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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Michele Wiles: Getting to the Heart of Hagar

Petite Mort/Sechs Tanze/Pillar of Fire/Within You Without You
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
May 12, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter
published 17 May 2004

The appearance on ABT's advance casting of Michele Wiles's name for Pillar of Fire's central role of Hagar was an intriguing highlight and cause for eager anticipation. This tall, technically confident soloist has reigned supreme in virtuoso roles—whether Balanchine and Petipa—where the clarity of her attack and her straightforward presentation of virtuosic passages have been a steady source of pleasure in recent seasons. But her name does not readily come to mind in association the phrase "dramatic ballerina," and Hagar is after all the quintessential dramatic ballerina role.

Wiles's New York debut in the role at the Wednesday matinee (she had first performed it on tour in Cleveland last autumn)was thus an unexpected surprise, and a quiet triumph. Hagar is a role defined by its emotional demands —the need to convey the inner turmoil and despair of a lonely woman at odds with the world within which she finds herself. Wiles's performance, among its many revelations, made it clear how technical command is a crucial element in portraying Hagar convincingly—how the steps and gestures Tudor has knitted into this indelible portrait require technical control of a less obvious sort.

What was so wonderfully evident in Wiles's performance, from the opening moments when she observed and subtly reacted to those who inhabit her constrained world, was how Hagar is poised midway between the manner and body language of her two sisters. Her younger sister, as portrayed by Marian Butler, seemed always to be moving in several directions at once, her body open to, and eagerly confronting, all possibilities. The eldest sister (Maria Bystrova) has retreated in rigid propriety, hardly ever making a move without checking by whom it will be seen and how it will be perceived.

Some Hagars appear nearly as rigid, their bodies stretched taut by tension and unexpressed desires. Wiles made it clear that Hagar, while far too serious and realistic to ever indulge whimsical playfulness of the youngest sister, desperately wished to a void reaching the approach to life to which the eldest sister has arrived.

As she stood outside a blissful ensemble of lyrically romantic Lovers-in-Innocence, or raced frantically amid a tempestuous contingent of Lovers-in-Epxerience, Wiles always conveyed how separate Hagar was form everyone and everything else on stage, that she did not belong or know where she might fit in. When she erupted into her tight, quietly impassioned bursts of solo dancing, she made the movement well up forcefully and expressively. The strength and length of her legs accentuated the force of these eruptions.

The passage in which she throws herself at the sensual Young Man from the House Opposite was not as powerful as the rest of her performance, because the partnering with Ricardo Torres lacked some of the timing that enhances the explosive nature of Hagar's impetuous decision. Hagar leaps at the Young Man desperately and heedlessly, and there was just enough uneasiness in these moments to reduce the dramatic impact.

Hagar's redemption, when she finds that the amiable, somewhat bland (and indecisive—why was he so charmed by the Youngest Sister earlier in the ballet?) man who turns out to represent her salvation, was delicately conveyed as Wiles and David Hallberg came together in the understated duet during which Hagar is able to ease out of her tension and discover that there is indeed a place where she might actually belong.

Since this revival of Pillar had been unveiled at City Center, it required some adapting to take it in at the Met, where Tudor's subtle works, with their reliance on gesture and nuance, have never been seen at their best. One could not help feel the empty vastness at the point in the ballet when most of the set pieces have glided offstage and the three sisters are arranged in a tableau center stage. The lighting seemed unnecssarily dim at this moment, and they seemed marooned in the vast darkness.

Also seen to less advantage at the Met than at City Center were the two Kylian trifles set to Mozart. At least there one could more fully observe the finicky flourishes of the offbeat, sensual couplings of Petite Mort. Six ABT couples, including some of their A-list men, gave their all to this self-important, ultimately empty exercise, and one occult only feel sympathy for the men forced to appear in their odd girdle-like trunks. Sechs Tanze has Kylian trying—desperately—to amuse us, with witless, silly shenanigans performed hectically by clownish couples in powdered faces (and powdered wigs for the men). It was painful to have to try and spot Monique Meunier, in one of her rare onstage appearances, amid this mayhem. Here is a dancer one could envision, with the right coaching, attempting Hagar. Instead, we have to settle for watching her performing what amounts to an antic temper tantrum.

The program closed with the George Harrison tribute, Within You Without You, which ABT seems intent on making a repertory staple despite its slick, simplistic choreography which gains nothing on repeated viewing.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 18
May 17, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter



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