Sparkle, and a Queen
In "Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," there is this passage in the section describing the first movement of "Ballet Imperial": "The ballerina enters, dances to a piano cadenza, and by her loveliness in performance convinces us that we are watching a queen among dancers." That's a tall order, especially these days, when the women on the ballet stage are more often comparable to hi-tech athletes or space-age contortionists than to queens or goddesses.
But when Veronika Part made that entrance, gracious and serene, one was readily convinced that here was a queen among dancers. Normally, one immediately focuses on how the ballerina copes with the highly technical, very exposed opening solo to that cadenza, having to launch into such difficult steps as soon as she arrives on stage. But Part made one aware that the role requires a certain presence, a quiet but confident authority. She may not be the most technically gifted ballerina performing the role these days (although she fared quite well in that department), but she carries with her an old-world glamour that serves this role extremely well.
Naturally, the fact that this ballet is so innately Russian and that she is very much a Russian ballerina—one with a dark beauty and an unassertive but innate dramatic aura—make her an intriguing interpreter of this role. She brought to it an amplitude, a fullness of phrasing, along with a sharper technical attack than last season, when her glorious Odette was somewhat undermined by the lack of precision and speed as Odile. She did not toss off the complex passages of "Ballet Imperial"'s choreography as though they were second nature, but she displayed impressive clarity and precision, and phrased them with a fluency.
This Saturday evening cast featured what one can't help considering the dark, exotic cast of leads (Part, Marcelo Gomes, Stella Abrera) in contrast to the fairer more straightforward Friday trio (Gillian Murphy, Maxim Beloserkovsky, Michelle Wiles). On Friday, I could not help dwelling on how cumbersome and unmagical this Balanchine work always seems to me. It's big and significant and forms part of that corner of his oeuvre in which he consciously pays homage to Petipa, but for me, it's never been one of those ballets whose return to the repertory inspires joy. It's an amazingly well-oiled machine, but feels stolid, as though Balanchine had an immensely smart, analytical response to the music, but most of the time not a deeply inspired one.
On Friday, Murphy was the ballet's gleaming engine, her attack sharp and always vibrant, as she traversed its technical hurdles with flair. But the portions of the ballet in which she danced with Beloserkovsky, a handsome but somewhat vacant romantic hero, felt disconnected from each other. Wiles brought her bold, athletic, uncomplicated finesse to the second ballerina role, and the ballet lumbered along efficiently, rich in classical beauties and crystalline patterning. On Saturday night, it found its soul. Part and Gomes seemed bound by an inevitable connection, and their hushed intensity added depth to their relationship. Abrera, as the second ballerina, doesn't have Wiles' sheer strength, but surprised me with how readily she met the role's technical challenges; she seemed to glow with an inner vibrancy.
Without adding any hint of histrionics, Part and Gomes made the central duet a complete and intensely romantic story within itself. From the moment he entered for the second movement and summoned the ten women to serve as his guides in his search, Gomes was mesmerizing, right up to the beautiful way he phrased his closing moments as one continuous, sighing expression of loss, as he released the women, slowly, helplessly receding until he bowed towards his vanished queen.
"Ballet Imperial" is the opening work on the all-Tchaikosvky program that is being performed eight times, through Thursday evening, and is one of the two mixed bills of the season. "Theme and Variations" closes each program (making for a rather top-heavy evening), and in the middle are couple of pas de deux (selected from among 5 different ones). On Friday, "Theme" showcased Paloma Herrera at her most transparently and harmoniously pure, displaying every step of this timelessly perfect choreography like a precious pearl, and stringing them together with unforced logic. Angel Corella had plenty of zip, and partnered nobly, but lacked the extra edge of princely finesse that the role requires. Saturday's cast featured Murphy and Gennadi Saveliev.
On Friday, Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreno delivered a beautifully tender, fluidly phrased "Swan Lake" Act 2 pas de deux. Amanda McKerrow was particularly poignant and believably tremulous and fragile in the same role on Saturday, with Beloserkovsky as her attentive prince, embodying the ballet's tragic force within this small excerpt. The showpiece third-act duet followed immediately, with Wiles displaying a few awkward glitches (she also had a tiny one in "Ballet Imperial") that marred the excitement that she and Carlos Acosta, whose creamy, musical pirouettes were remarkable, were building towards. To me, the slightly workmanlike quality of her performance undercut the required brilliance, but the audience's cheers during the bows indicated that many felt differently.
On Friday, the Act Three duet from Cranko's "Onegin" (which the program wrongly identified as being from Act One), providing a major contrast on an evening filled with tutus, was the second pas de deux offered. This is an ideal vehicle for Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca, two dancers with mature dramatic skills and a degree of experience as partners that allows for a compellingly impassioned interpretation. Ferri conveyed all the degrees of uncertainty as she wrestled with her emotions and desires, ultimately dismissing the man she once longed for at a more innocent, uncomplicated stage of her life. Wearing a flattering midnight-blue dress (rather than the usual brown one), she looked stunning. Bocca muted his youthful aspect with a mustache and greyed hair, and matched her intensity, even if the lifts were not always delivered wit the sense of utter abandon that Cranko's choreography calls for.
An evening of Tchaikovsky requires high-caliber musical performances, and the orchestra delivered the goods under the batons of David LaMarche ("Ballet Imperial" and Saturday's "Theme"), Charles Barker (all the pas de deux) and Ormsby Wilkins (Friday's 'Theme"). Barbara Bilach, "Ballet Imperial" pianist, brought an unusually staccato attack to some of the solo passages, but there was gorgeous violin solo work in the work's second movement, as well as in "Swan Lake."