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First up was Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, originally made for the company by Mark Morris in 1988.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.


Mark Morris Dance Group at BAM

March 1, 2012

I’ve been reading a good deal of Gertrude Stein for classes lately, and was thus particularly excited to see Mark Morris’s rendering of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” the opera composed by Virgil Thomson to which Stein contributed the fantastic libretto. Her lyrics are foregrounded from the outset: a large canvas-like curtain emblazoned with the beginning of the libretto, as well as a few symbols here and there, greeted the audience as we waited for the performance to begin. It took a bit of contemplation to determine which direction the text moved in (across the center or vertically in two columns?), and the split in the center caused the words positioned there to repeat or extend themselves (i.e. “chaanged”), both very Stein-ian effects.

Michelle Yard and Samuel Black, dressed all in white, portrayed St. Teresa and St. Ignatius, respectively, dancing both with the other “saints” and in a series of duets. From time to time the text-filled drop would open (sometimes impelled by dancers) to reveal bright, storybook  The “assorted saints” were dressed in folky costumes: calf-length twirling skirts and shawl-like peasant tops over bra tops for the women, and tanks, knee-length pants, and neckerchiefs for the men, all in earthy tones with bright accents. The movement was continually understated and low to the ground, here and there becoming more explicitly folk-influenced.

The greatest pleasures of this piece came from the interplay between the movement on stage and the lyrics being sung by the soloists and the Trinity Choir. Stein continually confounds our sense of where we are in the course of the piece by having the singers repetitively announce or reference scenes or acts in ways that make a linear sense of time impossible. At times the lyrics became simply music, the repetitive mutations slipping away from signification and into pure aurality. At other times, our attention would be drawn back to the often absurd wordplay, as the choreography accentuated the silliness of phrases like “Pigeons on the grass alas.”

The second piece on the bill, “A Choral Fantasy,” was a world premiere, set to music by Beethoven. The costumes, by Issac Mizrahi, were dark colored unitards with asymmetrical gold x’s on the front and back, and reflective squiggles down the side, which nicely accentuated the dancers’ lines and movements.

Morris’s talent for organizing space in engaging ways was on full display. The first few minutes of the piece occurred entirely stage right, with dancers retreating and advancing but never making it to or across the center of the stage. Near the middle of the piece, there were four unique tableaux in motion in each corner of the stage while Amber Star Merkens, with whom the piece had begun, held court in the center. More “dance-y” than “Four Saints,” “A Choral Fantasy” maintained a level of contrast throughout that ensured the big leaps maintained their impact. As the piece drew to a close, the dancers shifted in and out of triangular formations, teasing us with a false climax, until we finally did reach the end, satisfying in its simple, yet exhilarating clarity.