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American Ballet Theatre

'Black Tuesday', 'Private Light', 'In the Upper Room'

'Duets', 'The Garden of Villandry', 'Seven Sonatas', 'In the Upper Room'

by Jerry Hochman

November 11-12, 2011 -- City Center, New York, NY

There were at least four significant developments at the two performances of American Ballet Theatre that I was able to see during ABT’s brief fall season at City Center. First, at both performances, the house was nearly sold out. So much for rep programs being a tough sell. Second, I saw superb performances by soloists who should be principals and corps dancers who should be soloists. Third, I saw “In the Upper Room.” Twice. A classic work of art regardless of who dances it; a masterpiece that takes your breath away when it’s danced well. Which it was. And fourth, I saw the new ballet created by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s discovery, Demis Volpi, and will never have to see it again.

More on “Private Light” later (and it wasn’t all bad – it included a breakout performance and a promising debut); but first the good stuff.

Simply put, ABT’s Saturday evening program was extraordinary. Not only was there wonderful choreography and superb dancing, the audience was treated to fine examples of four completely different choreographic styles. Starting from the end and working back to the beginning serves to put front and center the most miraculous piece of them all.

There are many competitors for the title of best work of contemporary choreography, but “In the Upper Room,” a little bit of heaven on stage created by Twyla Tharp in 1986 to a composition of the same name by Philip Glass, is certainly among them. And for pure exhilaration, it has no peer.

The first time I saw a Twyla Tharp piece, which also happened to be at City Center, was in 1973. “Deuce Coupe,” which was commissioned by Robert Joffrey for the Joffrey Ballet, was recognized as the first ‘cross-over’ dance – combining elements of ballet and contemporary dance. For a viewer beginning to get acquainted with dance as I was, the category into which it fit didn’t matter nearly as much as the creativity, intelligence, and fresh energy evident on stage. “Deuce Coupe” was followed shortly thereafter by “As Time Goes By,” and I was thoroughly hooked on Tharp. “Push Comes to Shove,” which shocked, perplexed, and then enchanted the ABT opening night audience, which included me, was just icing on the cake. I can still see the bowlers flying and hear the audience cheering.

But “In the Upper Room” is in another galaxy. It is non-stop nearly incorporeal bodies in space moving in and out of clouds in heaven’s ante-room, and one of those rare plotless pieces that looks better and choreographically richer upon repeat viewings. While purists may complain that (with at least one exception) the performance wasn’t ‘pure’ Tharp, and looked less crisp than it should have (with many exceptions), it was no less astonishing, mesmerizing, and invigorating than it always is. To this viewer, it was the best rendering of “In the Upper Room” that I’ve seen in a very long time (both performances I saw had identical casts).

The piece has been performed by many companies since its 1986 premiere, and familiarity with it is presumed. Familiarity with the dancers, however, is not: with two exceptions – Herman Cornejo and Cory Stearns – all were soloists or members of the corps. I can’t mention them all, but I’ll highlight a few.

Sarah Lane is in a groove. Based on her performance in this piece (as the ‘lead’ girl in red toe shoes) and in “Seven Sonatas,” which preceded it in the evening’s program, Ms. Lane is dancing stronger than ever, and with an increasing display of self-assurance. [As of this writing, there is one uncast Juliet for ABT’s spring season at the Met (and at least one other that should be reconsidered). The role should be hers.] Luciana Paris and Simone Messmer led what I call the ‘pajama bottom/sneaker’ pair superbly, with Ms. Messmer a particular revelation. Not only did Ms. Messmer dance the style to perfection, she even looked like Ms. Tharp.

But the most astonishing pair of dancers in what was a superb performance by all involved were Nicole Graniero and Skylar Brandt. As the sprites in red toe shoes who dance virtually in tandem throughout the piece, the two of them lit up the stage wherever and whenever they were on it – which seemed to be everywhere all the time. I expected Ms. Graniero, a tiny bundle of energy, to be as good as she was – after all, she’s been in the ABT corps all of four years. But Ms. Brandt was just elevated to the corps last year (she was an apprentice before that). Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised (as I recall, I saw her as one of the four cygnets in several “Swan Lake” performances last season), but seeing someone so young dance with such a combination of speed, control, and precision was breathtaking.

“Seven Sonatas,” which I’ve reviewed previously, is another gem from Alexei Ratmansky. I recall adoring it at its first Met performance in 2010; I find it ever more delightful now. – it is as pure as porcelain. Choreographed to seven keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti, the piece features three pairs of dancers who take turns dancing with each other, by themselves, and in trios. And as good as the original cast was, I liked this cast a bit better, perhaps because of the added warmth and youth. Maria Riccetto, partnered by Blaine Hoven, Ms. Lane with Joseph Phillips, and Christine Shevchenko with Jared Mathews, were each superb.

Going from “Duets,” which opened the evening, to “Garden of Villandry,” the second piece, was stylistic culture shock. “Duets” is one of Merce Cunningham’s most accessible works. It is stark and simple, with bodies moving like animated color blocks. In that sense it’s similar to other Cunningham pieces I’ve seen. But where other such pieces appeared to this viewer to be relatively ascetic studies of bodies in semi-static motion where the emphasis is on the shapes and forms of bodies moving or posing in space, here there is a relationship of sorts within each duet, in a real sense rather than merely by the fact that the dancers share the stage and occasionally interact. The difference makes “Duets” more than an academic exercise.

“Duets” has been performed by many companies, so again, familiarity with the piece is presumed. Each of the six duets has its own particularly choreographic personality, and each pair (Gillian Murphy and Cory Stearns, Paloma Herrera and Eric Tamm, Melanie Hamrick and Daniel Mantei, Xiomara Reyes and Arron Scott, Sarah Smith and Daniil Simkin, and Isabella Boylston and Craig Salstein) executed their roles skillfully. I found Ms. Herrera and Mr. Tamm, and Ms. Boylston and Mr. Salstein, to be particularly outstanding in their execution. But most memorable, to this viewer, was Ms. Smith, who lent a pleasantly surprising vibrancy and individuality to her role.

Proceeding from “Duets” to “The Garden of Villandry” is like traveling from a barren (albeit colorful) desert to a hothouse. A brief pas de trois choreographed by Martha Clarke in 1979, “The Garden of Villandry” is more of a serious curiosity. That is, it’s too insignificant to be memorable, but too memorable to be insignificant. The piece represents a snapshot in time in a particularly lush, sensuous, and florid relationship that takes place in a particularly lush, sensuous, and florid post-Renaissance garden, with both the flowers and the female lead in heat. The scent of pollen and perfume saturates the stage.

[The Gardens of the Chateau de Villandry, completed by Jean le Breton in 1536 and enjoyed at least into the early 19th Century (and then ‘recreated’ in the early 20th Century), are very real, and notoriously erotic. The gardens were also, apparently, intentionally designed not only to look luxuriant and romantic, but to encourage private encounters. Included within the garden is an area called the Garden of Love, which itself contains symbolic representations of different levels of love: Tender Love; Passionate Love, Fickle Love, etc.]

Veronika Part is a wonderful dancer in any setting, but she’s particularly good in period pieces in period costume. She is every inch to the manor born. Here, she’s a nameless aristocratic girl who just wants to have fun – she has slipped away from whatever she was doing to share a lustful dalliance…with two gentlemen. The girl can’t make up her mind, and swings (literally) from one man to another and back. Gennadi Savaliev and Roddy Doble play the two gentlemen with understated insouciance. If it works for her, it works for them. They dance a bit, play a bit, and the choreography enhances the romantic encounter without getting in the way. [One maneuver, which leads to the two men swinging Ms. Part on their arms as if she were sitting on a swing, is particularly delightful to watch through its development and execution.] And then the piece ends almost as soon as it starts, when Ms. Part suddenly notices that their private encounter is very public. The piece is fluff, but it’s fun fluff, and anything with Ms. Part in it is a step above.

I’ll save a discussion of Paul Taylor’s “Black Tuesday” for another time. My initial take (I had not previously seen it) is that it’s a less successful piece than “Company B,” which it stylistically resembles, and doesn’t pack the same wallop. [On the other hand, the final image, in darkness, with the characters’ hands outstretched and illuminated, begging for money, is classic.] But, whether it’s considered great Taylor or less-than-great Taylor, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Ms. Graniero, Mr. Cornejo, and most significantly Ms. Messmer. For this viewer, Ms. Messmer’s performances in this piece and “In the Upper Room” took her to an extraordinary level. I did not previously look forward in particular to her performances; I will now.

What I will have no desire to look forward to is the possibility of ever seeing “Private Light” a second time.

I’m often disappointed with the quality of highly anticipated new works; but I rarely get angry. “Private Light” made me angry. Not because it was misogynistic trash, which seemed to be the way many in the audience reacted to it. I’m not sure it’s misogynistic (just outrageously insensitive), and I don’t think it’s all trash. And the choreography isn’t incompetent. In fact, in certain phrases in certain scenes, the choreography is intelligent and inventive. But such successes are few and far between, and anything good about “Private Light” is buried in the ruins of the choreographer’s self-indulgence.

The piece opens with dancers standing and kissing each other. Not pecks on the cheek, but kissing. [It appeared to me that most were not actually kissing each other, but that minor detail would have been lost on anyone watching the stage from a center seat, or from any distance.] It was downhill from there, as the girls clearly became objects to be manipulated and played with. It was not innocent sexual contact; it was the boys’ fantasy of what it would be like if they shared their gym locker room with beautiful dolls (literally), or if the dance-class dressing room was co-ed and populated by compliant bun-heads. [The dance clearly is just about the boys – for example, in the opening ‘kissing’ scene, you see the boys manipulating the girls, but the girls’ backs are to the audience -- the girls are just along for the ride.]

It appeared, at times, that Mr. Volpi was winking as he choreographed this. It was so obvious that the girls were the boys’ play-dolls whose only purpose was to be manipulated and used that it all had to be tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, after the initial ‘scene,’ it seemed that Mr. Volpi was suggesting that the piece isn’t supposed to be ‘real’ – it was just a dance about boys’ fantasies and/or budding sexual identity and experimentation, and not to be taken seriously. But then the piece proceeds to take itself seriously.

Since seeing “Private Light,” I’ve been trying to understand why this piece struck such a nerve. Sexuality in dance is not unusual. In a physical art form with perfect bodies it goes with the territory. But without the benefit of a pre-doctoral thesis survey, the sexuality usually on stage is a product of passion, or the consequence of character, or descriptive of a relationship. From “Manon,” to “Romeo and Juliet,” to Eliot Feld’s “The Consort,” to “Bugaku,” to various and sundry versions of “The Rite of Spring,” the sexual intent is clear, it fits, and it draws the audience in. Here, however, the dancers are themselves: sex objects to each other, with the audience as voyeur. There’s no kinetic transference, not even a sense of guilty pleasure – not only would you not want to be transported to the stage; you’re not invited.

When the piece wasn’t preoccupied with post-pubescent fantasies, it focused on the private lights of dancers directed differently. Misty Copeland and Alexandre Hammoudi appeared to dance a more ‘mature’ sexual relationship, but it was more complex than inventive, and more angst than passion. To this viewer, the outstanding performance in the piece was provided by Blaine Hoven, who portrayed the outsider, the dancer who is different, alone with his different fantasies. It was a driven, heartfelt and wrenching portrayal, and it was his best work to date. But perhaps more significant, in the sense of future development, came from a performance by a dancer I had not previously seen. Cassandra Trenary, who apparently was just ‘promoted’ to the corps (she was an apprentice), managed to execute Mr. Volpi’s inventive but awkward-looking choreography superbly, maintaining her dignity despite being tossed around like a toy. A promising performance, and a dancer to watch.

But these were isolated triumphs. There was little else to acknowledge, much less admire. Was Mr. Volpi simply given free rein? Wasn’t there someone with enough artistic sense and control to talk him out of staging some incoherent puerile fantasy? Or, a more scary thought, perhaps “Private Light” was the product of some measure of oversight, and what was ultimately presented was less audacious than what Mr. Volpi originally had in mind. In any event, Mr. Volpi has inarguable talent – the choreography was not incompetent, and if his craft and sensitivity develops, he’ll survive this. But “Private Light” was an embarrassment.

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