American Ballet Theatre
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
Tuesday 1 & Wednesday 2 February 2011
For their new visit to London, ABT brought two mixed bills. Both had a good mix of old and new works and the range in choreographic material should have really put the company in the best possible light. Heritage repertoire like "Theme and Variations" or "Lilac Garden" were presented alongside recent works by Benjamin Millepied and Alexei Ratmansky, so there was plenty of opportunity to see the company's position both as guardians of their choreographic tradition and as avant gardée performers.
The visit opened with Alexei Ratmansky's ballet “Seven Sonatas”, created for the company in 2009. I was looking forward to this piece, as I tend to admire most of Ratmansky's work. Unfortunately, the piece is not one of his best efforts. Created for three couples, the duets and solos never reach beyond sentimentality. At its best, there is a bit of energy and interesting dynamics, but as the new in the series of “piano ballets”, it never really touches the depths of "Dances at a Gathering" or any other Robbins's work using similar devices. The ballet just doesn't seem to take you anywhere and the dancers do not seem to be able to inhabit the choreography in a way that could be meaningful.
Next in the first programme came “Known by Hear (Junk) Duet” (1998) by Twyla Tharp. It was a welcome opportunity to get to see some of Tharp's work, that has become rare in the last years, with the only exception of “In the Upper Room”. The duet was tipically Tharp. It was a mad duet in which dance genres keep juxtaposing and meeting in her continuous search for chaos and balance. Still, it was a wonderful and refreshing example of how you can oppose gender in a pas de deux without seeing the typical aggression and violence the nineties left us as legacy. Blaine Hoven was very good in that casual, tongue in cheek tone that characterises Tharp's work, however I was not so convinced by Gillian Murphy, who didn't seem to have the plasticity in her torso and the attack and ability to let loose that Tharp's style requires.
Next it was Balanchine's “Duo Concertante” (1972). I will never understand the hype about this Balanchine ballet. It is definitely not his best work and his final moments, without perfect lighting/timing/depth of feeling tend to look as if the piece simply drags to no avail. For contemporary audiences that may not be aware of the significance of this piece, it seems like an overindulgent piece in which the focus is the music and not the dance. Paloma Herrera tried her best, showing command and stage presence, but it was not enough. Her partner, Cory Stearns, was far from being a solid Balanchine dancer both technically or stylistically.
Closing the programme was Benjamin Millepied's “Everything Doesn't Happen at Once” (2009). It was interesting to see Millepied's work after all the rage the film “Black Swan” is causing. The work seemed to be the best of the evening. It was inventive, it was technically accomplished and at moments, very theatrical in its use of geometry in space. But that was all. After leaving the theatre, I couldn't remember much of it. It was, as it tends to happen more and more often, another piece in which your eye is engaged, but your soul remains unaffected.
Overall, it was a very disappointing evening. I simply could not believe this company was ABT. There was no spark, no stars, no glittering moments... the company seems to struggle technically and stylistically and this was most evident in the opening of the second programme, that featured George Balanchine's ballet "Theme and Variations", created in 1947 for this company and the virtuoso techniques of Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. I had fond memories of ABT's performances in 1990, when this ballet also opened their one week visit to London. However, the performance by the two principals – Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg- left room for improvement. Murphy is a great turner, but that is not enough to fill in this role. Her footwork was weak, her musicality almost non-existent. Hallberg did not fare much better. I couldn't believe this was the same dancer that only a few years ago had shown such command of the stage in Kurt Joos's “The Green Table”. The pas de deux's glorious music found no echo in the dancers. There was no resonance, no depth, no grandeur.
Next in the programme was “Lilac Garden” (1936) by Antony Tudor. By now I was starting to think that a good performance of this particular ballet seemed simply beyond anybody's ability within the present company. However, Julie Kent proved me wrong. She was exquisite and the response she got from the other dancers was equally satisfying. Do not get me wrong, this is not the ballet we all learned to love in that live performance with Lesley Browne and Robert LaFosse, Martine Van Hammel and Michael Owen. Unfortunately the likes of those supporting dancers seem to be no longer available in the company, but Kent's performance was full of nuances and delicacy. At least, the ballet spoke to the audience and the delicacy of the work seemed to maintain its intricacy and atmosphere.
In better mood, along came Balanchine's "Tchaykowsky Pas de Deux" with Xyomara Reyes and Hermán Cornejo. If not the best performance in history, at least the dancers managed to have so much fun that they made the audience enjoy the duet as much as they did. I thoroughly enjoyed their performances and obviously so did the rest of the public who gave them the biggest ovation of the night.
Last was Paul Taylor's “Company B” (1991), the piece a la Americana that the audiences seem to love, though I would have prefered to see “Rodeo” once again! The company performed this piece well, but obviously never to the standards one would expect from Taylor's company.
I must say after seeing the company for the two evenings, I felt rather disappointed. Something has happened to this company in the last few years that is incredibly worrying. Not only that, on their visit, many principals did not appear on the stage, which left the company without any of the glamour and glittering force that always came through in their performances. Overall the company seems stylistically and technically weak and without real understanding of who they are and what they are about. I hope this is just a low point in their calendar and touring schedule, for I would hate to see ABT losing that wonderful sense of excitement it always managed to bring along!