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American Ballet Theatre

'Dumbarton', 'Troika', 'Shadowplay', 'Thirteen Diversions'

by Jerry Hochman

May 24, 2011 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

For at least one week during its annual season at the Met, American Ballet Theatre presents a mixed bill to accompany the full-length ballets that comprise the bulk of its performances. The mixed bill this year was particularly impressive-sounding: two world premieres, a U.S. premiere, and a major revival. While the new pieces left a mixed impression, the revival of Antony Tudor’s “Shadowplay” was a significant disappointment.

Together with George Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor is generally (and properly) regarded as one of the most significant choreographers of the mid-twentieth century, and perhaps the most original. He pioneered the so-called ‘psychological’ ballets, represented by such iconic works as “Jardin aux Lilas,” “Dark Elegies,” and “Pillar of Fire.” These ballets used to be staples of the ABT repertoire, and are revered by new audiences whenever ABT management decides to revive them. [“The Leaves are Fading” is another favorite, as is his version of “Romeo and Juliet”.] “Shadowplay” is a different matter. While visually striking and well-performed, “Shadowplay” is tedious and obtuse. Sometimes, dances disappear from a company’s repertoire for a reason.

Tudor was a Zen Buddhist, and “Shadowplay,” which is based on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” appears to be a representation of a Zen-like effort to achieve a higher level of consciousness. Under the shade of a Banyan tree, the lead character (“Boy with Matted Hair”) sits and contemplates. He is soon joined by male ape-like characters (called “Arboreals”), who distract him and appear to tempt him to return to his animal roots. The Boy then is approached first by female dancers (identified as “Aerials”), who also distract him, but seem to be directing him in a positive way toward a more refined awareness (or perhaps they simply represent a different type of temptation), then by a male dancer (labeled “Terrestrial” – who seems to be aligned with the Arboreals, and whose advances the Boy rejects), and then by a female dancer (who, with her small entourage, are called “Celestials”). While the Arboreals are clothed in green costumes appropriate to forest creatures, and clearly move in an ape-like fashion, the Aerials and Celestials, while not bound by the earth, have a distinctively Asian sensibility, and are costumed somewhat like Thai dancers from another planet. The piece has the feel of “Watermill” (Jerome Robbins) as if pollinated by “Monotones” (Ashton), but lacking the clarity of either of them, and at times it also echoes Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” (except in “Shadowplay” the prodigal son is a wayward spirit in search of wisdom).

Replacing the injured Herman Cornejo, Craig Salstein danced “The Boy with Matted Hair” with conviction, but without the gravitas that might have helped him to look like he was trying to escape his earthly limits. As the lead Celestial, Xiomara Reyes did what the choreography required her to do, but was otherwise (not inappropriately) stoic. [After the performance, I was reminded that in a prior revival, Gelsey Kirkland danced this role. I had to have seen that performance, and the fact that I’d forgotten it is less a reflection on the quality of my memory than on the memorability of the piece.]

While some may suggest that any Tudor revival is better than none and necessarily is cause for celebration, the revival of “Shadowplay,” to this viewer, demonstrates that the limited performance time that ABT devotes to his work should be reserved for his more accessible and substantial creations. A revival of Tudor’s “Romeo and Juliet” is long overdue, and not including it in the repertoire in a season when Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is mothballed is a lost opportunity.

The evening’s success was the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions.” Choreographed to Benjamin Britten’s “Diversions for Piano and Orchestra,” the piece is a stunning work, both visually and choreographically.

A contemporary plotless ballet (though not without emotional gloss), the piece is divided into thirteen segments, corresponding to the score. The curtain opens on a bare stage, lit so that the lower right corner is bright, but the rest of the background is dark. Gradually, the section of light expands, appearing to be a celestial object rising in a dark sky. Then the light expands to occupy a significant portion of the backdrop, becoming a solid vertical block, which in turn is penetrated horizontally by a sole focused laser-like beam. Over time, the portions of the background that are light and dark change, the colors change, and the colors of the ‘light beam’ change, providing a visual framework that is both stark and lush, and which is constantly transforming and continually stunning. Credit to Brad Fields.

The dancers’ costumes are complementarily stark and lush. The large cast (four pairs of lead dancers, and sixteen supporting dancers) wear identical costumes, but are divided by color: the costumes of the lead dancers are white, while the identical costumes of the corps are black. At times the stage is filled with dancers in white, at times with dancers in black, and sometimes dancers in both black and white. The visual impact is striking – and, like the back light behind it, the images on stage are constantly transforming and continually stunning . Credit to Bob Crowley.

And then there’s the choreography. Like the lighting and the costumes, Mr. Wheeldon’s choreographic tableau alternates in physical and emotional emphasis to match the changing sensibility of the music. In short, like everything else about the piece, Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography is constantly transforming and continually stunning.

The lead dancers were Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, Isabella Boylston and Marcello Gomes, Maria Riccetto and Sascha Radetsky, and Simone Messmer and Alexandre Hammoudi. Each of them (as well as the corps) performed their sections of the dance memorably. But the piece belonged to Ms. Boylston.

I first saw Ms. Boylston with ABT two years ago in a performance of the otherwise unremarkable ballet “Desir,” and I made the same comment then: that that dance belonged to her. At the time, I wrote that she was a pleasant surprise both to this viewer and clearly to the audience, and that her performance presaged more significant development in the future. Since then, I’ve seen her dance many times, and am no longer surprised to see how good a dancer she is. As I’ve previously observed, Ms. Boylston is not a cookie-cutter ballerina. She appears deceptively unremarkable at first, neither tiny nor tall, neither earthy nor ethereal, generically pretty but not quite beautiful, and at times she seems somewhat detached. And then her fiery personality and explosive technique, both of which seem to come from nowhere, take over, and you watch utterly enthralled.

In this section of the piece, Mr. Wheeldon created intricate, physically intimidating, and seemingly impossible-to-execute choreography that Ms. Boylston attacked with fierce and fearless abandon. [It must have helped Ms. Boylston immeasurably to be partnered in this duet by the redoubtable Marcelo Gomes, who could be trusted to always be there both to protect her from harm and make her look good, and to make it all look easy.] But Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography for “Thirteen Diversions” is also surprisingly delicate. At one point, he has Ms. Boylston cup Mr. Gomes’s face in her hands and then turn his face so he looks at her, as if to say ‘hey, look at me, I’m the one who loves you.’ It was a one second sweet move that I thought was a throwaway. But nothing that Mr. Wheeldon does is a throwaway. At the conclusion of the duet, he had Ms. Boylston repeat the image, perhaps a bit more slowly. This second time the image became more than a sweet movement – it had grown into a touching crystallization of the relationship between the two dancers, and, as a repeated image, added texture to the duet – and to the piece as a whole.

The other world premiere, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Dumbarton,” is delightful, but not very substantial. It’s fluff (‘Alexei – we need an opening piece; short, energetic, not too cerebral’), but it’s fun fluff.

“Dumbarton Oaks” was composed during Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, and is more accessible, at least to this viewer, than his later work. But the composition takes risks and has a dissonant, asymmetrical quality that Stravinsky will refine and distill in later work. Mr. Ratmansky’s ballet takes few risks - but it is playful and accessible and interesting to watch (as he's done in other pieces, Mr. Ratmansky once again utilizes a ‘split-screen’ type of effect, using one dancer or group of dancers as a visual counterpoint to other dancers who concurrently occupy a different section of the stage).

Following the opening introduction to the dancers (Ms. Boylston and Joseph Gorak, Misty Copeland and Eric Tamm, Yuriko Kajiya and Luis Ribagorda, Veronika Part and Roddy Doble, and Michele Wiles and Thomas Forster), Mr. Ratmansky divides and subdivides and reshuffles them, allocating each pair or trio or group to a different thematic emphasis. I’m not sure that it all hangs together, but the piece is very easy to like, and each of the dancers was effectively engaging. And seeing the ever-ebullient Ms. Kajiya in a ponytail is almost worth the price of admission.

Mr. Millepied’s “Troika” is less successful a work. Created as a tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich, and premiered by ABT at the recent Rostropovich Festival in Moscow, the piece is a tribute to Rostropovich only because the music to which it is performed is played on a cello.

As cellist Jonathan Spitz plays selections of Johann Sebastian Bach, three male dancers (Mr. Hammoudi, Mr. Radetsky, and Daniil Simkin) dance to it. Mr. Millepied has them show off to each other, play off each other, and otherwise have a lot of good-natured fun. And the dancing isn’t at all uninteresting – at times the virtuosity is thrilling. But after awhile, seeing the boys play with each other gets tiresome; it all blends together and looks more like acrobatics than ballet. It also suffers in comparison to a work it resembles, Jerome Robbins’s classic “Fancy Free,” which, curiously, ABT performed during the same visit to Moscow.

But regardless of the merit of the individual pieces, offering a mixed bill such as this provides ABT audiences with an opportunity to see ABT dancers – the real ABT dancers – and to recognize how accomplished they are now, and how impressive they can be in the future.

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