American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, NYC
July 14, 2005: “Giselle”
Love was all around the Met last night at Amanda McKerrow's final performance with ABT. Of course, there was the love displayed on stage between Giselle and Albrecht. But this performance wasn't about Giselle and Albrecht. This performance was about Amanda McKerrow. And the love that permeated the Met was the love of an audience for its favorite ballerina. When the ballet ended, the house stood en masse, roared in happiness and joy and appreciation, and did not leave until the last of multiple curtain calls ended amid a stage overflowing with flowers.
Her performance? Some valedictories are simply recognitions of great careers. And, as one knew from the sustained roar that greeted her first appearance on stage, it is undeniable that this audience would have cheered McKerrow even if she had phoned it in. But she didn’t. McKerrow’s Giselle was miraculous not because of her technique, which is still abundant, but because she managed (as she did with Juliet last year) to thoroughly transform herself. This was not simply makeup or stagecraft; this was McKerrow’s ability to inhabit a character and be that character both through dance and acting. Although her arabesques were astonishingly pure and tantalizingly long (both in duration and extension), and she was able to bend backward more deeply than any other Giselle I’ve seen, McKerrow’s technique was almost beside the point: She has done it all already and has nothing to prove.
As wonderful as her dancing was, it was her acting that made the performance even more memorable than it would otherwise have been. Her Giselle was sweet without being cloying, innocent without being naive, and more complex than just being a peasant girl in love or a forgiving spirit. And McKerrow breathed fresh insights into a role I’ve seen performed dozens of times. Little things, like how she collected herself after nearly fainting in Act I, and how important it was for her to fix her hair so she’d look good for Albrecht; or her interaction with her mother (wow, you'll let me dance? Oh, you didn’t mean me, you meant them. Ok, mom, you’re right.); or how she was careful to examine her more coarse skirt first before touching Berte’s gloriously smooth satin gown; or the display of her fear of Hilarion (unlike Vishneva’s Giselle two nights earlier, who wouldn’t dislike anything or anyone and didn’t fear Hilarion at all); or the almost visible goosebumps she developed during her “mad scene” as her body grew cold and she saw her death, and countless other nuances that only the most experienced of dancer/actors are capable of (or aware of the benefit of) adding to a performance in order to enhance a character portrait.
McKerrow’s supporting cast was equally stellar. Gillian Murphy’s Myrta was not only imperious and commanding, she was icy, menacing, and unforgiving. And her execution was perfect – maybe even better than perfect. Her leaps soared not just horizontally, but vertically – she was able to leap higher than I have ever seen any ballerina do before (almost, but not quite, pushing the image further than it should have been pushed). Her portrayal is every bit as memorable as the best Myrtas I’ve seen – including Martine van Hamel and Cynthia Harvey. The peasant pas was gloriously danced by Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo. Reyes, looking like a cross between Marianna Tcherkassky and Cheryl Yeager, reminded me how much fun the peasant pas is to watch. She was exuberant, as well as accomplished. And Cornejo was, well, Cornejo. In other words, he was spectacular. I saw skills and tricks I’ve never seen before, including the cleanest and highest of leg beats, and (if I’m describing it correctly) multiple turns followed by a perfect double tour off a single leg – his other leg never touched the floor. Remarkable. And Sascha Radestsky’s Hilarion was superbly done. Again. Indeed, he played off McKerrow perfectly, adapting his portrayal to hers: In this performance he was a bit more aggressive; a bit more ominous, than he was on Tuesday, altering his character to fit the way McKerrow saw him. Finally, Ethan Stiefel was a model Albrecht. His treachery, his agony, and his deliverance were all distinctively expressed. While a bit more low-key technically than I’ve usually seen him (either a product of a recent injury or in deference to the Occasion), he was at all times a gallant, ardent, and considerate partner who helped make McKerrow glow.
When the performance ended, the celebration began. One by one, each of the corps dancers placed a flower at McKerrow’s feet. Bouquet after bouquet after bouquet was individually presented to her by current company male dancers, then by dancers who have partnered her in the past or who simply were her contemporaries. [None were identified, but I thought I recognized Wes Chapman.] And of course by John Gardner, her beaming husband. [Surprisingly, there was no similar parade of female contemporaries bearing flowers, although they may simply have walked onto the stage to join the cheering company members. I know that two great Giselle’s, and McKerrow’s contemporaries, Cynthia Harvey and Marianna Tcherkassky, were in the house, and I’m sure there were others I didn’t see.] Confetti fell from the stage rafters. Flowers rained from the front of the orchestra. And if there was a dry eye within my sight range, I didn’t see it. The curtain calls continued far longer than usual these days; no one wanted to let Amanda go. And each time Amanda took a bow, the flowers kept coming.
But this was no mere valedictory celebration. This was an expression of the kind of love between an audience and a performer that one rarely sees, but in this case is completely justified. As I observed after her Juliet last year, McKerrow is the ballerina next door, the audience’s friend. A stage persona may not always reflect the real person under the performing mask, but in McKerrow’s case I think it does. Of course she’s talented and delightful to watch. And, as it did when she first danced in New York with the Washington Ballet at Brooklyn College, her contagious smile still lights up the stage. And she seems completely unaware that she makes everyone who sees her dance feel better for the experience. But more than any of these qualities, she is also just a nice person. She’s the little girl from Albuquerque who made the New York dance world fall in love with her, and yet never stopped being the little girl from Albuquerque.
Before she came to ABT twenty three years ago, after she won the Moscow ballet competition, Jane Pauley interviewed McKerrow on the Today show. At the end of the interview, if memory serves me, Pauley congratulated her, thanked her, and said something like “Amanda McKerrow. What a great name for a ballerina.” Pauley’s observation needs a slight update: Amanda McKerrow. What a great ballerina!