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American Ballet Theatre

'Don Quixote'

by Jerry Hochman

May 20 and 21 (matinee), 2011 -- Met Opera House, New York, NY

In two consecutive performances, American Ballet Theatre audiences were treated to
company debuts of major guest artists in the same major role. The guest artists were
Alina Cojocaru and Polina Semionova, and the role was Kitri in “Don Quixote.” Both
performances were memorable, and brightened what is otherwise a ponderous production.

This viewer has commented previously on the slow pace of ABT’s current production of
Don Q, staged by ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, in comparison with Mikhail
Baryshnikov’s 1978 creation, and particularly in light of Mr. McKenzie’s ability to
recreate the classics and still keep the tonnage moving with a contemporary sensibility,
as is evident in his exemplary “Swan Lake.” But this review focuses on the dancers, and
particularly on the two Kitris.

Kitri is supposed to be a spitfire. But if I find otherwise memorable performances of Kitri
in some way problematic, it is because I sense that the characterization is pasted on as
conspicuously, and as annoyingly, as the curl that seems to be affixed to the foreheads of
most of the Kitris I’ve seen recently – as if the ballerina was trying too hard to be the
Spanish party girl. But Alina Cojocaru’s Kitri, which she danced on Friday, is different.
It was a kinder, gentler Kitri. If Giselle could have danced the role of Kitri, she likely
would have looked like Alina Cojocaru’s Kitri.

Ms. Cojocaru’s stage persona has not changed since I first saw her perform many years
ago. Like Lis Jeppesen, to whom I’ve frequently compared her (ad nauseum), she is one
of those dancers who you only need to see once, and then cannot help but love forever.
But how does a dancer who appears to be sweet as sugar carry off Kitri? As Ms.
Cojacaru demonstrated, she does it very effectively just by being true to herself, and as a
result, hers was a Kitri not just to party with, but to want to wrap up and take home.

I must admit, however, that during Act I of Friday’s performance, I thought that Ms.
Cojocaru’s comparatively understated Kitri might be overshadowed by Maria Riccetto’s
sizzling Mercedes. There appeared to be timing issues from the outset – Ms. Cojocaru
frequently was ahead of the music, both in her response to the orchestra and her
interaction with her Basilio, Jose Manuel Carreno (perhaps insufficient rehearsal time in
both cases - but the problem may just as properly be attributed to the orchestra’s inability
to adjust to the her, and to what I sensed was the absence of any emotional connection
with Mr. Carreno beyond sincere admiration and respect). And then there was a slight,
but scary-looking slip as she finished one of her otherwise impeccably executed solos
(liquid on the stage? stepping on a wayward costume?).

These missteps had no impact at all on Ms. Cojocaru’s performance, or on the audience’s
receptivity to it. Her flashing limbs and exceptionally effortless movement quality,
abetted by a body that is both feather-light and composed of cartilage unencumbered by
bones, was all the flourish and flair that this Kitri needed. And the somewhat lower
emotional decibel level only made the dazzling pyrotechnics that Ms. Cojocaru created
appear all the more astonishing. Although I count characterization and overall
performance more important that sheer strength, Ms. Cojocaru’s ability to hold her
balances on pointe, was simply astonishing. Saying that I’ve never in more-decades-than-
I-care-to-remember of ballet-going seen balances held as long as Ms. Cojocaru held them
is relatively meaningless; saying that I’ve never seen balances held like that and look as
natural as breathing, and not at all like grandstanding, is another. And she did it

The performance as a whole was memorable in other ways as well. In addition to Ms.
Cojocaru’s very different Kitri, Mr. Carreno’s attentive, considerate, and still highly
capable Basilio, and Ms. Riccetto’s impressive Mercedes, Renata Pavam danced a n
elegant Amour. Less self-consciously cutesy than most, Ms. Pavam’s Amour was in total
technical control – as Ms. Pavam herself always seems to be. It’s good to see her at long
last being given some higher profile roles.

Polina Semionova's performance as Kitri on Saturday afternoon was not only her debut in
the role with ABT, it was her initial performance in any role with ABT. It was an
impressive debut. She showed nothing at all of the jitters that frequently accompany a
debut in a lead role on the Met stage, and, more importantly, her Kitri was naturally
vivacious and flirty - as Kitri is expected to be. Ms. Semionova even passed on the
usually obligatory pasted-on spit-curl. And unlike the previous evening, I noticed no
mistakes, timing or otherwise, and she seemed thoroughly prepared and thoroughly
connected with her partner, David Hallberg.

But, that having been said, there wasn't anything 'special' about it either. It was a
perfectly competent performance. Indeed, to be fair, it was better than just competent - it
was a very fine performance. But it wasn't unusual or surprising. Again, to be fair, not all
performances - of Kitri or any other character - need to be unique conceptions or unusual
vehicles for the dancer in order to be successful. But Ms. Semionova is a guest artist,
imported by ABT for this performance (as well as a performance of "Swan Lake" later in
the season). As much as I enjoyed seeing her, why was she here? She's very good, but
she's not 'electric' the way Natalia Osipova is, or as extraordinary a dancer/performer as
Diana Vishneva was when she first danced with ABT as a guest artist, or as unusual as
Ms. Cojocaru. There is no doubt that she’s an attractive and highly capable dancer, but so
are current ABT dancers. Bringing her to the Met rather than giving the opportunity to an
ABT dancer (especially considering that this was a matinee - when younger dancers are
usually given the opportunity to shine - and to grow) communicates a lack of confidence
in dancers who, at least to this viewer, seem perfectly capable of doing the same thing.

Nor does she fill a void - at least not any that presently appear. Veronika Part, who

performed Mercedes in this performance with her usual flair, is a similar body type to
Ms. Semionova, and in this viewer's opinion could handle Kitri very well. As could Ms.
Riccetto. And. although I would prefer to see her given other leading roles, Sarah Lane
has developed the vivacity to handle this role also (and her Amour at this performance
shows the maturity as a dancer/actor that she's clearly developed as well). As I heard one
audience-member seated behind me state: in typical New Yorkese: “They couldn't find a
regular dancer to do it?”

And did ABT need to bring in a dancer who seems to require more strength in a partner
than is currently available on the ABT roster? Ms. Semionova is perfectly suited,
physically, for Mr. Hallberg (and there appears to be a great deal of rapport between
them). Nevertheless, the only significant flaw in the performance was that Mr. Hallberg
had difficulty lifting her, and at one point, came perilously close to losing his grip. [Ms.
Semionova is dancer-thin; she's just relatively tall for a ballerina.] If Mr. Hallberg has
difficulty lifting her, who does ABT now have (other than Marcelo Gomes, who I'm
convinced can do anything) who can?

I will look forward to Ms. Semionova's Odette/Odile, and will be grateful for the
opportunity to see her (and, based on her Kitri, she may dance an extraordinary Odile).
But I'd have preferred to have seen the opportunity go to someone home-grown.

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