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The DanceView Times, New York edition

ABT's Salute to Balanchine:

The Babel Effect

Theme & Variations/Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux/Mozartiana/Ballet Imperial
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
May 24, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published May 31, 2004

New York City is Babel on the Hudson. A hundred languages are spoken here, sometimes even English, in every imaginable accent. That’s part of the city’s magic. English is a beautiful language no matter if the accent is American, French, Spanish or Russian or Noo Yawk. We speak Balanchine here, too. It isn’t necessary to speak Balanchine with a perfect New York accent, but you’ve got to have some accent or another.

American Ballet Theatre is a company with stars that speak in many accents. But watching ballet isn’t like walking the streets of New York City. I heard many accents on Monday night and came away feeling like I had heard none.

ABT performed its Balanchine tribute: four ballets, all with music by Tchaikovsky. In Balanchine, the company does not show an identity layered over the choreography. The dancers don't emphasize their feet and legs as New York City Ballet dancers might, but they’re not emphasizing their upper bodies either. Watching stars dance with ABT isn’t like watching Nureyev dance with the Royal Ballet: a meeting of equal identities that further illuminated one another. Instead, it’s like watching the principals dance against the blue backdrop filmmakers use to digitally add in scenery later. And the Metropolitan Opera House has all the warmth and life of a cavernous production studio. Spacing had to be changed and, even more unforgivably, huge pauses inserted in the music to accommodate entrances and exits.

Theme and Variations was made on the company by Balanchine, and could have become its native accent. Theme was its chance to negotiate neoclassicism on its own terms. Yet it seemed as though the company hasn't taken any stance on the ballet.

Paloma Herrera, who danced the lead ballerina role originally made on Alicia Alonso, has a prodigious neoclassical facility that's at odds with the classical orthodoxy of the company's 19th century repertory. Had she danced with the attack that should be natural to her, she would have been perfect for the role. Unfortunately, she had a difficult performance. She fell off pointe in a partnered pirouette and wasn’t on form. That said, the difficulty seems to be that her dancing is based on natural gifts rather than placement and technique learned from the ground up. She has no safety net. She can almost always turn like a top, but if she doesn’t make a pirouette, she can’t save it. Herrera did one prodigious and inappropriate balance at the end of the pas de deux. It seemed like she did it just to show us that she really could do amazing things. Yet it’s confusing to see someone with such prodigious facility be lax in her footwork and transitions.

Her partner, Marcelo Gomes, was on form and his dancing bespeaks training as well as facility. The difficult series of double air turns and pirouettes threatened momentarily to get out of hand when Gomes started to lose his spot; he was able to correct himself in motion and regain control of the step. Gomes is big and moves big but he has line; along with his technique it makes him as believable in classical work as in contemporary. With ABT’s repertory what it is at present, he’s one of the most valuable dancers in the company. In a polyglot company he’s one of those rare dancers that can dance in fluent Esperanto.

Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux had a definite Soviet accent when Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky danced it but this is a showpiece that can handle that. Dvorovenko cut corners and changed steps; she’s another one who deletes the daring sissonnes in the coda in favor of more carefully stepping on to pointe. She also looks before she leaps in the final jumps into her partner’s arms. She substitutes bravura for genuine courage, but still, she gives a performance. Beloserkovsky is far less self-aggrandizing; his performance was clear, deft and amiable.

Mozartiana, staged by Maria Calegari, was danced every star for him or herself. Nina Ananiashvili went baroque Russian, all expressive soul and bent arms. She’s rapt rather than innocent in the Preghiera. She’s looking for the deeper meaning of the ballet, and I think she gets it; the problem is that she keeps telling us exactly how she gets it. In the Gigue, Herman Cornejo is a fine dancer, but emphasized the steps rather than the phrases so much that he turned it from a dance into a variation. In the male lead, Angel Corrella let his worst impulses guide him and grinned, leapt and spun. Impressive enough, but this is Mozartiana, not Don Quixote.

Colleen Neary staged Ballet Imperial, or rather she staged Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, the 1973 revival of the ballet in which she danced. Balanchine made several changes to Ballet Imperial, originally choreographed in 1941. According to "Choreography by George Balanchine, a Catalogue of Works" (1984) most of those, including the elimination of mime, were in place by the time he mounted the ballet on Sadler’s Wells in 1950. Balanchine revived the work in 1964 for his own company in its first year at its new home in the New York State Theater. There was a new central pas de deux in the 1973 production, but the big changes were the simplification of the costumes from classical tutus to chiffon skirts and the elimination of décor. What Neary staged for ABT looks like what they're dancing across the plaza, only in tutus.

Rouben Ter-Arutunian designed the 1964 production and ABT’s production as well. Both were based on Mstislav Douboujinsky’s original designs, a curtain parted to reveal a view of St. Petersburg along the Neva. The tutus are heavy and bell-shaped. Gillian Murphy danced capably with quick legs and feet, but it looks like she’d be happier dancing Piano Concerto No. 2 than Ballet Imperial. The former has atmosphere, but the latter has freedom of movement, and Murphy is at her best in motion. Carlos Molina partnered her well; Michele Wiles didn’t have the crisp legwork here for the second ballerina role.

With the evening’s soloists performing in every conceivable dialect of ballet, what of the corps? Well, they’re good dancers, but they speak with a newscaster’s accent: none. American Ballet Theater hasn't been a choreographer’s company since its first few seasons; it’s long been a company of stars and an importer of talent. That’s an identity in itself. But with productions of the 19th century classics and the acquisition of Balanchine and other masterwork repertory ABT stakes its claim to being an institution. Being an institution means thinking institutionally, and that means a cohesive identity. Let’s hope the resumption of their school is a firm step in that direction.

First:  Marcelo Gomes in Theme and Variations. Photo: MIRA
Second:  Gillian Murphy and Carlos Molina in Ballet Imperial. Photo: Marty Sohl.
Third:  Michele Wiles in Ballet Imperial. Photo: Marty Sohl.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 20
May 31, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by  Leigh Witchel



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last updated on May 31, 2004