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American Ballet Theatre

'Manon'

by Jerry Hochman

June 14 and 15, 2007 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

As a semi-professional balletomane for more years than I care to remember, I’ve been privileged to witness many extraordinary performances; performances that will endure as treasured memories as long as what passes for my brain still functions. But I cannot recall having previously seen two consecutive performances that were at such a level of intensity, and brilliance, as the June 14 and 15 performances of “Manon” by, respectively, Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, and Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes.

Ferri and Vishneva are similar dancers. They appear comparable in size and general appearance, and they dance with a sort of ‘controlled abandon’ that enables their performances to transcend steps. They dance what their roles compel them to do, not just what the choreography compels them to do. And both are “hot” stage personalities. By that I mean that they are able to transmit their intensity to the audience, so that the audience doesn’t just watch them dance, the audience feels what they feel, and lives the performance with them.

Ferri is ideally suited to dance Macmillan, and Vishneva is ideally suited to dance anything at all, including Macmillan, so it is not surprising that their performances as Manon were similar as well, and similarly moving. But these two performances took the Macmillan choreography to another level. Simply put – they did not just deliver two of the best performances as Manon that I have seen (comparing them to, say, Sylvie Guillem, whose Manon was extraordinary in its own right, is like comparing apples and oranges); they gave two of the finest performances of anything that I have seen.

Macmillan, as I recall, was frequently criticized for treating his lead ballerinas like objects to be manipulated and pushed and pulled and lifted and tossed through space like sacks of potatoes – the movement as much acrobatic as balletic. But to me his choreography, at least in the tragedies of “Romeo & Juliet,” “Manon” and “Mayerling,” demonstrates something else entirely – movement that percolates rather than simply pulses, in which the characters’ passion ignites the stage as if gasoline had been poured on already flaming embers. The steps are ballet steps; the moves are ballet moves, but they’re strung together at a feverish pace that makes the whole much more than the sum of its parts. And although, at times, the choreography pushes dancers to incredible demonstrations of athletic skill, this athleticism is always within the confines of artistry, with the purpose not of showing off, but of using the ballet vocabulary to amplify and magnify, as well as reflect, the beat of the passionate human heart.

For “Manon,” Macmillan took the successful ‘formula’ he used with “Romeo & Juliet,” and distilled it. Instead of balcony, bed and bier, we have bed, bed, and bayou. And he took the youthful passion he had choreographed with “Romeo & Juliet,” and distilled that as well. Manon and Des Grieux are not just young lovers exploring, through movement, their feelings for each other; they are exploring passion’s complexities and their own complexities as well.

But whatever one thinks of Macmillan’s choreography, it is the performances that make the piece. Both Ferri and Vishneva danced and acted (they both are extraordinary actresses, as well as extraordinary dancers) and pushed themselves beyond what any dancer would seem to be capable of. Vishneva’s exhilaration during the Act I bedroom scene and her palpable exhaustion at its conclusion, was echoed, if not surpassed, by Ferri. And Ferri’s extraordinary death scene in the Louisiana bayou in Act III was echoed, if not surpassed, by Vishneva. Perhaps one way to describe the difference in the performances is that, with Ferri, the audience watched in disbelief, wondering how much more this ballerina could possible give without completely losing control. With Vishneva, the audience watched in disbelief, wondering how much more of Vishneva’s performance they could possibly take without completely losing control.

At times both Ferri and Vishneva seemed to abandon any semblance of control, moved as if possessed, and trusted their partners to be there. Their partners always were. These two performances were not just about the ballerinas. Roberto Bolle and Marcelo Gomes gave extraordinary performances as well – and in the case of Gomes, perhaps the best he’s ever done.

Roberto Bolle, whom I had not previously seen, was ‘imported’ by Ferri to partner her for “Manon” and “Romeo & Juliet” during this ABT season. I was aware that the two danced together regularly at La Scala in Milan, but I had no idea that Bolle was as good as he is. He is a large man (or perhaps, next to Ferri, appearing larger than he is), and he’s disgustingly good-looking, with a disarming and charming ‘country-bumpkin-ish’ smile. (During the curtain calls, and the well-deserved applause, he broke into a grin that would have melted steel.) If a ballet of “Superman” were ever created, it should be choreographed on him; he even looks a little like Christopher Reeve

Bolle manipulated Ferri like he’s been doing it all his professional life (which, apparently, he has). But more than just being able to toss her around like, well, a sack of potatoes, he also has a purity of movement, a clean line, and unusual ballon for a man his size. He may not be a danseur noble (he’s still a little rough around the edges), but he’s a super danseur. It remains to be seen whether ABT will attempt to capitalize on his instant, and obvious, popularity after Ferri retires. Although ABT has a strong group of male dancers, a 31 year old who can partner the tallest ballerinas and sell tickets as well might be worth adding to the roster.

But perhaps the most remarkable performance of all came from Mr. Gomes. As has been noted previously, Mr. Gomes is having an extraordinary season. His performance with Vishneva, however, was beyond extraordinary. Gomes has no rough edges; he appears to have pushed himself beyond what his natural abilities may have enabled him to do, and now ranks as one of the richest talents on the ABT stage. Though he shows less pyrotechnics than others, Gomes has evolved into is a classicist with a heart, and the most selfless of partners. He seems to know instinctively that when he’s on stage with a ballerina, he looks good as long as she looks good, and to a large extent whether she looks good depends on him. And for Vishneva, who had just recovered from an unspecified illness that caused her to miss two scheduled performances earlier in the week (and who looked even more thin and pale than usual, though with Vishneva that’s just a question of degree), he had to be more than just a considerate partner. She relied on him to carry her through, and he delivered.

Thursday’s performance was also balanced beautifully with Herman Cornejo as Lescaut, and Gillian Murphy as his courtesan/mistress. Each danced with consummate skill. On Friday, the roles were taken by Gennadi Saveliev and Michele Wiles. I’ve seen Mr. Saveliev dance Lescaut before, and although he cannot match Cornejo, this isn’t a competition, and Saveliev’s gave a thoroughly accomplished performance. Ms. Wiles, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have a clue as to the role she was playing. Though she danced the steps proficiently, she was as seductive as a girl scout.

When it was over, the June 14 audience stood and cheered and would not let Ferri and Bolle go. Of late, the Met has not seen fit to allow curtain calls to be milked more than once or twice. With Ferri, I lost count. Knowing, as everyone in the house did, that this was Ferri’s last scheduled “Manon” made the tribute to her even more poignant. And Ferri, exhausted as she was (this was her third “Manon” in four days), responded with the warmth and graciousness that has marked her performing career.

And when the June 15 performance was over, the curtain opened to Vishneva and Gomes wrapped in each other's arms as if they’d collapse in exhaustion if they let go, and looking at each other in weary wonder at the miracle that they knew they’d accomplished. Their mutual gratitude (particularly Vishneva's for Gomes) was as moving as their performances. And I suspect that the roar of the audience that began immediately when the curtain opened could be heard outside the Met, throughout New York, and into whatever realm exists in which performances of a lifetime are celebrated, recorded, and remembered

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