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American Ballet Theatre

Spring Gala 2013

by Jerry Hochman

May 13, 2013 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

It is common knowledge that the purpose of a ‘Gala’ is, in the first instance, to get well-heeled donors to open their checkbooks, and second, to display the company’s talent to help encourage the first purpose. But begging for dollars is rarely as blatant as it was at last night’s opening of American Ballet Theatre’s Spring 2013 Season at the Metropolitan Opera House. Following the performance of the initial piece on the program, ABT’s Chief Executive Officer, Rachel Moore, welcomed the house to the Opening Night Gala, and promptly reminded the audience members that ‘ABT relies on your generosity’. She then read a list of donors and corporate sponsors for the evening, which I thought would be followed by passing the hat. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But whether the actual performance excerpts were sufficient to coax donor generosity is a different matter.

Although the evening was not without highlights, it was generally disappointing, or worse. Diana Vishneva was given a pas de deux that, out of its full-length Onegin context, made her appear disconnected and uninterested; Paloma Herrera looked like a fish out of water in what was generally (with a few significant exceptions) an uncomfortable performance of George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, and the silly excerpt selected from Sir Frederick Ashton’s full-length Sylvia served only to emphasize the casting callousness that seems pervasive. And the decision to squeeze as many members of the company as possible into the Gala served only to make more conspicuous the absence of those dancers who were not included in the performance (including retiring principal Irina Dvorovenko and soloists Stella Abrera, Misty Copeland, Alexandre Hammoudi, and Sascha Radetsky), as well as the difficulty ABT artistic management has, or has concluded that it has, in finding suitable partners for its ballerinas. [The absence of any of the season’s ‘guest artists’ also seemed strange: why have them if you’re not going to flaunt them?] But the most shameful event was a non-event – the failure to mention, either from the stage or in the program, the passing of Frederick Franklin several days earlier.

The evening did have its highlights. There was a brief, spirited performance by students in the ABT Studio Company; a strong pair of individual performances by Xiomara Reyes (substituting for the injured Natalia Osipova) and particularly Ivan Vasiliev in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire; a repeat performance of one component of Alexei Ratmansky’s new Shostakovich trilogy (Symphony #9); and the performances of Sarah Lane, Jared Matthews and Isabella Boylston in Symphony in C.

Without fanfare, the evening opened with an excerpt from John Cranko’s Onegin, which ABT will perform during its initial week at the Met. But the excerpt was not one of the many stirring examples of Cranko’s choreography: It was an excerpt from Act III (condensed, and without the set) in which Tatiana and her husband, Prince Gremin, were hosting a ball for the St. Petersburg nobility. It was a poor choice for a Gala opening.

The scene begins with a dull dance for the assembled nobility (not a good way to introduce the ‘corps’, if that was part of its purpose for being on the program), which after too long led to the pas de deux between Tatiana and the husband she settled for. It takes considerable effort to make Ms. Vishneva (Tatiana) look less than stellar, but something usually present (enthusiasm, vivacity) was missing here. Her pas de deux with her husband in the production, James Whiteside, was simply icy and painful to watch. She did nothing wrong – indeed, Ms. Vishneva may have legitimately interpreted her relationship with Gremin to be icy (which is different from the portrayal by both Ms. Dvorovenko and Hee Seo last year) and for that reason intended it to be displayed the way it was, but here, out of context, it came across simply as a complete absence of chemistry of any sort between Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Whiteside. Mr. Whiteside’s appearance as a clueless, emotionless partner (very different from the portrayals of Gremin I saw last year) didn’t help. But whether icy by intent or by the absence of any stage chemistry, this piece of a scene should not have opened the program (or been in the program at all). There are many other excerpts (including pas de deux) from Onegin that would have been more impressive – but then, ‘suitable partners’ for Ms. Vishneva were involved elsewhere in the program.

This opening selection was followed by Ms. Moore’s introductory comments, then with ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie outlining the upcoming season, followed by eloquent remarks from Sigourney Weaver to introduce the Studio Company.

The ABT Studio Company performed Cortege, a world premiere choreographed by Raymond Lukens to Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Procession of the Nobles’, from “Mlada.” The piece is a fine, albeit brief, way in which to showcase these young dancers’ abilities. The Studio Company was led by Katerina Eng, Catherine Hurlin, Lindsay Karchin, Carolyn Lippert, and Hannah Marshall (the latter two are daughters of ABT alumnae Carla Stallings and Cheryl Yeager), and Juan Jose Carazo Arranz, Pasha Knopp, Xavier Nunez, Oliver Oguma, Kyle Torres-Hiyoshi, and Jun Xia. [They were joined by senior students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School: Hanna Bass, Lauren Bonfiglio, Isabel Deyo, Emily Hayes, Tyler Maloney, Skyler Maxey-Wert, and Raphael Spyker.]

Although dancing opportunities were generously spread throughout the piece, the choreographic center of attention was clearly intended to be Ms. Hurlin. Ms. Hurlin is not an unknown quantity – she was the first Clara in Mr. Ratmansky’s production of The Nutcracker, and has already danced with the company as a Snowflake in the same piece (in its second year). While all the young dancers in the Studio Company are accomplished and talented, Ms. Hurlin has this additional significant performing experience, and clearly already has considerable stage presence and charisma. Ms. Hurlin will likely be a center of attention (deservedly) whenever the powers that be decide that she’s ready to formally join the company.

If there is any pas de deux that is perfect for highlighting bravura individual performances, it is the pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Mr. Vasiliev’s Ali was spectacular, and Ms. Reyes did a fine job as Medora. That there was no emotional connection at all between Mr. Vasiliev and Ms. Reyes was irrelevant.

I have previously reviewed Mr. Ratmansky’s Symphony No. 9, and will save a more detailed review for the formal premiere of his Shostakovich trilogy later this season. Suffice it to say that the piece looked better now than it did last fall, and the performances were uniformly excellent by the leads and the eight women/eight men corps (who are given significant dancing opportunities). Lead dancers Polina Semionova, Mr. Gomes, Herman Cornejo, Simone Messmer, and Craig Salstein were exceptional, although it’s premature to determine whether any of them (particularly Ms. Semionova, who seemed more contentedly happy than perhaps she should have) captured whatever traits Mr. Ratmansky was trying to infuse into his characters.

The evening’s second half began with the most curious excerpt of the evening: the ‘Hunt Scene’ from Sylvia. There is nothing in the scene that merits being highlighted – and the reason for its being in the program had to have been as a convenient way to present Gillian Murphy (convenient because the scene requires no partner). That’s bad enough. But it was inexplicably determined that Sylvia’s accompanying eight helmeted Amazon-nymphs (the equivalent of Juliet’s friends) should be stocked with five soloists: Kristi Boone, Ms. Boylston (who would have danced nothing else in the gala had it not been for Ms. Osipova’s injury), Yuriko Kajiya, and Ms. Lane. If this was intended as a joke (as perhaps Ashton intended with this brief scene), it was a bad one, and served only to emphasize the paucity of legitimate casting opportunities being given to ABT’s ballerina soloists.

Mr. Gomes’s piece, Apotheose, is a dramatic, emotion-drenched pas de deux for Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle, to the second movement (allegretto) of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7 in A Major.” There isn’t anything particularly novel about the ‘theme’ of the piece – a couple seeking salvation, or redemption, or a way out of whatever predicament they’re in, or a pathway to heaven (it’s not clear what). I sensed a sort of ‘Adam and Eve’ reference (after the Fall), or ‘end of the world’ (after the Apocalypse), but anything more than a couple searching for something is a stretch. But Mr. Gomes has included some interesting choreographic images (sideways lifts; a surprising knee sit, for example) that make the piece different from similar cousins. Ms. Kent and Mr. Bolle did a fine job with it.

Mr. Gomes’s talent as a choreographer is still nascent, but based on the few pieces of his that I’ve seen, there’s considerable potential there. One looks forward to more complex works (as well as to presentations by another budding ABT dancer/choreographer, Gemma Bond).

The Sleeping Beauty excerpt (the Act III Pas de Deux and Coda), came next, with Ms. Seo and David Hallberg. Both were fine, but there seemed to be little connection between them (which was surprising, considering their stellar performance together in Onegin last year. As a result, the pas de deux, while competently done, lacked any semblance of a fairy tale’s happy ending.

The evening concluded with the disappointing rendition of Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Compared to recent performances by New York City Ballet, and with only a couple of exceptions, this performance was slow and lacked clarity and crispness.

In the piece’s First Movement, Paloma Herrera looked uncomfortable, and her partner, Mr. Whiteside appeared only slightly less so (although he showed some enthusiasm). In the Second Movement, Veronika Part danced a masterful Odette, but it was overbaked for Balanchine; Mr. Stearns tried hard, but looked out of his element. Things picked up somewhat with Ms. Boylston and Daniil Simkin in the Third Movement: When they were concurrently on stage but dancing individually (rather than in contact with each other), Ms. Boylston was very good, and Mr. Siimkin managed, mostly, to rein in his prodigious technical skills (except for soaring almost as high as he could go; he couldn’t help himself). The performance was marred only by Ms. Boylston having to duck to fit under Mr. Simkin’s arm during partnered turns (but in all fairness, Ms. Boylston was a replacement for Ms. Reyes), and Mr. Simkin should have killed the constant boyish grin. But Ms. Lane and Mr. Matthews were very good in the brief Fourth Movement. The two worked well together, nailed the choreography, and Ms. Lane added nuance (varied phrasing) that I have not noticed previously, which gave her brief appearance in the piece surprising texture. Although their performance, together with Ms. Boylston’s, couldn’t rescue the piece as a whole, they provided welcome reasons to smile.

It’s not easy to put together an evening that made many of ABT’s extraordinary dancers look less than the stellar dancers they are. This Gala did. But it is somewhat reassuring to know that this was the first, and last, Gala this season.

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