Spectre de la Rose,"
Corsaire Pas de Deux,"
Act III Pas de Deux, "Sinfonietta"
For anyone who missed ABT's opening night gala, the second week's Saturday matinee was a heady experience worthy of that kind of special occasion. Not only did it feature two of the same showpiece pas de deux as the gala (with the male and female variations included, this time); it was altogether a collection of bravura showcases, a celebration of pure dancing. The only dramatic work on the program was Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose," in which capturing the proper mood plays a role, but which is, after all, mainly a display of amazing male virtuosity
The program also offered a parade of one wonderful ABT male dancer after another. David Hallberg, Herman Cornejo, Angel Corella, Marcelo Gomes—what an embarrassment of riches (and that didn't even include the mostly young, but very snazzy group of men flying through the air in the concluding work, Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta").
But it was a ballerina's performance, that of Michele Wiles in Balanchine's "Theme and Variations," that was the most sensational and memorable of the afternoon. Always a technical marvel, Ms. Wiles not only delivered a remarkably confident, scintillating account of this fiendishly challenging role, but also displayed beautiful épaulement and gracious bearing. She made something beautiful of her simple upstage entrance from the wings to the center, and then downstage, as she took her place among the female ensemble for her second variation—she seemed to acknowledge the rarefied air and take it all in. Ms. Wiles made me feel more than ever how this ballet is a contemporary distillation of "The Sleeping Beauty." She delivered her variation with such buoyant ease—almost a certain giddiness—that gave it a clear kinship to Aurora's Act 1 solo as she enters to celebrate her birthday.
David Hallberg more than held his own as the male lead; his innate elegance and ease, his appetite for classical purity, and the care with which he shapes every phrase—all these traits, plus his princely line, make him ideal for this role. He was simply not as "on" as Ms. Wiles at this performance, and danced on a somewhat more terrestrial plane while she was up in the stratosphere.
Herman Cornejo has added a juicier voluptuousness to his interpretation of the soaring embodiment of the rose a demure, romantic young girl has brought back as the souvenir of a memorable ball. He certainly has all the technical chops for the role, taking to the air with ease and never pushing for any effects. He shaped the "exotic" arm movements, in which he holds them bent at the elbows and seems to push through the air yearningly, very well and was sensitive to the ebbs and flows of the music, but he does not have the innate otherworldly strangeness that is helpful for truly inhabiting this role. Xiomara Reyes looks very pretty in the luscious recreation of the Bakst white ballgown, but lacks the imagination and subtlety, to make the role more than a pretty figurine who opens and closes the ballet. The portions where the Spectre inspires her to rise from her armchair and join in could and should have built to a more intoxicating intensity, until it all becomes overwhelming for the girl, but Ms. Reyes is not a performer capable of conveying nuance.
The two showpiece pas de deux that followed had everyone in fine form—in particular Angel Corella, who sliced through the air with ultra-intense verve and was clearly firing on all cylinders in "Le Corsaire." At times, he slammed into movements almost harshly, but his dancing was undeniably bold and exciting, and it had a knockout effect on the audience; a substantial portion of those seated in the orchestra rose for a standing ovation. Gillian Murphy, with her scintillating triple fouettes and equal zest for all-out bravura thrills, also contributed to their high level of excitement.
In the third-act pas de deux from "Swan Lake" Paloma Herrera danced flawlessly and with a new intensity that has been on view this season, luring Marcelo Gomes with her daring balances (not only holding an beautiful arabesque but arching upward as she did) and eloquent legs. He responded beautifully to her— theirs has become a lovely partnership, and he seems to have a calming, encouraging effect on her—and his solo was exemplary in its modest elegance. Neither gave in to the temptation to turn this into a raucous, circusy affair.
After all these demonstrations of rarefied classical technique, the pointe shoes came off and the soaring jetés multiplied—yes it was time again for this season's closing ballet of choice, "Sinfonietta." While Kylian has come up with some striking moments (which, admittedly, depend heavily on Janacek's urgent, dynamic score), he over-uses them to the point of diminishing returns. The men leap and slide, roll and lunge; the women stretch and contract. There's a lush fluidity to the movement that does provide quite a contrast to the more classical repertory, but this is a ballet that at most offers some momentary visceral highlights. Nothing much stays with you afterwards. At least on this occasion it was graced by the divine Danny Tidwell, who danced with a blend of grace and power and was riveting every moment he was on stage. It also offered a rare glimpse (and not much more) of Monique Meunier, who acquitted herself ably in one of the interchangeable yearning, striving duets. At least she did more out-and-out dancing here than she gets to do as "Pillar of Fire"'s Elder Sister (a role which she has refined beautifully), but it was another reminder that ABT does not seem willing to let her get onstage in anything resembling a tutu.
Saturday evening offered the second casts of the season's two premieres. Mr. Hallberg, brought unaffected radiance to the quirky lead male role of Trey McIntyre's "Pretty Good Year." In the opening moment, when he and Gillian Murphy were centerstage in smoky light, he seemed to be finding his bearing and discovering his body's possibility, like a child gaining in assertiveness. Ms. Murphy offered a piquant articulation and a sunny openness, and they shared some delightfully playful moments.
Misty Copeland was tense and ungainly in the brisk trio in which two men (Julio Bragado-Young and Blaine Hoven) maneuver her deftly; one missed the lightness and joy of Sarawanee Tanatanit in the first cast.
The adagio second-movement duet did not have the same luster on this occasion, performed capably but blandly by Laura Hidalgo and Grant DeLong, and Mr. Hallberg's sudden interruption, soaring along the diagonal, lying down as if to soak up the sun, was most welcome, especially since he then delivered the intriguing, exploratory solo that follows with such lightness and spontaneity. The ballet is filled with - perhaps at times overstuffed - with inventiveness, and Mr. McIntyre ably interprets the shifting aspects of the rich Dvorak trio, ranging from youthful energy to wistful melancholy.
Chirstopher Wheeldon's "VIII" seems to intentionally keep the audience at a distance. He seems to be trying for deliberate strangeness and darkness in this work distilling the developments between Henry VIII, his queen Katherine, and his mistress Ann Boleyn. Mr. Gomes took over the role of Henry, working hard to make him the distinctly un-royal figure that Mr. Wheeldon has created. The harsh, at times contorted partnering he performed with Carmen Corella had an almost cruel edge. She was a strong, repressed figure, helpless to interfere with the fate her situation has mapped out for her. When Henry turned to Ann as interpreted by Ms. Reyes, he seemed to be choosing a simple girlish mate over a complex, assertive one.
Literal and atmospheric darkness dominates this ballet, which works hard to be the opposite of ingratiating. Even the quartet of harlequin-like entertainers (The Masks) have an oddness to their cavorting. The positioning of central or peripheral figures (including the son that Henry so desperately longs to have) at the top of the set's wide staircase, looming above and looking down on the action feels heavy-handed at times. One can admire the sophisticated approach and decidedly different approach Mr. Wheeldon has taken, but this abstracted drama of a ballet is ultimately an intriguing, but unpersuasive experience.