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American Ballet Theatre

'VIII,' 'Theme and Variations,' 'Sinfonietta,' 'Le Corsaire' pas de deux

Sex and suffering in Tudor ideology

by Jerry Hochman

October 24, 2004 -- City Center, New York City

American Ballet Theatre’s repertory mixed bill presented at City Center on Sunday, October 24 (evening) was exactly that: a mixed bill in every respect. Never less than interesting, and never less than superbly performed, the works danced offered a broad choreographic range both in terms of historic timeline and successful result.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “VIII”, one of the company's premieres for this season, is a puzzlement. It is obviously constructed with deliberation and intelligence. And parts of it are enthralling. But they are few and far between. For a subject that is as inherently interesting as Henry VIII and his six wives (or at least two of them), one would have expected impressive atmosphere, or deep psychological explication, or at least some rapturous dancing. Instead, there was little in which to get emotionally involved.

Since the piece is titled “VIII” (rather than VI, or II, or anything relating to the wives), it was apparently intended to be from Henry’s point of view. But, as portrayed by Angel Corella, Henry demonstrates little that could be translated into some sort of driving force. We know he’s concerned about producing a male heir (IX?), because Henry stares into space and sees a vision of a future son. And, we know his marriage to Katherine of Aragon is emotionless, because he stares into space in her presence, emotionless. And, we know he’s looking for love in all the right places, because he stares into space, emotionless, as the ‘ladies in waiting’ dance around him. And, we know he lusts after Anne Boleyn, because he stares into space, emotionless, while she convinces him that he’d enjoy giving her the opportunity to produce a son. And, I don’t think this was just the way Corella performed the role. Admittedly, he doesn’t have the gravitas one would expect of a Henry VIII, but we can suspend our disbelief. The problem is that it seems that Wheeldon intended Henry to be emotionless. That’s fine, as long as the emotional forces are conveyed in the choreography. But that didn’t happen here. Even Henry’s dances with Katherine and Anne, though well executed, conveyed little of the emotional drama that should be inherent in the story.

It is worth the price of admission simply to watch Alessandra Ferri on stage, no matter what she dances. But, as Katherine, she’s given little to do in "VIII." When the choreography allows her to move -- in the occasional duet with Corella, or when she traverses the bodies of several male dancers (which is interesting to watch but makes no apparent dramatic sense) -- she still demands that you watch every move she makes, and she still makes you feel fortunate to be so seduced. But my memory of her role in this piece, unfortunately, is of a character basically walking across the stage and, like Henry, staring into space. As Anne, Julie Kent was permitted (or took it upon herself to demonstrate) more obvious emotion. Her dances with Henry showed passion, albeit somewhat muted, and Kent has never looked better. Not only did she dance beautifully, she glowed. She wears her new motherhood wonderfully.

"VIII" is filled with intriguing ideas, but ultimately they aren’t enough to transform the piece into successful dance theater. A “balcony” of sorts stretches across the back of the stage, and various characters slowly promenade from one end to the other (including Katherine walking to her exile, Anne walking to her death, and the imagined ghosts of Henry’s six wives, looking both skeletal and barren, walking into or out of Henry’s mind). The background was a single, dominating, somewhat deformed rose, apparently a symbol of the force commanding Henry to preserve the Tudor bloodline. And, Wheeldon provided a Shakespearean/Elizabethan “performance within a performance” by showcasing a group of harlequin dancers dubbed “The Masks” (excitingly danced by Erica Cornejo, Jesus Pastor, Sascha Radetsky, and Carlos Lopez), apparently to provide an animated counterpoint to the more repressed royal emotions. The concepts were interesting, and there was always the intellectual, if not emotional, challenge of trying to figure out what Wheeldon was trying to say. But the seemingly endless pattern of walking and staring into space overwhelmed everything else. I found myself wondering what Antony Tudor would have done with this story, or Martha Graham.

But, the heart of ABT’s rep performance was found in the rest of the program. “Theme and Variations”, one of Balanchine’s masterpieces, was a major surprise. Not the choreography, which I never tire of seeing, but the execution by Michele Wiles and David Hallberg. I saw one of their early "Theme" performances, and recall being disappointed that they seemed relatively wooden, concentrating more on executing the steps than on performing the piece. But they have both grown into their roles, and they gave a wonderfully exciting and accomplished performance. Hallberg is becoming a danseur noble before our eyes. And Wiles seems to have gotten beyond being a balancing wunderkind; she is much more relaxed, much more accomplished, and much more fun to watch. Although no one in the corps stood out from the rest, this is perhaps as it should be; they all seemed flawless. And a special treat was seeing Theme on the smaller City Center stage. The more intimate space (compared to the Met) invites the audience to feel involved in the production, rather than just watch it from a distance.

The smaller space didn’t work quite as well for Jiri Kylian’s “Sinfonietta”, which seems to need more room to breathe, but it is a thrilling piece to watch regardless of the venue. Kylian’s choreography – the totality of his work, not just Sinfonietta -- was a revelation when it was first performed in New York, and remains vibrant with each new viewing. In Sinfonietta, ABT’s dancers matched the energy of Janacek’s music and Kylian’s choreography, and all of them performed memorably. And it was particularly fun to watch Herman and Erica Cornejo dance together.

And then there was Petipa’s "Le Corsaire" pas de deux, danced by Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreno. Carreno simply did impossible things, and then did them again. His leaps left the audience gasping (or, like me, laughing in disbelief). And he seemed to propel Herrera to incredible exploits of her own (fouette, after fouette, after double fouette, etc, etc until you got dizzy watching her), which in turn propelled Carreno to do his own series of turns as if driven by some supernatural and invisible force. To say that they brought the house down would be an understatement.

American Ballet Theatre's City Center seasons provide a welcome change from the full-length spectacles that ABT usually performs during its summer seasons at the Met, and gives the audience a chance to see dancers they might not otherwise see highlighted in the full-length ballets (like Sarah Lane, scheduled to dance Anne Boleyn in "VIII" later in the season). This performance, though not completely successful, was a perfect example of what is necessary to keep a company from atrophy, and it delivered the kinetic energy that many full-lengths cannot sustain. After "Sinfonieta," the audience left the house justifiably euphoric.

Edited by Jeff.

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