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Four Kitris, Three Mercedes, Two Amours, and One Alicia Alonso

American Ballet Theatre -- 'Don Quixote'

by Jerry Hochman

June 1, 2 (eve) and 3, 2010 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

I saw Alicia Alonso dance an excerpt from “Giselle” with American Ballet Theatre some 20 years ago. By that time, she was already long past her prime. But, from the still brilliantly-executed entrechats-quatre from Act II of “Giselle,” which I since learned were her signature, I could see how great a ballerina she once was, and how legendary a star she still was then. Some call her the best Giselle ever – for me, it is sufficient to know that others think so.

On the occasion of her 90th birthday (or, more accurately, her 90th birthday year), ABT paid tribute to Ms. Alonso by presenting a gala performance of “Don Quixote” featuring three different sets of dancers portraying Kitri and Basilio in each of the three acts of the ballet. Preceded by a video of Ms. Alonso discussing her performing history, which included excerpts from Ms. Alonso’s performances from childhood through her many professional triumphs, the evening was a glittering tribute, celebrated before a house that was packed to the gills.

The three sets of dancers were, in order, Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, and Natalia Osipova and Jose Manuel Carreño. All danced admirably, but none (with the possible exceptions of Mr. Gomes and Ms. Osipova) as well as they do when they have an opportunity to dance their roles from beginning to end. I will comment more on these keyhole performances later. But as a gala, it was appropriately festive and different.

Both of the two ‘full’ performances of “Don Quixote” that I saw this week were, for the most part, brilliantly danced, albeit with significant differences in delivery. But, except for Natalia Osipova, who overwhelms whatever piece she’s in and every other performer in it, the primary focus is the disappointing production.

“Don Quixote” was staged for ABT for the first time by Mikhail Baryshnikov. It premiered in 1978, the springtime of what I have previously described as American ballet’s ‘Golden Age.’  The hype surrounding it was extraordinary:  News articles trumpeted the arrival of this new major production (as well as the physical toll it was taking on its ballerinas). Time magazine had a picture of Gelsey Kirkland, the production’s first Kitri, frozen in mid-‘Plisetskaya Leap’ on its cover [its cover!] with the headline: “U.S. Ballet Soars.” 

And the production was every bit as good as the hype. There was so much going on – I recall thinking that it was a sort of three-ring-circus of a production – that on initial viewing it was difficult to maintain focus. It was funny and thrilling and its action was non-stop, and it completely dispelled the notion that ballet was elitist, or that one couldn’t laugh and gasp and get completely swept away all at the same time at one ballet performance. The choreography was turned down a notch in subsequent seasons, which caused a certain loss in exuberance, to my viewing, but this production was still exciting to watch, with few, if any, stops in the action.

After Baryshnikov and ABT parted ways, the Baryshnikov production was no longer performed. For a time, ABT used a production staged by the Bolshoi’s Vladimir Vasiliev. I don’t recall the lead dancers I saw, but, as a whole, the production was like watching paint dry. The staging by Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones that succeeded it in 1995 was an improvement, but it still moved too slowly. And although there appears to have been some tinkering with it since I last saw it in 2005, what changes have been made don’t help. [For example, the Dryad Queen is now danced by the same dancer as Mercedes, as was the case in Baryshnikov’s version (my 2005 review for BDM noted separate dancers for those two roles); and there seems to have been a completely forgettable dance for Mercedes and Espada and their hangers-on inserted at the beginning of Act III (but perhaps I just ignored it in 2005).]  And it all comes to a grinding halt in Act III:  What is supposed to be a wedding celebration is dead air punctuated by the “Don Quixote” pas de deux. You could hear the audience squirming while they waited for the next dancer to begin the next bravura display.

All this having been said, and as much as it suffers in comparison with the Baryshnikov version, on its own it’s adequate. More importantly, like other versions of “Don Quixote,” it serves as a showcase for some extraordinary performances.

In the course of preparing this review, I looked back at previous observations of “Don Quixote” performances that I’d reduced to writing, and found that I’d seen Ms. Osipova before in Don Q – though not as Kitri. In a BDM review of the Boshoi’s July 8, 2005 performance of Don Q at the Met, I made the following observation:  “But little Natalia Osipova and not so little Nelli Kobakhidze, both members of the corps, displayed precocious (and prodigious) talent in their respective variations during the Act III Grand Pas. Osipova in particular promised to be the baby ballerina starlet from the moment she appeared on stage, and she delivered on the promise. Of course, it’s too early to tell whether she can do more than what she showed in this variation, but her self-confidence and obvious ability (including leaps that came close to orbiting) herald a bright future.” [Now if I can only learn to be as prescient with other aspects of my life.]

Ms. Osipova’s bright future is now.

Natalia Osipova is now a magnificent, and significant, ballerina. And I’m convinced that she must be part gazelle. Last year, seeing her initial performance with ABT in “Giselle” (and having forgotten that I’d seen her four years earlier), I observed that she ‘floats like a petal borne by the breeze.’  But in “Don Q,” she doesn’t float. She flies. She not only appears to leap higher and split wider and spin faster than anyone else – she also gobbles the stage like a streamlined ms. pacman in toe shoes. It is simply astonishing to see someone who physically appears light as a feather move through space with the force and speed of a jet aircraft, but she does. And it’s all done effortlessly – no need for any windup; no need for any booster rocket; no need for any support.

And therein lies the problem I have with Ms. Osipova’s performance. She also has no need for a partner. It’s all about her, and what she can do by herself – awesome as ‘what Ms. Osipova can do by herself’ is. And, as with her “Giselle” last season, to this viewer she’s working too hard to be as great an actress as she is a dancer. Ms. Osipova was the complete Spanish spitfire – nothing less, but also not much more. It was as if the personality had been glued on, like the artificial curl that was shellacked onto her forehead. There isn’t anything wrong with this interpretation – indeed, it seems to be bred into Bolshoi productions. [In that same review I mentioned earlier, I had a similar difficulty with Svetlana Zakharova’s Kitri, in which I observed that her characterization seemed “pasted on.”]  So Osipova’s characterization may well be perfectly-executed Bolshoi training. But regardless if its validity as a characterization, and whether it is a product of individual preference or Bolshoi style, it comes across, at least to this viewer, as if something vital isn’t there. That something is a quality that makes you want to love Kitri, as well as party with her.

Which brings me to Gillian Murphy’s performance on June 2. While not as dazzling as Ms. Osipova, her characterization was more ‘real.’  High-spirited without being domineering or dominating, Ms. Murphy’s Kitri was easier to like. And she interacted with her Basilio, Ethan Stiefel, as if they were a pair, rather than two individuals who happened to be dancing as partners. While it may be tempting to chalk this up to non-performance factors, it is a quality I’ve observed in the best of the Kitris that I’ve seen – regardless of whether there is a relationship other than what is displayed on stage.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Stiefel was thoroughly engaged as well, and he can still surprise the audience with his athleticism (in the middle of his tours a la seconde in the coda of the Act III pas de deux, for example, he jumped into the air with his supporting leg). But Ms. Osipova’s Basilio, Jose Manuel Carreño, was along for the ride. By that I don’t mean that he delivered a less than bravura performance – when he danced on his own, he was superb. But he received little to play off from Ms. Osipova, and consequently the emotional connection between his Basilio and Ms. Osipova’s Kitri was relatively nonexistent. Even in the Act II ‘suicide scene,’ other than when the choreography demanded thematic contact, they both seemed to be doing their own thing.

Daniil Simkin, who danced the Gypsy Boy on June 1 (as well as at the June 3 gala), is as gifted a performer, and as proficient at doing his own thing, as Ms. Osipova. He’s also an extraordinary athlete. Whatever he does, his performances leave the audience gasping in disbelief. Although he didn’t change the choreography, Mr. Simkin’s Gypsy Boy on June 1 (as well as at the June 3 gala) took what was there to an extraordinary level – and the tricks (balletomaniac slang for ‘I-can’t-believe-I-just-saw him-do that) just kept on coming. For example, he appears to have created a ‘Simkin Leap’ (he jumps up and stretches his head and legs backward until both his feet rise above the level of his head at the height of the jump), which he promptly trumped with a barrel-like turn in which his torso remained practically parallel to the floor while he whipped his body around, while in the air, with scissor kicks. Whether he will eventually become as competent a partner as he is a solo dancer remains to be seen. [My wife envisioned him partnering Ms. Osipova some day – but I doubt that any one stage would be sufficient to contain both of them dancing lead roles at the same time.]

At both performances, Amour was danced by Yuriko Kajiya (who also danced one of the Flower Girls at the gala on Thursday), and she delivered superb performances each time. Ms. Kajiya was as endearing and accomplished an Amour as I’ve seen. As Espada, Gennadi Saveliev gave his usual strong performance. But Tuesday’s Espada, Jared Matthews (who repeated the role during Thursday’s gala) was an unfortunate choice. Mr. Matthews was unable to convey the swagger, or pseudo-swagger, that is essential to the role, and was not only eclipsed by each of his Mercedes partners, he was also overshadowed by some of his own ‘toreador companions.’ 

The dancers portraying Mercedes/the Dryad Queen at the June 1 and 2 performances, Kristi Boone and Stella Abrera, were both excellent. Each danced a commanding and spirited Mercedes. And as the Flower Girls, Renata Pavam and Isabella Boylston on Tuesday, Sarah Lane (who also danced a significantly improved Amour for the gala performance) and Simone Messmer on Wednesday, and Ms. Kajiya and Misty Copeland on Thursday, all performed with clarity and vivacity. But the three Gamaches, while not exactly Moe, Larry or Curly, were danced as clumsy idiots rather than hopelessly inept fops – it would have been better the other way around.

As I indicated earlier, the lead dancers for Thursday’s gala tribute danced only one act, and their characterizations were limited and incomplete.

One would have expected Ms. Herrera, the night’s initial Kitri, to have pulled out all stops since she had no need to conserve her strength. But her performance, though certainly more than adequate, came across as somewhat detached. But her Act I partner, Mr. Gomes, is thoroughly engaged in whatever he does, as he was on Thursday. Mr. Gomes throws away more ‘lines’ than other dancers create in an entire performance. Ms. Reyes and Mr. Cornejo were both fine in Act II, but out-of-context it is difficult to extrapolate what their full performances would have shown. Ms. Osipova danced the Act III pas de deux as if it been a stand-alone excerpt within a larger program – which essentially is what it was – with her usual intensity, though I would have preferred the pas de cheval of the ‘fan dance’ to the relatively unimpressive turns that she substituted, as she had done on Tuesday. [This also may also be standard Bolshoi, since in the above-referenced 2005 Bolshoi performance Zakharova didn’t do the ‘fan dance’ either.] Mr. Carreño, looking somewhat fatigued compared to his performance on Tuesday, nevertheless energetically executed his solo variations.

The most exciting performance of the evening, however, came from Ms. Part as Mercedes/the Dryad Queen. In the absence of continuous lead dancers, Ms. Part dominated the stage whenever she appeared, portraying Mercedes with such power and dramatic force (while maintaining essential movement fluidity) that whenever the choreography demanded expansive movement, she seemed to thrust herself off the floor.

Doubtless, had she been able to see, Ms. Alonso would have thoroughly enjoyed the evening’s performances – in particular her fellow Cubans, Ms. Reyes and Mr. Carreño, and Ms. Part’s dramatic Mercedes. But I suspect, as absorbed in dance as she still is, that she was able to see each of the performances in her mind even if she couldn’t see them in front of her. And, as Mr. Carreno and Kevin McKenzie led her on stage following the full cast bows, the tribute concluded with Ms. Alonso receiving yet another emotion-filled standing ovation.

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