DanceView Times, New York edition
Humor, Sizzling Dancing
Have you ever noticed how lame most ballet humor is? It took an opera to make that point for me. Earlier this spring I saw the Met’s L’Italiana in Algeri. This is ostensibly a comedy, but I found myself wondering at the silliness of it all. The Met audience didn’t seem to notice; everyone laughed merrily at musty jokes about dithering old men, moronic would-be lovers, and the attractions of cleavage. Then on Wednesday I saw ABT’s Don Quixote and there it was again, all the same nonsense (minus the cleavage, of course). In the past, I had just taken it for granted; maybe I even laughed when Sancho Panza fell down, as he so often does, or Gamache tripped over his sword, as he so often does, or Basil feels-up Kitri, which he does twice. Although a few twentieth century choreographers have been able to break out of these clichés (Ashton’s La Fille Mal Garde, Balanchine’s very different version of Don Quixote), these are exceptions. In my view it is time to rethink humor, and since so many choreographers today insist on tinkering with nineteenth century ballets, this would seem the perfect opportunity. It’s too bad this thought did not occur to Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones in 1995 when they restaged Don Quixote for ABT.
On the other hand, to paraphrase Edwin Denby, nobody goes to the ballet for the humor, they go for the dancing, and the ABT dancers did much to make up for lack of inspiration in the production. On Wednesday evening Gillian Murphy danced Kitri the village innkeeper’s daughter, and Ethan Stiefel was Basil the barber. They were joined by a number of other excellent dancers in featured roles. Stiefel is a natural comedian with a great deal of boyish charm. He makes Basil lovable even when he’s being naughty. Stiefel also is a virtuoso who can drive audiences mad with big, soft jumps, multiple beats and zillions of perfectly wrought pirouettes. Murphy, conversely, is not a natural comedienne—in fact she’s not a natural actress. She seems to have no idea how to build a role or add those innumerable personal details that ballerinas develop to put their personal stamp on a role (remember how Makarova, as Kitri, used her fan to such devastating effect?). Murphy goes through the motions; she has all the stock gestures that dancers fall back on to convey the general meaning of what’s going on in the story, but at this point she adds little else.
Yet, despite it all, she is an exciting dancer, or at least she can be when she is able to forget characterization and just move. Such was the case in the second act dream sequence. Here, as Don Quixote’s vision of Dulcinea, she softend her accustomed brilliance with eloquent arms and downy lightness. It was interesting in this scene to be able to see her dance with Michele Wiles, ABT’s latest hope for stardom. They are close in build and coloring—tall, lithe and light-haired (although Murphy is more strawberry than true blonde). Both also are strong technicians. Yet their styles are quite different. Whereas Wiles, here as Queen of the Dryads, is expansive and gracious, with a soft amplitude of movement, Murphy is light, fleet and glittering. It was like seeing emeralds and diamonds together.
Just how brilliant Murphy can be was evident in the last act pas de deux (the famous one), in which during the coda she executed an extraordinary series of fouettés and what looked like quadruple pirouettes that had the audience shouting. For this and Stiefel’s own bravura performance they received an uproarious ovation and curtain calls forever. It’s to be hoped, though, that Murphy doesn’t begin to think these sorts of stunts are what ballet is all about. Certainly she won’t get any help from the audience on this point. Nevertheless, she has the talent for something more and she should pursue it, however seductive the alternative may be.
There were a number of outstanding performances in supporting roles on Wednesday evening. These included David Hallberg as Espada the matador and Carmen Corella as his girlfriend, Mercedes, who were both excellent, as were Sarawanee Tanatanit and Sascha Radetsky as the Gypsy Couple and Maria Riccetto and Adrienne Schulte as Kitri’s friends. A special word, too, for Renata Pavam, who appeared as Amour. She managed to give this role, which is far too cute for its own good, an unaccustomed dignity through intelligent musical phrasing and clarity of image.
Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel in American Ballet Theatre's Don Quixote. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.