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American Ballet Theatre

'Ballo della Regina', 'Rose Adagio', 'Le Corsaire pas de deux', 'Fancy Free'

by Katie Rosenfeld

November 8, 2007 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

Of all the ballet companies in the United States, American Ballet Theatre is the one with the best reputation. Some companies are older, some are home to world-class choreographers, some have bigger budgets, but it’s ABT that sets the bar by which all others are measured. A glance at the company’s historical roster of dancers demonstrates why: Alonso, Baryshnikov, Ferri, Hayden, Kirkland, Makarova, Tudor. When you consider the choreographers who have worked with the company over the decades, it is impossible to argue with ABT’s supremacy: Balanchine, Fokine, Massine, de Mille, Robbins, Tharp. 

When expectations are running high, an individual dancer has two choices: rise to the occasion and leave the audience breathless, or fold under the pressure and allow them to see how hard ballet really is. A performance is only as good as the dancers on the stage, and it cannot be improved by the memory of past performances. In the first of two programs that ABT brought to Zellerbach Hall over Veteran’s Day weekend, some of the women allowed the pressure to get to them while it was the men who took our collective breath away.

David Hallberg, dancing alongside Gillian Murphy in Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina,” is a prince from head to beautifully pointed toe. Just a simple tendu from him had the enchanting, elegant grace one expects from a principal dancer. There is nothing angular or tense about Hallberg’s movements; even his brisé voles were serene. By comparison, Murphy’s energy was purely athletic, and while her technique is squeaky-clean she didn’t have the light, sparkling glee that would have made the intricate steps come alive. Further marring the overall effect was her facial expression, which was much more a grimace than a smile.  The four soloists, Kristi Boone, Simone Messmer, Melissa Thomas and Leann Underwood, showed off some impressively difficult maneuvers and managed occasional, genuine smiles.

 The “Rose Adagio” from Act I of “Sleeping Beauty” is an opportunity for a ballerina to show off both her technical chops (the six minute piece is full of suspended balances, slow turns and languid extensions) and her ability to portray the sweetness of the sixteen-year-old Princess Aurora as she flirts with her four suitors. Unfortunately, Paloma Herrera missed both opportunities Thursday night. The famous supported promenades and balances in back attitude were wobbly at best, her turns lacked focus, and she used the princes for support in the series of piqué arabesques to penchés that other internationally-acclaimed ballerinas perform without assistance. Making matters worse, the expected gracious smiles and warm port de bras were replaced by an unpleasant scowl and stiff, inexpressive arms, truly a disappointment from this well-respected principal.

Xiomara Reyes was in the rather unenviable position of having to share the stage with the explosive Herman Cornejo in “Le Corsaire Pas de Deux,” but while she seemed shaky at times she maintained a calm and pleasant demeanor throughout; her Medora, if not perfect, was at least enjoyable to watch. Cornejo has earned a reputation as the next Nureyev or Baryshnikov, and it’s not just because of his smaller stature. As Ali he was glorious from start to finish, from the opening sequence double-passé double tours that hung in mid-air to the soaring, gravity-defying split leaps of the coda (which caused loud gasps of disbelief and thunderous applause, momentarily drowning out the excellent Berkeley Symphony Orchestra). This was the world-class performance we expected from ABT.

Always a crowd-pleaser, Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” was delightfully entertaining, not the least because of the jocular camaraderie between the three sailors, danced by Marcelo Gomes, Sascha Radetsky and Craig Salstein. All swagger and sass, these young men were engaging, funny, and hopeless in their attempts to snare the lovely ladies passing by the bar. Stella Abrera was classy and proper, Underwood a vision in blue, but it was Julie Kent who stood out the most. Even in character shoes, with her hair flowing down her back in curls, she is every inch a ballerina.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge a company by one performance. Dancers have off-nights, unfamiliar stages can be slippery, and working with a new orchestra can present interesting challenges. But while there were certainly a few stand-out moments, Cornejo and the “Fancy Free” cast providing most of them, overall ABT did not look as stellar as was expected from a company of its caliber.

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