in which the figures have either just gone through, or are undergoing, a hike through Purgatory, if not a season in Hell. Symphonic, whose seed was planted in the choreographer’s mind when he was serving in the R.A.F. in 1942 and listening repeatedly to César Franck’s Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, evolved into a storyless work from an outline about a mystical union that, for Ashton at one point, carried the “suggestion of a nun taking the veil.” (The origins of this ballet are definitively discussed in David Vaughan’s indispensable Frederick Ashton and His Ballets.) During earlier seasons, ABT’s production has looked stiff and opaque; this season, though, the ballet has opened like a water-flower. (Somes, himself, first staged Symphonic in 1992, with his wife as his assistant. The new staging, by her alone, seems to have freed the dancers.] The cast I saw featured several extraordinary performances, beginning with that of Ashley Tuttle in the role originated by Margot Fonteyn, which invested every choreographic variation with the warmth and wholeness of something alive and growing, and including the bandbox-fresh solo of sideman Carlos Lopez, whose multiple pirouettes with an upwardly tipped face inspired many in the audience to emit little gasps of pleasure. (It was also touching to hear the audience applaud Sophie Fedorovitch's preternaturally apt designs in the opening tableau, which suggets six deities from the ancient world, resurrected in a warmly abstracted spring landscape.) Even Maxim Beloserkovsky, who looked somewhat indecisive in the Somes role, was a stunning partner to Tuttle during the passage of low, soft lifts that orbit the stage, making her look at once spookily light and fast. One member of the audience who knows the ballet well remarked that the tempo at the beginning was too slow and made the opening more mournful than it need be. I rather liked the slow opening, but even with disagreements about some details, veteran balletgoers agreed that the production is worth seeing several times, with both of its casts. (The second one makes its debut on November 5th.) It was the joy of the evening. Diversion of Angels, a more difficult work for the ballet dancers to absorb, was given a fine performance as well. Considering ABT’s roster, the principal roles are perfectly cast, and the Couple in Yellow of the brother-and-sister team Herman and Erica Cornejo are the most exciting proponents of those roles I have seen in some 30 years of looking at the work, even at the Graham company.

The evening concluded with yet another marriage, this one derived from Petipa’s Raymonda, in a staging of Raymonda (Grand Pas Classique)—a suite of dances staged this year by Anna-Marie Holmes, “after Marius Petipa” (very long after, in the case of the virtuoso solo for the principal danseur). The principals, Paloma Herrera and José Manuel Carreño, looked a little rushed; indeed, the entire divertissement seemed to have just flown in from the Baltic and was still on some other standard of time. It had the look of a welcome party more than of a performance, yet there were some moments of grandeur of many of the dancers. Herrera, who has possibly the most exquisitely-shaped legs and feet in the company, tends to throw away her port de bras and doesn’t seem to hear the music the orchestra is playing; however, she also has, to my eye, the most beautiful retirés in ballet, and her climactic sissonne in attitude freezes her whole body in the shapeliness of a sculpture by Bernini. The costumes for this production, of white satin, gold braid, and ornamental fabrics, are edged in fur, courtesy of Ben Kahn. On all but one costume, the color is ranch mink. On Herrera’s tutu, though, the fur is snowy white. Ermine? At ABT? It seems that Holmes is going to stage a full-evening Raymonda for the company in the near future. If you plan to bring the kids, leave their copy of The Little Fur Family at home.

First, Pillar of Fire:  left to right, Marcelo Gomes, Gillian Murphy, Erica Fischbach, Xiomara Reyes and Carlos Molinas.
Second, Diversion of Angels:  Herman and Erica Cornejo.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 24, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Mindy 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

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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 October 24, 2003