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American Ballet Theatre

'Rabbit and Rogue' and 'Études'

by Kathy Lee Scott

August 6, 2008 -- Orange County Performing ArtsCenter, Costa Mesa, Californida

On Aug. 6, 2008, American Ballet Theatre returned to the Orange County ArtsCenter in Costa Mesa, Calif., where it performed a 60-year-old classical work and a new contemporary one it had co-commissioned with the center.

The West Coast premiere of "Rabbit and Rogue," a new piece by Twyla Tharp, featured Ethan Stiefel as "Rogue," and Herman Cornejo as "Rabbit." Created to Danny Elfman's first ballet score, the plotless piece incorporated jazz and modern tendencies while maintaining the ballet platform.

Four groups of dancers performed seemingly independent of each other, except for occasional comedic interactions. When Stiefel bumped into one pair (Craig Salstein and Yuriko Kajiya), the two men "argued" with exaggerated gestures before Salstein stomped toward the wings, only to turn and catch Kajiya from a leap before exiting. Their timing was exquisite.

To a ragtime melody, Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg slunk on stage in a waltz position that they held throughout most of the section. They acted like a pair of young lovers (hands all over each other, gazing into each other's eyes) until she became angry at him. Then she pushed him away even after he tried to make up with her.

The corps men began the piece in the strangest outfits designed by Norma Kamali. They looked like black skirts whose hemlines rose in front and hung down in the back. Fortunately, the men changed into jazz pants for later sections.

A second couple, Paloma Herrera and Gennadi Saveliev, joined the rest during a gamelan-featured section. Herrera's short, Grecian-style dress allowed her precise movements freedom. Performing more traditional pas de deux moves, they danced in front of the corps doing its own routine, separate from the other two. At times it was confusing to watch with the focus dispersed among all the dancers. Stiefel and Cornejo wove through the corps and couple to continue their competition.

Herrera spun her pirouettes so fast, they seemed like an ice skater's twirl.

In the quartet (Salstein and Kajiya, Carlos Lopez and Maria Riccetto), the men manipulated their ladies' legs through a rond de jamb. When they heaved them over their shoulders, the women hung limply.

Rogue and Rabbit's story consisted of one-upsmanship and aggression. Stiefel embodied a brash, self-confident man who was quick to defend himself if challenged. Tharp gave him warm-up shivers and bicep-pumping poses, as well as shadow-boxing  spars before he danced full out with exciting leaps, turns and jumps. His interaction with the audience engaged them in his scheme. Stiefel proved again why he's one of the wild men of ballet.

In contrast, Cornejo's Rabbit tended to avoid confrontation, scurrying away from Stiefel's Rogue when the latter goaded him. He, too, executed marvelously the moves typical of male dancers. Eventually, the quartet guy (Salstein) decided to intervene and referee a fight between them. Except they ended up shaking hands and dropping the conflict.

Then Rogue and Rabbit together manipulated Kajiya while Salstein and Lopez stood back to watch. When Rogue asked them if they wanted to substitute, the pair shook their heads, grateful to let them lift Kajiya. You could almost hear the conversation though no one spoke aloud.

Tharp had the "rag couple," Murphy and Hallberg, reconcile by Murphy rubbing her back against his body, feline-like, until he succumbed and kissed her hands. He lifted her and she twisted through his arms back to the floor. Then she twirled twice in the air while he caught her, a spectacular and breathtaking move, before they danced off again.

Throughout the piece, the corps pulled off quick costume changes, with the ladies wearing silver leotards or long Grecian dresses for the finale and the men in silver jazz pants and no tops. Neither Rogue, Rabbit nor the two couples, however, made any changes of costume. Kamali dressed the two principal men in black jazz pants and sleeveless leotards with a single silver stripe running from the bottom of one leg to the shoulder. On Rogue, it was in front; on Rabbit, in back. The rag couple wore black as well. Murphy's see-through leotard topped a black bra and panty for modesty.

The black backdrop made differentiating the black dressed dancers difficult, but Brad Fields lit them so they didn't disappear.

Elfman's music ranged from melodic to dissonant. Often when the ensemble was on stage, various melodies would play against one another, with ear-splitting discord. However, ABT Music Director Ormsby Wilkins led members of Pacific Symphony well for the premiere.

Although not one of Tharp's masterpieces, "Rabbit and Rogue" delighted the full house.

The first half featured Principal Michele Wiles with Soloist Jared Matthews and Cory Stearns in "Études," first choreographed by Harald Lander in 1948. To Czerny music orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager, the piece included 10 corps dancers in black practice tutus and 12 in white practice tutus performing standard barre exercises.

Lighting by the late Nananne Porcher aimed spotlights at the ladies' legs as they stood alongside portable barres set up in an inverted seven position. Four groups of three began various battement tendus, frappés and grand battements, each group starting fugue-like after the other.

They progressed through ronds de jambe à terre and en l'air to a grand rond. The next section had the ladies silhouetted against a blue background as they moved their arms in curved arcs around their torsos and head.

Each time the music began anew, the exercises became more difficult, requiring precise placement of heads, arms and bodies. Once the ladies moved to center work, the corps men joined them to jump and beat their legs to the springy melodies. Their tunics of muted green and grey contrasted with the stark colors of the corps women and principal dancers, who wore all white.

Eventually, the exercises moved to turns of all kinds: on the ground, in the air and around a circle, plus numerous partnered turns. Wiles showed her forte for balance after a long stretch of chainés to an arabesque en pointe without a flinch. Breathtaking control. Her smile during the entire piece displayed her joy at dancing and endeared her to the audience.

The two principal danseurs got a taste of a ballerina's angst with multiple fouetté turns. Matthews powered through his series, but toward the end, his developé devant became a fling instead of the controlled placement of his earlier ones. Understandable.

The corps men then crossed the stage with beated moves: brisés, cabrioles, assemblés. Unfortunately, the heavy music tended to make the hops lumber.

A final demonstration of character steps ended with the entire ensemble on stage. A lovely piece with delightful music for the most part. True classical dancing at its best.

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