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ABT's Innovative Works Program is a Popular Hit

Innovative Works
American Ballet Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
November 4, 2003

by Eric Taub
copyright © 2003 by Eric Taub

I suppose if I were running a big, world-class ballet company, I might be tempted to put on an evening much like ABT's "Innovative Works." Let's show the world that ballet isn't all tutus and tiaras, that ballet can be deconstructed, unconstructed and reconstructed to appeal to a "younger" crowd, preferably in settings that allow the dancers to show off how powerfully they can contort themselves, and how enticingly they can fill out a unitard. I might even succumb, and would that necessarily be a bad thing? The big, and very enthusiastic crowd at City Center Tuesday night wouldn't have thought so. As Kevin McKenzie has seemed so far quite intent on borrowing the Joffrey Ballet's very successful "old-new-borrowed-blue" repertory formula, I was a little surprised at the homogeneity of ABT's programming this season—all the slinky moderne works on one night, all the Old Masters on another, etc. This is clearly a departure from the Joffrey formula, yet, in an age where the three-ballet evening tends to be Programming Death, McKenzie might be onto something. Or perhaps anything works if you have enough guys who can jump and turn.

Is it too cynical of me to suggest that with such a presentation the "look" of a work might be just as important as what a grizzled dance critic might consider to be its quality? Certainly Nacho Duato's Without Words begins with appropriately artistic accouterments—dancers on a darkened stage, luminous in beige-ish shorts (for the men) and unitards (for the women), with still images of dancers performing bits of the piece projected on a large, black set, which also served as an entrance and exit. For awhile, the dancers' lugubrious entwinings to the mellow stylings of Schubert set a convincingly sepia-toned mood of lost loves remembered (without, of course, any romantic trappings such as eye contact). It was only after it became clear that Duato was quite content to leave his dancers, and the dance, mired in this slough of nostalgia, that I realized that Without Words wasn't going anywhere, and it wasn't interesting enough for the journey to be the destination. There was a climax of sorts in a rarefied duet between Xiomara Reyes and Ethan Stiefel, with much flipping over shoulders, spreadeagle lifts and the like. Duato's contortions did Reyes few favors, and, though very game, she returned the compliment.

William Forsythe's workwithinwork was also a bit of a meandering stream, but here, at least, the view made the journey worthwhile. While I can't quite wrap my mind around the oft-stated notion that Forsythe is Balanchine's successor as the standard-bearer of neo-classicism, he does have a classicist's love of form, although in the course of his often-witty distortions of classical form, he's a bit (well, a lot) too fond of elevating the mundane and awkward to the same level as the extraordinary and brilliant. Let's just say a little bit of this goes a long, long way, as it did Tuesday, where workwithinwork certainly lived up to its name, presenting, in no discernible order, bits and pieces amounting to three more-conventional ballets. Forsythe is quite fond of the device, popularized by Twyla Tharp, of having two or more dancers coexisting onstage, appearing to dance entirely different pieces simultaneously. This was a true star-studded ABT production, unlike other "modern" works which clearly get B-team casting. I particularly liked Kristi Boone (what a great season she's having!) and Michele Wiles among the women, and the Apollonian David Hallberg among the men. The star of the show was clearly Ethan Stiefel, the deadpan center of this ballet, equally arresting when standing still or flopping about like Petrouchka doused with itching powder. I'd say it looked like he was auditioning for Push Comes to Shove, except he's already done it. In fact, the whole piece was more than a little reminiscent of Push.

What can be said about Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison, that hasn't been said before? Just a few observations: Carlos Lopez was trying way, way too hard. A red nightie over Gillian Murphy does not a sex kitten make, nor does Stella Abrera's brittle prettiness. I wanted to like Sarawanee Tanatanit and Marcelo Gomes more in Within You Without You, but I couldn't elude the nasty thought that Tanatanit had been cast to go with the sitar-strumming vaguely Indian aura of the music; nor could I overcome Gomes' familiar stolidity. Of course David Parson's endless procession of "My Sweet Lord" gives new meaning to the word "pedestrian," and made for far from a merciful conclusion, but at last the evening was over.

The photo is from another cast (Julie Kent and Vladimir Malakhov) in Nacho Duato's Without Words.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 6
November 6, 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