ABT Mixed Bill: Morris, Ashton, Balanchine

There’s something about walking into the Metropolitan Opera House for American Ballet Theatre’s spring season that always reminds me why it is I live in New York. While I sometimes find their counterpart across the plaza, New York City Ballet, more exciting for the chance to see dancers rising through the ranks and a wide array of ballets new and old, ABT offers a certain grandeur that never fails to draw me back. While the spring season primarily consists of evening-length classics (think Swan Lake, Don Quioxte), Thursday night’s program offered three disparate ballets, ranging from Mark Morris’s breezy modernity to Balanchine’s ode to classicism.

First up was Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, originally made for the company by Mark Morris in 1988. The ballet is set to a number of piano etudes by Virgil Thomson (an important modernist composer, who also composed Gertrude Stein’s opera Three Saints in Four Acts, which Morris later choreographed) played by Barbara Bilach on a piano at the back of the stage. The ballet’s easy classicism is intermixed with a sense of grounded-ness that belies its creator’s modern dance background. The loose white costumes echo this sense of ease, as the dancers come and go, creating intricate patterns and surprising images.

 

Melanie Hamrick, Yuriko Kajiya and Marian Butler in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Melanie Hamrick, Yuriko Kajiya and Marian Butler in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.
Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Although this work is largely non-hierarchical, with no clear principals, there were a few dancers in particular who caught my attention. Joseph Gorak, still in the corps de ballet, was a standout in the central role. With feet and extensions that would make many a ballerina jealous, he breezed through a series of pirouettes which ended in controlled extensions with grace. Kristi Boone’s clarity and daring was stunning, yet assured.

A Month in the Country, by British choreographer Frederick Ashton, is “freely adapted” from the play by Ivan Turgenev. The set for this ballet is absolutely stunning—richly detailed layers frame a central living space, a smaller piano room, and the garden beyond. The ballet tells the story of Natalia Petrovna (Hee Seo), the bored wife of an older man, whose life at her country house is interrupted by the arrival of a tutor (David Hallberg) who becomes entangled with both Natalia and her young ward (Sara Lane).

Hee Seo in A Month in the Country Photo: Marty Sohl

Hee Seo in A Month in the Country
Photo: Marty Sohl

I had never seen Seo dance a principal role before this performance, and was quickly converted. She exuded elegance in her pristine lines and silky movements and was convincing in her portrayal of Natalia’s jealously and later heartbreak. Hallberg was wonderful as always, even out of his usual princely element.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about ABT doing Balanchine—whether they should, if they’re doing it right, which company members are cut out for it—so anticipation was high for their performances of Symphony in C. The ballet is a study in structure and style, and Balanchine’s particular brand of classicism. Each of the four movements features a principal couple, two secondary couples, and a corps de ballet of women in white tutus and tiaras like the principals (the men are in black).

Stella Abrera was regal and refined in the 1st movement, ably partnered by Eric Tamm. In the grand and lyrical 2nd movement, Marcelo Gomes’s gaze and attentive partnering immediately focused our attention on Polina Semionova (although sadly, we don’t get to see much of his own dancing in this role).

Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in Symphony in C Photo: Marty Sohl

Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in Symphony in C
Photo: Marty Sohl

Natalia Osipova and her partner Ivan Vasiliev soared with the incredible buoyancy we have come to expect from these Russian superstars in the 3rd movement (she even more so than he), but I found myself wishing they would turn down the Bolshoi showiness a notch (an open-mouthed ah-ha! smile seemed to punctuate each movement). Simone Messmer, along with partner Jared Matthews, was a breath of fresh air in the spirited 4th movement, executing the difficult choreography with élan and airy confidence.

While the corps de ballet looked a bit uneven at times, the dancers pulled together for the always-thrilling finale, in which the entire cast returns to the stage, dancing in unison at high speed. Purists may argue that ABT doesn’t have the appropriate style or speed for Balanchine, but it is always a delight to see this ballet, and was a fine opportunity to see some of their soloists in particular shine.

A Glamorous Evening at New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala

New York City Ballet’s galas are always a glamorous affair, and this year’s, entitled “A La Française,” was no exception, featuring premieres, fashion-inspired costumes, and a glitzy red carpet. Peter Martins’ opening piece, “Mes Oiseaux,” was an enjoyable opportunity to see some of the company’s newest talents (Taylor Stanley, Lauren Lovette, Ashly Issacs, and Claire Kretzschmar), but not much more. The women, who each made a dramatic entrance into a spotlight, had gorgeous lines and admirable attack. They did not yet have assurance of more senior dancers, but this will surely come as they gain experience. There was a beautifully liquid quality to Stanley’s movement in his solo (one of the highlights of the piece) that I wish we had gotten to see more of.

Claire Kretzschmar and Taylor Stanley in Peter Martins' Mes Oiseaux

Claire Kretzschmar and Taylor Stanley in Peter Martins’ Mes Oiseaux
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

Millepied’s new work, “Two Hearts” (excerpt available here) began with Tyler Angle performing a series of playful yet sensitive lateral movements within a circle of light. Millepied skillfully manipulated his corps of twelve dancers, dressed in black-and-white costumes by Rodarte, through a range of geometric patterns, using uneven numbers and ever-changing groupings to great effect. Tiler Peck, as the principal woman, was both soft and dynamic. In one sequence in which she was repeatedly caught and held mid-air by the male corps, you almost believed she could have stayed suspended without assistance. The score, newly commissioned from Nico Muhly, was reminiscent of Philip Glass in its simplicity and repetitiveness, but with touches like echoes of a music box tune complicating its underwater-like quality.

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Benjamin Millepied's Two Hearts

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle in Benjamin Millepied’s Two Hearts
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

The chic-ness of the off-the-shoulder straps of the womens’ costumes was accentuated when Peck removed her skirt for the final pas de deux with Angle. More tender and fluid than their first duet, even simple walks took on emotional significance. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dawn Landes began singing an old English folk song, “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” over the score. Rather than providing an interesting contrast to the ultra-modern costumes and music, this song was continually distracting, particularly as one caught snatches of the lyrics (did no one involved feel uncomfortable with the implicit racism of this evil “brown girl” who kills the “fair maiden”?). I couldn’t wait for it to end. Thankfully, what stuck in my mind was the image of the two dancers quietly embracing on the floor, a subtle conclusion to their sensuous pas de deux.

The debut in Symphony in C was the new costumes by Marc Happel, which closed the evening on a glittering note. They were not a major departure from the original Karinska costumes, keeping the same black-and-white color scheme and general look, but with modernized and streamlined shapes. Others have complained that they were too glitzy, but from our perch in the fourth ring, there was just enough sparkle.

Megan Fairchild sparkled in the quick, precise movements of the first movement with partner Jared Angle. Sara Mearns was luscious in the penchées and back bends of the second movement adagio with Jonathan Stafford. The contrast between movements was remarkable as Ashley Bouder bounded onto the stage with partner Joaquin de Luz, injecting life and excitement into the previously languorous atmosphere. Peck was, as she has been all season, breathtakingly crystalline in her delivery in the fourth movement, well-matched by the noble Adrian Danchig-Waring.

While we prize the freshness of new patterns in contemporary works, it is sometimes delightfully refreshing to revel in beautiful lines and symmetry, and this is the opportunity Symphony in C gives us: the pleasure and excitement of perfectly executed arabesques or pirouettes, multiplied by an entire stage of dancers in perfect formation.

Serenade, Firebird, & DGV at New York City Ballet

What is there to say about Balanchine’s glorious Serenade that has not been said before? The iconic 1934 ballet was the first piece on New York City Ballet’s program Friday night. There were audible groans when it was announced that Sara Mearns, who was to be making her debut as the “Waltz Girl,” would be replaced by Janie Taylor (Teresa Reichlen replaced her in the first movement of DGV). However, it is the women of the corps who are the star of this ballet, a fact movingly clear from that first heart-stopping moment when the curtain rises on those seventeen dancers clad in wispy pale blue, gazes lifted toward their outstretched arms.

The ballet has been given a number of different interpretations, but on a weekend when I was personally thinking a lot about female friendships, I was moved by the bonds between the women, reflected in their dancing together—always aware of, and in relation to, the other dancers. Friday night, they moved as one without losing their individuality. The grand circle of piqué turns was a particularly striking moment, as the dancers’ perfectly synchronized spotting (whipping of the head) producing a dazzling effect.

I usually find Megan Fairchild to be underwhelming, but was pleasantly surprised by her in this role. She pulled off the quick jumps and multiple turns of the role with a breezy assurance. Teresa Reichlen, in the Dark Angel role, and Adrian Danchig-Waring, as her partner, were lush and entrancing.

Janie Taylor was not as technically assured as Reichlen and Fairchild, but in the final scene, as she is lifted in a standing position and carried upstage between two lines of dancers, the gradual arch of her back was so dramatic it seemed impossible that she did not fall. Her daring is of a different sort—pushing the limits of this fragility rather than the more robust risk-taking of dancers like Mearns.

The main attractions of Firebird are the scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall (though the Stravinsky score doesn’t hurt either). The curtain rises on a fantastical and slightly disturbing drop depicting a bird with a second upside-down head—that of a woman—and holding a bouquet. The subsequent backdrops continue in this magical, colorful vein. The final tableau opens on Prince Ivan (Ask la Cour) and his bride (Gwyneth Muller), who is dressed in an elaborate red gown featuring three enormous roses and a train a few feet long. They stand atop a brightly colored rug and surrounded by their attendants and the strange, motley creatures they were recently fighting. Unfortunately, there is not much dancing of substance to go along with these surrealist scenes, the exception being the Firebird herself. When Maria Kowroski enters, we see numerous echoes of Swan Lake, as her elegant arms flap and tremble. The Firebird however, is wilder and jerkier than Odette, more prone to sudden movements and less elongated lines.

I wrote about DGV in February when the company premiered it during their All Wheeldon program in the winter season. The revelation for me this time around was Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall in the third “region.” The last time I saw this ballet, I felt that this section relied too much on contortions and extensions for their own sake. But Whelan and Hall, from the moment they entered, imbued these extreme movements with a sense of purpose, clarity, and exquisite tension. Their chemistry projects all the way to the fourth ring. Their performance also drew my attention to a moment in the choreography reminiscent of Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” in which Hall holds on to her extended leg, as she repeatedly reaches forward and is pulled back. While the other principal couples (Reichlen & R. Fairchild; A. Bouder & J. de Luz, T. Peck & A. Veyette) all had impressive technique and presence, I could not draw my eyes away from these two.