writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Flying Panthers and Other Wonders

Family Friendly Matinees
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
November 1 and 2, 2003

by Eric Taub
copyright © 2003 by Eric Taub

There were so many big, dramatic stories last weekend at ABT it's hard to know where to begin. With Craig Salstein's wonderful last-minute substitution for an injured Angel Corella in Fancy Free, after having danced the difficult role of the Devil in Three Virgins and a Devil not once, but twice that day? With Ashley Tuttle bouncing back from a near-mauling at the hands of Herman Cornejo in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with a strong and gutsy rendition of her solo? With Gillian Murphy settling down a skittish David Hallberg in his debut in Theme and Variations, and, perhaps not coincidentally, delivering the best performance I've seen from her in Theme? With Paloma Herrera's somnolent Theme, and her Aurora-like awakening in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with the pantherish (if panthers could fly) Carlos Acosta? Or perhaps with Irina Dvorovenko's never-to-be-forgotten send-up of every diva-ballerina-assoluta curtain call you've ever seen, dreamed or had a nightmare about, after a side-splitting performance of Le Grand Pas de Deux (about which I'm about to eat some crow) with Maxim Belotserkovsky?

Let's start with the last first. At the opening-night gala, I rather looked down my nose at Christian Spuck's Le Grand Pas de Deux. I found it unrelentingly silly, cute and coy, going for easy, cheap laughs (what could be more easy to laugh at than a near-sighted ballerina sporting pointy-cornered eyeglasses and an endlessly obstructive pink pocket-book?) rather than enlightening us with sophisticated wit, and a bad choice for ABT. Well, I was wrong. It is not a work of genius, or even particularly clever, yet, in the hands of inspired performers, it's the clay from which a work of genius can be fashioned, and perfect for a program catering to children of all ages. So it was Sunday afternoon, with Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky. Having seen this pair a number of times in Don Quixote, I knew they both have great comic timing, and like to flesh out their comedy with a wealth of well conceived and rehearsed bits of business, and they delivered more of the same here.

Nothing could have prepared me, though, for this pair's brilliant parody of the personas they've carefully crafted together over their years together: Dvorovenko as the intense and slightly scary diva and Belotserkovsky as her beaming, slightly cowed but always cheerful enabler. I'll never forget how Belotserkovsky turned his mimed inquiry towards the large, tutu-wearing cow reclining upstage right (don't ask) into an entire little conversation ("Have you seen her anywhere? Oh, she's over there? Thanks so very much!"), or Dvorovenko's artfully artless way of scratching her derriere and snapping at the elastic on her panties, beneath her enormous, pink tutu. There's also a lot of hard dancing in Le Grand Pas, and it should probably go without saying at this point that the pair acquitted themselves beautifully here.

I was in stitches by the ballet's end, and then Dvorovenko practically killed me with her ballerina curtain-call to end all curtain-calls. She acknowledged her admiring public. Repeatedly. She went to her knees, and then suddenly she was Odette, sliding slowly and unsteadily into that famous head-to-the-knee split, as Belotserkovsky reacted with equal parts admiration, bemusement and terror, at one point grabbing the curtain and backing into it as if to hide. Then, she did the Nina-Ananiashvili walk to one side of the stage to acknowledge her public on that side of the house, posing, ever so briefly, as a droopy-wristed Giselle. A walk to the other side of the stage, and she was bowing again, but this time as Kitri, with arms akimbo and a jaunty smile. The pair had the cheering audience, children and adults alike, in the palm of their hands, and I could only imagine any Trockaderos who might've been in the audience throwing away their toe-shoes in defeat; for all their studied parodies of diva ballerinas, nothing I've seen from the Trocks could touch Dvorovenko's creation.

In Le Grand Pas on Saturday, Xiomara Reyes was merely hilarious with an eager, but slightly befuddled Herman Cornejo. Cornejo has many wonderful qualities—among them a huge, weightless jump punctuated by utterly soundless landings—but a great acting ability is not among them. Neither is a great partnering ability, but more on that later.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Theme and Variations. Saturday afternoon brought David Hallberg's long-anticipated debut. Tall, slender, with long legs and extentions to die for, Hallberg is perhaps ABT's classical purist of the future, and, as such, Theme is a big, big test for him. He started off brilliantly, but a bit of hubris in his first solo brought him down a bit, as he made his ronde de jambes between the many pirouettes so big and beautiful that one pulled him a bit off- balance so he had to fall, ever so slightly, out of his turns, in a place where Balanchine gives the man no time at all to recover—Theme is a merciless ballet, as has often been noted. Hallberg finished the ballet more conservatively, and not without some evident shakiness and nerves, for instance, setting himself up in the deep lunge from which he soutenus into the famous double-tour-pirouette combination (he did single pirouettes) too early, forcing him to sit in the lunge for just a bit longer than was perhaps wise. He also had a few slight awkward moments with Gillian Murphy in the adagio, but recovered well by the heavenly concluding polonaise. I've never warmed to Murphy as much as I did at this performance—she often seems very inward-turned, not in a mystical, Suzanne-Farrellish way, but almost as if she's hiding behind her technique, looking alternately smug and prim. Her penchant for staring down at the stage hasn't helped, either. But perhaps her need to settle down a nervous Hallberg drew her out of her shell a bit. I've never seen her so aware of her partner before, and that awareness seemed to extend to the entire audience. She was actually soft and warm in places, and led the high-kicking woman's ensemble to perfection in the finale.

Sunday's Theme, with Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes, was notable mostly for the few moments when Herrera seemed to come out of autopilot and actually remember that a ballerina should look like she enjoys dancing. Herrera actually had looked like she enjoyed dancing on Saturday, when she partnered by Carlos Acosta. She was so good, in fact—musical, playful, brilliant and happy—that I found myself wondering why she's so often flat, as in Theme, where she looks bored. I have serious reservations about a dancer who so consistently phones in performances especially when it's abundantly clear she can do so much better. But Herrera has her loyal fan base, and perhaps that's all that's needed to ensure that she's always cast as a leading ballerina. I'd rather see someone who actually wants to dance, such as Acosta; watching him is like a sensory smorgasbord. There's so much to take in: his long, tree-trunk legs; his beautifully arched feet; his attentiveness to his ballerina; and, as always, his huge leaps and turns. I can almost forgive him for his casual way with Balanchine's choreography (doesn't anyone at the Balanchine Trust care what men do in Tchai Pas?) because of the beautiful grand jetés with which he opened the coda (instead of the usual cabrioles). In these days when the flying-carpet split-leap has become the norm, an old-fashioned jeté, where the legs sculpt an arc into the air, is a rare and welcome sight indeed, particularly as sculpted on Acosta's scale. As has been noted, they train real artists in Cuba.

The other Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux was also notable, but not for the best of reasons. Recalling Ashley Tuttle's near-death experience in Theme the previous weekend, where she seemed able to do nothing right, and only some quick thinking by Angel Corella saved her from disaster, I wondered how she'd handle Tchai Pas's many difficulties, especially with Herman Cornejo making his debut with her. She emerged with a fixed smile hardly disguising a demeanor of sheer terror, and it soon became clear why. I've always admired Cornejo's dancing, but not only do short women like Reyes and Tuttle loom over him on pointe, they clearly demand more than he can deliver as a partner, and the adagio here was filled with small and not-so-small miscues and mistakes, such as when Tuttle leaned back against Cornejo's arms while she did a developpé, and, rather than cradle her gently, he let her slip through his arms and slammed her back against his chest. Cornejo danced his solo brilliantly, like a shorter Acosta, but I was holding my breath as Tuttle began hers; I was certain that she'd been so rattled that at best she'd mark her way through, and at worst fall completely to pieces. Instead, she danced better than I've ever seen her. The echappés to pointe were big and fearless, the attitudes and developpés on pointe were big, yet soft and musical, the turns fast and precise. It would be welcome to see such attack from her more frequently. Tuttle tightened up a bit in the coda, perhaps anticipating the fouettés, which she handled with aplomb, or the two flying fish dives, for which Kevin McKenzie surely should award her a hazardous duty bonus, especially for the second one, when Cornejo almost missed her.

The weekend also saw an entirely new cast in Agnes de Mille's Three Virgins and a Devil. Craig Salstein's devil was hammier and more playful in his evil-doing than Carlos Molina's, in the first cast, and a bit clearer in some of the mime, if less precise in his dancing. As the Fanatical virgin, Sasha Dmochowski mugged with great enthusiasm, where perhaps a bit more restraint would have yielded more clarity. Maria Ricetto and Marian Butler (the Greedy and Lustful virgins, respectively) also tried mightily, with Ricetto making a bit more of an impression than Butler; some moments seemed more like a dress rehearsal for these two.

The most satisfying performance of the weekend could well have been Saturday's Fancy Free, where Salstein was called upon to fill in for Corella. Although I find many ABT/NYCB comparisons specious, I will say that ABT does a much, much better job with Fancy Free than City Ballet. For ABT, it's a key part of the repertory, and heritage, and a pasture in which McKenzie's stable of superstar men can romp; for NYCB, it's just another ballet. Saturday, the three men here were about as good as can be imagined: Salstein, Ethan Stiefel and Jose Manuel Carreño. The three delivered the preliminary hijinks, tripping and roughhousing to perfection, and Sandra Brown's first girl was tough enough to make the pocket-book-stealing scene less threatening, as she was clearly always in control of the situation (although perhaps kicking one of the sailors in the face was a bit of overly enthusiastic ad-libbing). I've often found Julie Kent a bit wooden as the second girl, but Stiefel's pupplylike enthusiasm as he mimed his story of shooting down an enemy plane seemed to pull her out of her shell a bit—certainly she was having trouble keeping a straight face before their pas de deux. Stiefel was a delight, not just in his very legato second solo, but with his acting touches, like the way he inflated his chest before chatting up Kent (although someone should give him some tap-dance lessons, I'm afraid). What more can be said about Carreño's happy-go-lucky rhumba-ing third sailor? He owns this role, and will for as long as he cares to dance it. The happy surprise was Salstein's triumph as the first sailor, after having danced the Devil twice on Saturday, thanks to a special kiddy performance which started at the unGodly hour of eleven in the morning. Ah, youth! He looked not the slightest bit tired, and turned his solo into a marvel of pugnacious enthusiasm—Popeye without the pipe and squint. At the curtain calls, Stiefel and Carreño ran off, leaving Salstein alone for a brief solo bow; the cheers were no less than he deserved.

Photo:  Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel in Fancy Free.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 6
November 4, 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 24, 2003