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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Dorian—Not Quite Wilde Enough

Contamporary Works Program
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
October 30, 2003

by Gia Kourlas
copyright © 2003 by Gia Kourlas

If nothing else, American Ballet Theatre’s fall season proves that when critics declare that William Forsythe is the antichrist of ballet, they really mean Jiri Kylian. It’s always better to try something and fail, as Forsythe is apt to do. Kylian, however, invents serviceable dances that include the same basic traits: Mickey Mousing the music note for note; the addition of props, however incongruous; Martha Graham contractions; and meaningless gesture as a way to jazz up classical vocabulary. I’m not sure when covering the eyes with the fingertips became accepted as a part of the ballet idiom, but judging by Kylian (and that of his adoring imitators, Nacho Duato and Stanton Welch) it is as crucial as the arabesque.

ABT kicked off its “Contemporary” program with two works by Kylian: Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, created for Nederlans Dans Theatre in 1991 and 1986. Performed out of chronological order, they are companion pieces that feature black hollowed-out strapless ball gowns on wheels. Petite Mort—French slang for orgasm—starts out with six men holding swords and wearing flesh-colored corsets that don’t do much for the body unless your legs aren’t too bulky, your stomach perfectly rippled and your skin angelically pale (this would be Ethan Stiefel). The rest—Herman Cornejo, Carlos Lopez, Gennadi Saveliev, Marcelo Gomes and Jose Manuel Carreño – look a bit lost, like sad poseurs at an S & M club.

Petite Mort is meant to be lewd and dangerous, but it’s more obvious than titillating. Yes, we get the double entendre of the sword. Before the music begins (two piano concertos by Mozart—the dance was created for the Salzburg Festival on the second centenary of the composer’s death), the men make a little score of their own by whipping the air with their steel props. The women (Xiomara Reyes, Renata Pavam, Irina Dvorovenko, Stella Abrera, Kristi Boone and Paloma Herrera) emerge from the shadows of the back of the stage also wearing corsets (the joke is apparent as soon as they shift away from their rock-hard ball gowns). The dancers pair off, each couple engaging in a pas de deux of teasing, aggressive sexual foreplay—hence the darting legs, grand pliés and tangle of arms. Such calculated ferocity only withers out in the end. The couple most able to dramatize Kylian’s game of sexual tension is Abrera and Stiefel. The sameness of the movement hardly matters; their performance is so hot it simmers. The others, dutiful dancers playing a part, illustrate little more than what’s found on the cover of a Harlequin romance.

The second work, Sechs Tänze, also set to Mozart (Six German Dances), is Petite Mort’s silly counterpart. Little more than a series of burlesque escapades, the ballet depicts a stream of superficial encounters among eight powdered-wig aristocrats. With their white face makeup, the couples (Erica Cornejo and Eric Otto, Ashley Tuttle and Angel Corella, Carmen Corella and Carlos Molina, and Gillian Murphy and Jared Matthews) look like ratty dolls. The big problem in Sechs Tänze is that it’s supposed to be funny—once again, the joke is the mysterious return of the hollowed-out dress—but there isn’t much to laugh about. Humor just isn’t Kylian’s forte.

The program concluded with Robert Hill’s first effort at a story ballet. In Dorian, based on Oscar Wilde’s wonderfully bewitching novel (bizarrely, however, it’s given no credit on the program), Hill showcases two sides of the same character. David Hallberg plays the young man obsessed with his beauty; Marcelo Gomes portrays the Picture that shows Dorian’s true self. Hill’s tactic of unfolding the tragic tale of a beautiful man who never grows old, but whose cruelty is reflected in a portrait, almost works. Instead of using a badly rendered replica, Gomes stands perfectly frozen in an opulent picture frame. But there is one horrible distraction. To make the characters believable, the blond Hallberg dons a raven wig—making him look a bit like a white kid from the Upper East Side playing Dracula. Of course, Gomes would have looked even more ridiculous as a blond. A more prudent casting move? Stiefel as the Picture.

In the ballet, Basil Hallward (Carlos Molina—always stately but never quite bold enough to suit my taste) unveils his portrait of Dorian. The evil Lord Henry Wotton —a deliciously sinister Victor Barbee—convinces Dorian that beauty and youth are qualities that must be maintained above all else. But their friendship is Dorian’s downfall; when he falls in love with the actress Sibyl Vane (Julie Kent), Lord Henry convinces his gullible pupil that she isn’t good enough for him. Dorian rejects her and Sibyl—her downfall briskly but elegantly captured by Kent—commits suicide. Consequently, Gomes, as proof that Dorian’s cruel act is unpardonable, appears tainted, wearing a red scarf knotted around his neck. As Dorian plunges further into his life of debauchery, Gomes models a glittering scarlet vest. But such theatrical devices do not, in the slightest way, reflect the horror of Wilde’s story. The Picture should be a grotesque reflection of the tattered Dorian; Gomes’s tidy transformation barely scratches the surface. One pas de deux, in which Hallberg dances in front of his mirror image of Gomes, is particularly beautiful and hauntingly affecting, but the rest of the choreography is elusive. Just as the plot of the story gets in the way of the dancing, the dancing consistently interrupts the story.

Dorian isn’t a resounding success, but casting isn’t to blame. The budding star Hallberg not only cuts a striking line in his white trousers and fitted jacket, but adds wonderfully subtle flavor to his characterization. Gomes, with innate understatement, delivers a brutish performance that keeps you guessing. But it’s all too neat and too pretty—Zack Brown’s billowing silk curtains and sets in tones of green and gray lend the entire ballet a painterly quality that doesn’t stray from calculated dignity. Jon Magnusssen’s musical arrangement of works by Ernest Chausson, Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin, however lovely, is dramatically tepid. Primarily, at 55 minutes, Dorian is also much too long. As a choreographer, Hill is neither without talent, and nor is his instinct to see that Wilde’s story could be told through movement entirely misguided. For the moment, however, the ballet feels both forced and as if there are pieces missing; with thoughtful editing, everything could make sense. Histrionics would result in disaster, but as it stands Dorian just isn’t creepy enough to remain a classic. The prose of the brilliant Wilde stands staunchly in the way.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 6
November 3, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Gia Kourlas



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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 24, 2003