American Ballet Theatre
by Cecly Placenti
October 25 and 30 (matinee) , 2005 -- City Center, New York City
Programming is a very important element when setting up an evening of dance, and on Tuesday evening, October 25th, American Ballet Theatre provided an exciting and varied sample of work. Opening with Balanchine’s “Apollo,” the evening began with the birth of a god. As true of Balanchine’s genius, even the birth scene was succinct and inventive. Keeping in tune with the Stravinsky score, the choreography was beautiful in its line and efficiency, pleasing in its lack of pretension and extraneous movement. Jose Manuel Carreno was everything a god should be -- handsome, chiseled, regal, gracious, and strong. Irena Dvorovenko was perhaps slightly too delightful as Polyhymnia, normally considered a pensive, serious muse in Greek mythology, but her dancing is stunning and expansive nevertheless. Julie Kent as Terpsichore, the muse of dance, with her lovely line and expressive face, showed us the pure delight of dancing. Stella Abrera as Calliope, muse of epic poetry, was as usual, sheer poetry herself. Her command of the stage and expressive use of her own body make her a perfect fit for the eldest and wisest of the muses.
Following the lyrical Apollo, with its short tunic-like dresses, came Mark Morris’ “Gong.” Exploding across the stage in a neon rainbow of colorful costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, the dancers seemed to relish Morris’ mix of classical and more modern vocabulary. The execution of modern movements with flexed feet or angular arms, to be followed suddenly by a series of quick classical pirouettes, was exciting to watch. The piece was structured like a sounding gong -- a quick, loud burst of fifteen dancers all moving on the stage at once and trickling down to duets done in silence before the next bang on the gong. The corps dancers looked equally as strong as the leads while they blended in with such dancers as Xiomara Reyes, Herman Cornejo, Michele Wiles and Gillian Murphy. My only small complaint about this dynamic piece was its length. The structure was repeated several times and lost its strength after awhile.
Closing that evening was Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table.” A classic anti-war statement, as sadly necessary and poignant today as it was at its premiere in 1932, it delivers quite a punch in a very simple way. The piece depicts various facets of war, beginning with a conference of leaders making decisions, going through mobilization, combat, war profiteering, and all the time Death is present. The movement is minimal in nature, as was most modern dance of that time period, but the message is powerful. As the curtain opened on a long green table where men in masks gathered to pontificate and doom, one cannot but marvel at the choice of costume -- shiny tuxedoes with tails, complete with pristine white gloves, as if to show how unwilling these leaders are to get their own hands dirty in the business of war.
When David Hallberg stepped out of the wings as Death, large, muscular, in face paint as terrifying as any horror movie mask I’ve seen, the collective intake of the audience’s breath was practically audible. The white makeup made his widened eyes appear larger and more sinister, and drew your gaze to his face no matter how you longed to look away. His presence in every scene of the ballet, from the farewells of the soldiers to the brothel and the war’s aftermath, was a silent steady reminder of not only the outcome of the war, but the inevitability of life. Hallberg as Death was sinister, strong, commanding and unrelenting, but at times depicted another side of death. An attribute to Hallberg’s strength and sensitivity as a performer, when he came to take the Old Mother of one of the soldiers and also the young girl raped in the brothel, he was tender and soft. Overcoming the obvious challenge of the makeup preventing him from making facial expressions, he conveyed this kindness and sympathy by the softening of his musculature, the release of breath in his torso, and the incline of his head toward his victims as he cradled them in his arms. Bravo! Even during the bows this piece was able to drive home its theme: for one of the curtain calls the exposed stage revealed only the long green table with the masks of the leaders resting on it. The faceless machine of war goes on.
The matinee on October 30, on the other hand, did not provide so stellar an example of programming. Surprisingly dark and somber for a matinee performance, where the audience is comprised largely of families with young children, the afternoon felt quite a bit heavier than necessary for a Sunday. “Les Sylphides” opened the afternoon, and when the curtain rose on a still picture of rows of ballerinas in long white tulle, I heard a gasp from the little girl sitting behind me. She too was immediately captivated by the image of loveliness that attracts many little girls to ballet. “Les Sylphides” is like a moving watercolor painting where the dancers float effortlessly en pointe in skimming bourrees and piques. There is no bravura technique or grand display of gymnastic feats employed; “Les Sylphides” relies on the grace and loveliness of the classical port de bras like stunning diamonds in a necklace. The corps de ballet is on stage throughout and used in decorative groups when not dancing.
Anthony Tudor’s mournful “Dark Elegies” came next. A piece depicting a village lamenting the death of their children, “Dark Elegies” is a soft piece ranging in mood from extreme anguish to quiet resignation. Danced emotionally and richly, it is a haunting ballet with deep emotional tones. Considered to be one of Tudor’s great masterworks, the choreographic vocabulary of “Dark Elegies” fused the modern expressionistic techniques that were coming to life in the 1930’s with the classical school.
Rounding up this evening was another powerful performance of “The Green Table.” Death this afternoon was danced superbly by Jarred Matthews, and while he was quite formidable, his Death was not as tender or compassionate as Hallberg’s and it was interesting to see two slightly different interpretations of the role. All in all the repertory in this City Center season was a pleasing mix of the old and the new, and a reminder that the language of dance is universal and transcends the vocabulary in which it is communicated.
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