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American Ballet Theatre

'Apollo', 'Dark Elegies', 'In the Upper Room'

by Lori Ibay

November 5, 2005 matinee -- City Center, New York City

On the last Saturday matinee of their fall season, American Ballet Theatre presented George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” and Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” -- a selection of works showcasing the company’s versatility. 

This was my second time seeing “Apollo,” and this performance didn’t seem any less bizarre than I found the first.  Leto (Amanda Cobb) was halfway through her labor before the New York audience was finished silencing cellphones, finishing conversations, and loudly shushing each other, and before we knew it, Apollo (Jose Manuel Carreno) was born and tended to by the handmaidens (Adrienne Schulte and Hee Seo).

Carreno showed exceptional grace, control, and an exquisitely god-like posture for a newborn, and was soon joined by the three Muses -- Calliope (Melanie Hamrick), Polyhymnia (Melissa Thomas), and Terpsichore (Julie Kent).  As the Muse of poetry, Hamrick contrasted drama and comedy with just a slight falter disrupting the flow of the solo.  Thomas danced gracefully as the Muse of mime but looked just as oddly restrained as Gillian Murphy did (as Polyhymnia in the first performance I saw) dancing with one finger pressed to her lips. 

Of all the Muses, Kent’s Terpsichore, the Muse of dance and song, found the deepest connection with Apollo (appropriately, since he is the god of son and music), and their pas de deux was smooth and elegant.  Carreno’s last solo, in contrast with the Muses’, was forceful and thrashy, but he remained serene and majestic as he led them up the staircase representing Mount Olympus.

After a brief intermission, Tudor’s “Dark Elegies” began with tenor/baritone Troy Cook on stage, costumed like the dancers, singing Gustav Mahler’s Song Cycle “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”).  His rich tone immediately set the atmosphere for the somber piece depicting the people of a village mourning the loss of their children.

In the first segment, Kristi Boone depicted sadness and despair evolving into anger growing into rage.  A slight slip on the stage hardly interrupted the solemnity of her solo.  Simone Messmer and Issac Stappas danced stoically, with rigid lifts contrasting with passionate moments of despair.  Sascha Radetsky, along with the chorus, inter-mixed fury, desperation, and stunned numbness.  Adrienne Schulte’s emotion and Carlos Lopez’s frantic anger ended Scene I, “Laments of the Bereaved.”

In Scene II, “Resignation,” the chorus (Maria Bystrova, Nicola Curry, Sasha Dmochowski, Yuriko Kajiya, Ilona McHugh, and Flavio Salazar) with the featured soloists continued to dance mournfully and emotionally, but with the dazed appearance and almost robotic movements that ensue when the mind attempts to overcome overwhelming tragedy.  The performance left the audience stunned in silence before applause for the dancers, and especially for Cook, broke the weighty ambiance.

After recovering from the previous piece, the audience began to buzz about the one coming up -- and curiosity grew as thick stage smoke coming from behind the curtain began to hang in the air.  Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” set to music by Philip Glass, is a ballet in nine parts, but with the perpetual motion and driving beat of the music, it seemed more like one long relay race with groups of dancers passing the baton from segment to segment.

The piece began with Stella Abrera and Gillian Murphy in red leotards with baggy black and white striped pants and white sneakers (the style indicative of the fact that the piece premiered in 1986), dancing casually and loosely on a floor of thick smoke.  Soon Ethan Stiefel, Eric Underwood, and Isaac Stappas flew in wearing similar pants, adding to the constant motion and picking up the momentum.

The foot of smoke carpeting the floor created a dream-like state where the dancers’ entrances from the wings and from far upstage seemed like they were appearing out of a distant nowhere.  Eight dancers (Erica Cornejo, Sasha Dmochowski, Maria Riccetto, Craig Salstein, Laura Hidalgo, Herman Cornejo, Paloma Herrera, and David Hallberg) appeared for the second segment, bringing new energy with them.

Like a (1980’s) track team, the ensemble of thirteen were clad in variations of the red with black and white striped costumes, and like a relay race, while individual members stood out at times, it was the effort of the whole that was most impressive.  However in particular, Herrera’s balance and control, Hallberg’s explosiveness, the speed and athleticism of the Stiefel-Underwood-Stappas trio, and Murphy and Abrera’s indefatigability highlighted the different sections.

The dancers continued to build energy and gain momentum until the very end, when they seemed to accelerate to a full sprint toward an invisible finish line.  The technical and physical difficulty of the piece was not lost on the audience, who joined the dancers in catching their breath during the final bows.

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