American Ballet Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 30, November 1, November 2 (M & E)
“The Tempest” (new Ratmansky); “Aftereffect” (new Gomes); “Bach Partita” (Tharp revival); “Les Sylphides” (Fokine revival); “Clear” (Welch revival); “Gong” (Morris revival); “Theme and Variations”
-- by Jerry Hochman
American Ballet Theatre celebrated the first week of its twelve-performance 2013 Fall Season at the David H. Koch Theater with two world premieres, revivals of four ballets that have not been in the repertory for many years, and the freshly-costumed return of a Balanchine classic. Based on pre-season hype, the most eagerly awaited ballet was Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Tempest.” But the revival of Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Partita,” which premiered in 1983 and hasn’t been seen since 1985, proved to be the more significant event. Also particularly noteworthy have been the performances of Marcelo Gomes, who danced in four of the seven ballets. This season, Mr. Gomes is putting on a dance-as-a-performing-art clinic, and in these performances alone is demonstrating why he is the most valuable dancer on ABT’s roster.
As posted above, my initial take on Mr. Ratmansky’s new production of “The Tempest,” which had its world premiere at ABT’s gala opening night celebration on October 30, was that parts of it are good, even brilliant, but they come in bits and pieces and don’t sustain the piece as a whole. A second viewing on November 2 has not changed my opinion. Although “The Tempest” should be seen for the performances of Mr. Gomes, Sarah Lane, Daniil Simkin, and Herman Cornejo, overall it’s somewhat disappointing.
The piece is choreographed to Jean Sibelius’s “The Tempest (Incidental Music), Op. 109,” and therein lies much of the problem. The quality of Sibelius’s composition is not the issue – to me, the music is a combination of program music and tone poems that captures the essence of the play perfectly. But necessarily the incidental music tells the story in the form of highlights – incidents and moods – condensed from a larger whole. But when applied choreographically, the result is an incidental visual version of the larger story. Indeed, the program notes begin with this concession: “The ballet is at once a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare’s play.” That it is. But although a series of vignettes can tell the story succinctly and perhaps sufficiently, a broader brush is needed to tell the story well.
The ballet begins with Prospero, a master of occult arts, conjuring a storm that causes his brother Antonio, the usurper of his title, Antonio’s co-conspirators, including Alonso, the King of Naples, Alonso’s son Ferdinand, and various hangers-on, to be shipwrecked on a dreary island in the middle of nowhere – the same island on which Prospero and his three year old daughter Miranda had landed twelve years earlier after being put to sea, presumably to drown, by the usurpers. Prospero enlists the aid of one of two ‘servants’ that he has recruited from the island – Ariel, an airy spirit who longs for freedom (the other being Caliban, the deformed offspring of a witch) – to help him carry out his plan to separate the conspirators, make the son of one of the usurpers and his daughter fall in love, and ultimately regain his title as Duke of Milan and unite the dukedom’s dueling parties. In the process, Caliban assaults Miranda, gets drunk with a couple of clownish servants, and Prospero and his minions summon more storms. Ultimately, Prospero’s wizardry is fulfilled, Ariel is given his freedom, and all parties except Caliban leave the island to return to Milan.
The entire piece runs approximately 45 minutes, and looks as compressed and runny as the above description.
But that’s not to say that much of what’s there isn’t first rate. The dances for Miranda (Ms. Lane) and Prospero (Mr. Gomes), which show her love and respect for her father and his protective love for his daughter, illustrate reverential love in a nutshell. The two duets with Ferdinand are distinctively different from that – and different from each other. The first, displaying ‘instant’ love, looks just like that: playful and effervescent youthful love in a nutshell. The second, when it’s clear that the two will be married, portrays ‘youthful joy’ in a nutshell. For example, in one simple step Mr. Ratmansky says everything about how Miranda feels when she learns she and Ferdinand will marry: In the course of executing a combination of steps as she happily glides across the stage, Ms. Lane suddenly punctuates the phrase by tapping one foot gently but deliberately onto the stage floor. It’s a brief exclamation (repeated shortly thereafter) that clearly transmits her happiness in a childlike way. It’s a perfect step in its context, and one that is very different from choreographic expressions of ‘passionate joy’ in which the ballerina typically soars upward.
It’s a rare talent that can pare complex emotions to their core and express them choreographically, as Mr. Ratmansky does. But just because they can be shown succinctly, in a nutshell, doesn’t mean that they should be. These dances are all too brief and segue into the next vignette too quickly. They should have had more time to breathe, but the score doesn’t permit it.
A somewhat different problem arises with the choreography for Ariel, which is airy and bubbly and full of jumps and turns and more jumps and more turns, and Mr. Simkin had a field day with it (portraying a miniature white tornado of a sprite with flaming orange spiked hair is right up his alley). And later in the piece, when Ariel is carrying out one of Prospero’s directives, the sight of Mr. Simkin costumed like a fearsome goddess (a ‘harpy’) with pronounced naked breasts, bathed in red light and flapping his oversized cape/wings to scare the conspirators – sort of a cross between Xena and a Great Leonopteryx (respectively, the ‘warrior princess’ from the television series and the venerated ‘big red bird’ from “Avatar”) – is unintentionally hilarious, but unforgettable. Mr. Simkin brought Ariel to life, but the excitement left the stage whenever he did.
Everything else about the piece was disappointing. As Caliban, Mr. Cornejo executed Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography with just enough character to be both savage and sympathetic. But too much of the movement quality looked like it had been borrowed from the choreography for the Fakir in “La Bayadere.” Worse was the brief reference to Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda (much too insignificantly portrayed), and the scene where he gets drunk with two of Alonzo’s servants (unimaginative, and, as staged, a comic interlude before the main action resumes). These scenes should provide essential insights into Caliban as savage cannibal, and Caliban as victim. Treating them lightly avoids displeasing viewers, but also misleads them into concluding that Caliban’s remaining on the island represents some sort of cruel abandonment.
Further, Mr. Ratmansky’s treatment of secondary characters is, at best, superficial. Alonso, Antonio, and the others are there because they’re in the play, but they are relatively empty vessels. And the use of dancers clad in blue, with spiked blue hair (for the women) and blue mohawks (for the men), as both island spirits and representative of the force of the tempests, collectively called “Chorus,” just looked silly. Finally, the overall sense of darkness that permeates the piece (sets and costumes by the estimable Santo Loquasto) dampened whatever enthusiasm might have existed for what little choreography there was to be excited about. Indeed, there was more excitement generated on the ‘grand promenade’ by the sound and light show for the ersatz ‘tempest’ that was the theme for ABT’s post-performance gala dinner than there was on stage.
Mr. Gomes, who looked part Robinson Crusoe and part Neptune, was a wondrously powerful Prospero. But except for his delightful duets with Ms. Lane (whom he partnered as if she were weightless) and several Hamlet-esque soliloquys, he didn’t have much dancing to do. Mr. Gorak didn’t have much acting to do, but he was a competent partner, and he and Ms. Lane looked good together. Ms. Lane was a perfect Miranda: as staged, she was moonlight on a dark and stormy night. Her role could have been cardboard: the sweetly innocent and obedient daughter who falls for the first boy she’s seen since she was three. But her acting made Miranda believable, and illustrates how important it is to cast a ballerina who not only can dance a role flawlessly, but can believably act it and look it.
“Bach Partita” requires little in the way of description other than that it choreographed by Ms. Tharp to music by Bach (“Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin”). That says it all. The piece isn’t the Tharp one has come to know through dances such as “In the Upper Room,” “The Golden Section ,” “Deuce Coupe,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove.” It’s serious, without a hint of Ms. Tharp’s usual wit. It’s a bit difficult to watch because it is so serious, but it’s impossible to ignore. That it has been rescued, and performed as brilliantly as it was by the ABT dancers (many of whom excelled in “In the Upper Room”), is cause for celebration.
The piece has three lead couples, and is divided into five segments. In some segments, the lead couple is supported by four couples, in another by three couples, and all are complemented in the final section by sixteen corps dancers. Of the lead couples, Gillian Murphy and Mr. Gomes, and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal, were sensational. Mr. Royal, who joined the company last year and is a member of the corps, is being pushed quickly. Although he’s still rough around the edges, his obvious enthusiasm and natural partnering ability have already made him an audience favorite. The other lead couple, Polina Semionova and James Whiteside, were very good as well, but didn’t look quite as comfortable with the choreography. Dancing the supporting quartet of couples were Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko, Yuriko Kajiya, Luciana Paris, Blaine Hoven, Sterling Baca, Mr. Gorak, and Luis Ribagorda. All were excellent, but Ms. Teuscher, Ms. Shevchenko, and Mr. Ribagorda were stand-outs. The trio of couples consisted of Misty Copeland, Skylar Brandt, Nicole Graniero, Craig Salstein, Arron Scott, and Gabe Stone Shayer, each of whom performed superbly.
Also noteworthy was the performance of the Partita by violin soloist Charles Yang. Mr. Yang provided a concert every bit as glorious as the choreography on stage, and he received an appropriately enthusiastic ovation from the audience - and the cast.
Opening night was the setting for another world premiere. “Aftereffect,” a piece d’occasion choreographed by Mr. Gomes to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” is a contemporary dance for eight men. It’s powerful (but not macho), with interesting patterning and sequencing. Mr. Gomes’s choreography continues to develop, and “Aftereffect” is another positive step. Led by Sasha Radetsky, each of the dancers (all but Mr. Radetsky are members of the corps) was given a chance to shine, and all executed Mr. Gomes’s choreography with gusto.
The opening night audience was also treated to a fine performance of George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” by Gillian Murphy and Mr. Whiteside, which featured new costumes by Zack Brown. [The costumes are gorgeous, but the colors (peach and red-orange), are not at all regal-looking.] Ms. Murphy danced impeccably; Mr. Whiteside was somewhat off in his turns, but otherwise did quite well in his ABT debut in the role. On Saturday evening, Ms. Semionova (also in an ABT debut) and Cory Stearns assumed the lead roles, and both performed with appropriate regality. The leads on Saturday afternoon were Isabella Boylston and Mr. Simkin. Except for somewhat ginched shoulders and monochromatic demeanor (she didn’t smile until the concluding section), hers was a fine and promising ABT debut in the role, one to which she appears well-suited. Mr. Simkin, on the other hand, decided to add characterization and personal bravura touches where there aren’t any. He didn’t need to pretend he was Prince Siegfried, with his chin in the air and nose pulled back into his head. And he didn’t need to emote profusely during the pas de deux, acting like his partner was his long lost love and that he would be the love of her life. And he didn’t need to milk his arabesques during his initial diagonal, or do double turns when other dancers were doing one, just because he could. Whatever he was dancing wasn’t Balanchine. Losing control during some of his turns didn’t help, nor did the painfully slow tempo of the orchestra, conducted by Charles Barker, presumably to accommodate the principals (he conducted at a noticeably less lugubrious pace on opening night).
The four performances also included three additional revivals: “Les Sylphides,” “Clear,” and Mark Morris’s “Gong.”
“Les Sylphides” is a relic. It is a Romantic ballet choreographed by Michael Fokine that debuted in St. Petersburg in 1908, and was on ABT’s initial program in 1940. It hasn’t been performed by ABT since 2005. Choreographed to music by Frederic Chopin, “Les Sylphides” is famous for being the first plotless ballet. Not only is there no story - the characters have no names, and there’s no emotion other than the emotion that a sylph might naturally generate just by being a sylph. It has significant value as ballet history, but for many contemporary audience-members, it’s a sure cure for insomnia. As the woman seated next to me said to her companion: “George, is it the music or the dancing that’s making you fall asleep?” I heard no response from George.
But focusing on style and performance quality can convert the tedium to excitement.
Friday’s cast was led by Ms. Seo (‘Prelude’ and ‘Pas de Deux’), Ms. Boylston (‘Mazurka’), Ms. Lane (‘Waltz’), and Thomas Forster. In the same ‘roles,’ Saturday afternoon’s cast was Veronika Part, Ms. Semionova, Melanie Hamrick, and Mr. Stearns – except Ms. Semionova danced the pas de deux. All were either role debuts or ABT debuts.
Mr. Forster, a member of the corps, did remarkably well as the character that in other ballets would be called the Poet. Mr. Stearns performed admirably as well, but he had a tougher road to hoe partnering Ms. Semionova, who is considerably taller and more solid than Ms. Seo. The finest performances, in terms of proper execution of the Romantic style, were provided by Ms. Part, Ms. Seo, and Ms. Lane.
On Friday, Ms. Boylston did a fine job with the ‘Marzurka’ leaps and jumps. But the Romantic style does not come naturally to her. She appeared relatively earthy rather than weightless, and she consistently kept her arms straight (and at one point flapped her hands as if she was trying to fly). Ms. Seo did a much better job with her sections – she was softly rounded throughout, delicate, and looked every inch the sylph. But Ms. Lane is a natural Romantic stylist, and was the most successful of the three. Not only were her arms and hands correct, but she moved with a soft, effortless fluidity, that sense of being ethereal, that is a cornerstone of Romantic style. I particularly liked the way she moved her arms and hands forward as imagined music flowed from her mouth, spreading the silent sound for all to hear.
On Saturday, Ms. Semionova also did a fine job with the ‘Mazurka’. But she’s is not a sylph, and to me failed to look in any way ethereal. She also was sparkly – a quality that served her well in “Theme and Variations,” but was out of place in “Les Sylphides.” Ms. Hamrick did a fine job with the ‘Waltz’ section, but lacked Ms. Lane’s polished execution. But Ms. Part danced the definitive ‘Prelude’. Her performance stopped the show – literally. Following the ‘Prelude’, the audience continued applauding, trying to coax her out for a curtain call.
Eventually the performance moved on without it, while the audience was still applauding Ms. Part. The usual order of performance has the dancer who performs the ‘Prelude’ dance the pas de deux, as Ms. Seo did on Friday. But at Saturday’s performance, Ms. Semionova danced the pas de deux. The change was not the result of a sudden injury – it was listed that way in the program. To me, it was a mistake, and audience-members with whom I spoke afterward were dumbfounded that Ms. Part did not dance the pas de deux.
Mr. Welch’s “Clear,” which premiered in 2001 and hasn’t been in ABT’s repertory since 2007, is a fine example of an (almost) all male dance. Choreographed to a variety of Bach pieces, Mr. Welch has choreographed nearly non-stop movement (until certain dancers calmly walk offstage when their segments have concluded), with every part of each body moving in strange and wondrous ways -- neck and head rotations, arms moving like short staffs (the weapon that Little John wielded in the Robin Hood stories), leg kicks….culminating in a slow duet between the lead male dancer and the lone woman (Mr. Gomez and Julie Kent on Friday, Sasha Radetsky and Paloma Herrera on Saturday). It was a kitchen sink of movement – but there was no sense of awkwardness, or of movement for movement’s sake, and it was structured such that the eye never tired of the visual cacophony. Mr. Gomes was extraordinary – movement quality that was both angular and lyrical, every gesture crisp, repetitive turns in second on a dime, and his usual sensitive partnering. But each member of the two casts performed exceptionally well. In addition to the principals, and without diminishing the performances of all, I found the performances of Mr. Royal and Mr. Ribagorda in the afternoon, and Daniel Mantei and Mr. Shayer in the evening, to be particularly and unexpectedly exciting. As I overheard one audience member say to another, with reference to the men: “Where have they been?”
The least significant of the ballets in these opening programs was Mr. Morris’s “Gong.” “Gong” may well be a fine ballet, but it’s hidden behind Isaac Misrahi’s pastel palette (each of the ten dancers is costumed in a different pastel color, except that all dancers wear the same contrasting colored shoes that pick up the color of whatever tinted light might be shining on them), and it’s buried in gimmicks and take-offs on the oriental themes in the score (“Tabuh-Tabuhan” by Colin McPhee). Structured in five segments, the best parts of the ballet were the two pas de deux, danced by Ms. Murphy and Mr. Radetsky, and Ms. Copeland and Mr. Gomes, each of which was performed without artifice, and in complete silence.
Overall, however, the opening performances of ABT’s Fall Season provided the audience with interesting new ballets and revivals. Of at least equal importance, it also provided casting opportunities for ABT’s soloists and members of the corps that are rarely offered during the company’s Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House. As an opportunity to see dancers one might not otherwise see, and dancers in roles one might not otherwise see them dance, this brief season should not be missed. ABT’s Fall Season continues through November 10.