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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Settling in to the Master Works

Master Works Program
American Ballet Theatre
City Center, NYC
October 26 evening, 2003

by  Eric Taub
copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub

On paper, ABT's Master Works program sounds fantastic, given the choreographic masters represented: Sir Frederick Ashton, Martha Graham, Antony Tudor and Marius Petipa. Not too shabby, as they say. It is a bit odd, however, that the company looked more at home in Graham's Diversion of Angels than the three "real" ballets. Not that the dancers looked particularly ill at ease in the other works, but rather that, while one might reasonably expect that a ballet company must find its own path with a modern dance work, particularly such good, old-fashioned idiosyncratic modern dance as Graham's, the same can't really be said for works by ballet choreographers, even ones as diverse as these, and here, although the ABT dancers usually gave clear and strong renditions of the overall choreography, they were less consistent in presenting the unique, subtle perfume of each of these distinctive and truly masterful works—not that ABT, and Kevin McKenzie, shouldn't be commended for trying.

Ashton's Symphonic Variations opened the program, with the same cast as opening night. On this second viewing, I was struck by this ballet's fiendish difficulty, where dancers must intersperse languorous posing with very hard steps indeed, without the luxury of much preparation, or, even harder, recovery. When you're called on, as Maxim Belotserkovsky was, repeatedly, to finish a double tour en l'air by immediately sinking into a graceful, hip-akimbo contrapposto pose, with no time or space for a transition, the slightest imperfections in your landing will become glaringly apparent. Here, Belotserkovsky did much better than opening night, as did the other two men, Craig Salstein and Carlos Lopez. Perhaps because male dancing usually has a softness and weightiness closer to the effortless, Empyrean affect for which Ashton seems to be striving than female dancing, which, thanks to the hardness of pointe shoes and the general spikiness of pointework, can often seem, well, brittle, as it did here. Ashley Tuttle, Marion Butler and Maria Ricetto all tried mightily, and perhaps that was their problem. I couldn't decide whether their port de bras were naturally stiff and stick-like, or if Ashton's choreography called on them to often carry their arms in such a sticklike, awkward manner. I don't believe the straightness was inadvertent, but the stiffness surely was. I do give Ashley Tuttle high marks for her professionalism, turning in a competent performance after a matinee Theme and Variations in which she didn't just flirt with disaster, but invited it home and cooked it dinner.

Next was Graham's Diversion of Angels, and ABT's particularly strong men really went to town, especially Herman Cornejo, cutting loose as half of the Couple in Yellow (suggested, by the program, to represent adolescent love), with his equally fearless sister, Erica. Sandra Brown has made a bit of a signature out of her impressive high extensions in a kind of écarté, punctuated with contractions, dancing with Isaac Stappas, as the Couple in Red (erotic love). The Couple in White (mature love)—Stella Abrera and Gennady Saveliev—were appropriately grave and, well, mature. If Graham's almost-compulsive use and reuse of motifs for each couple seems a bit facile today, the dancer's ardor more than carried the day. I did find myself wondering whether performing Graham's contorted and ecstatic movements was, in the long run, good for ballet dancers, demanding, as it does, an altogether different carriage and musculature than ballet; however, I did think the Graham technique (such as was managed here) merged well with the dancers' high-powered ballet technique, and I think Graham would have appreciated the scale in which they drew her choreography.

I can't watch Tudor's Pillar of Fire without recalling my many mid-Seventies viewings of Sallie Wilson's incomparable performances. Then, besotted with the celestial stars in ABT's firmament, I always looked forward to this ballet with the kind of dutiful ennui with which one anticipates eating brussels sprouts. I knew it was good for me, but, well, rather much to digest. That is, until the curtain went up on Wilson, sitting motionless on the stairs of her house. I became transfixed, and the minutes flew by. Last night, they rather fled away, possibly because this revival was staged by Donald Mahler rather than Wilson. Perhaps Wilson wasn't so superb in her debut, and perhaps Julie Kent, making her debut as Hagar, the miserable almost-spinster who is rescued by an unexpected love, will grow into the role over time— she certainly handled the many technical difficulties with aplomb. But for now, Kent hints at Hagar's inner turmoil, as has been her wont in other roles, with a gentle knitting of her admittedly beautiful brows. The other debuts were equally problematic. While Angel Corella has no lack of animal magnetism, and has done well with Tudor in the past (he was very moving as Caroline's lover in Lilac Garden), he seemed ultimately too nice as the Young Man from the House Opposite, who seduces Hagar and brusquely discards her. One of the most heart-wrenching moments in the ballet comes when the Young Man walks slowly past Hagar as she stands motionless at center stage, and we see that he's quite deliberately ignoring her, feeling her pain (as do we), and rather enjoying it. Here, Kent stood still, and Corella walked. While only a few millimeters of movement separated them from Tudor's gut-wrenching denouement, they might as well have been miles. As The Friend, who overcomes a dogged pursuit by Hagar's annoyingly flirtatious Youngest Sister, played to perfection by Xiomara Reyes, David Hallberg (also in debut) has the difficult, if not impossible, task of showing us just what this stolid, apparently older man sees in the clearly overwrought Hagar. Given Kent's underwhelming approach, it's not surprising that Hallberg, a truly fine and promising classicist, just didn't have a handle on this very tricky role. I also found myself wishing that Maria Bystrova, as Hagar's resolutely spinsterish (remember spinsters?) Eldest Sister, could find more to do with her role than engage in a battle of the eyebrows with Kent. This Sister should seem quite pleased with herself for being above the passions of the world, and disappointed in Hagar for not seeing the light; disappointed, not angry.

Despite the above quibbles, I was very happy to see this masterpiece again, and grateful to ABT for not abandoning its heritage. If this Pillar isn't everything one might wish for, at least the framework, and hope for the future, is there. Perhaps by the end of the season it will jell, and perhaps, if we're lucky, it will still be around next fall.

God willing, Anna Marie Holmes' disappointingly meager staging of the Grand Pas Classique from Raymonda won't be, as she'll be expanding it into what a "full length" two-act version for ABT next year. I didn't care for Barbara Matera's overly ornate costumes (the last time I saw men wearing jackets like that they were playing trombones in The Music Man), nor for the fact that this "Grand Pas" had no pas de deux for the lead couple (let's hope that Holmes finds room for it in the upcoming production). In another debut, Michele Wiles was not the grand Hungarian princess, but a spirited, athletic filly of the sort Balanchine regularly fell in love with. Wiles may have missed some stylistic niceties, but her enthusiasm made a marked and welcome contrast to the many pallid and phoned-in performances of other ABT women. But what ballerina wouldn't be enthusiastic at being paired with Carlos Acosta? True, he had very little to do here, but I won't soon forget his amazingly high, large and clear cabrioles, or the look on Wiles' face as he finished that enchainement by dropping to his knee at her feet.

I have been remiss this season in not mentioning how rich and clean the ABT orchestra has been sounding—conducted by Ormsby Wilkins, they treated Glazounov's heavenly score with the reverence that, perhaps, ABT's next staging of Raymonda—will give us Petipa's equally divine choreography.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 5
October 27, 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 October 27, 2003