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First up was Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, originally made for the company by Mark Morris in 1988.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

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A Study in Contrasts: “La Bayadère” at ABT

Friday night’s performance of “La Bayadère” at ABT was a battle of the Russian women: the impossibly long-limbed Veronika Part (replacing Diana Vishneva) as Nikiya, the temple dancer, and the inimitable Natalia Osipova as Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter. The juxtaposition was most striking when the two ballerinas fought it out over the warrior Solor (Marcelo Gomes) in Gamzatti’s room: Part was the tall, womanly, and sensuous temple dancer to Osipova’s precise and fiery princess. Their stark differences highlighted the very different worlds to which their characters belonged.

Osipova’s acting, as an entitled, haughty princess, was pitch-perfect, from the lift of her chin to the arch of her eyebrow. The subtle sidelong glances at her distracted fiancée while the two watched Nikiya perform her tragic dance were the only hint of her vulnerability. Every time she felt Solor was slipping from her grasp, she amped up her regal air, hiding her doubts behind the façade of confidence created by her crystalline technique.

Despite her tiny frame, Osipova effortlessly matched the height of Gomes’ jumps. In the finale of their pas de deux, her series of Italian and traditional fouettée turns were a dynamic force that seemed to set the entire colorful scene in motion. While I agree with many others that “home-grown” ABT dancers should be getting more shots at principal parts, I can’t deny the pleasure it is to see this astonishing artist perform.

What’s interesting about the first act divertissements is that, being set in this “exotic” location of India, the character dances no longer have to be ethnically specific as in other ballets of the period—no character shoes here! (I’m not at all saying that character dances always reflect their purported culture, but mazurka and czardas are actual dances.) By placing the ballet firmly in a location that is not-Europe, it becomes fine to have the “locals” dancing very classical ballet, in sparkly tutus, with a few broken-wrist, upturned palm gestures to add “exotic” flavor.

That said, the dancers in these groups took these absurd opportunities and ran with them. The women in purple tutus in particular (Yuriko Kajiya, Sarah Lane, Luciana Paris, and it looked like Nicola Curry although Misty Copeland was listed?) were exquisite. The d’jampe dancers, with scarves attached to their pants, foreshadowed the shades who would arrive in the second act, with scarf-like arm adornments, as well as the scarf that connects the lovers parted by death, Nikiya and Solor, in their opium-induced reunion. These scarves also seem related to the veils that Nikiya and Gamzatti wear in their first entrances—symbolizing the mysterious exoticism projected onto India in a colonial era.

The first act’s only flaw was the inability of the dancers, from principals to corps, to finish on the music (this may be partly attributed to the orchestra). Osipova in particular finished out more than one set of partnered turns to a few counts of silence before the concluding beat.

From that famous scene when the Shades descend down the ramp in hypnotic synchronicity, the second act belongs to the corps de ballet. What struck me watching this scene was just how hard it is. Take away the tutus and scenery, and this could be a class at the Vaganova academy: développé side…and hold; precise directional change, développé arabesque…hold again. That the scene transcends its academic bones and becomes something dream-like is a testament to the alchemic power of classical ballet at its best.

Part exuded an otherworldly sort of languor in her second-act pas de deux with Gomes. The passages where she executed a series of turns, in arabesque and then passé, while holding a scarf above her hand, held at the other end by Gomes, were breathtaking. Gomes was, as usual, fantastic: regal lines, buoyant jumps, and attentive, selfless partnering. He went from ecstatically passionate lover in the first act—exemplified by exuberant variation-ending backbends—to entranced cavalier in the second. His Solor was unable to comprehend the forces in play around him, making his bewildered shock at Nikiya’s death all the more poignant.

In the final act, Osipova revealed her desperation in a dramatic departure from her first-act persona. No longer confined to sidelong glances, her insecurity about Solor’s devotion to her was evident in the way she carried herself and danced with him, now colored by submission and deference. In the “candle dance” section, in which she and Solor are separately encircled by two groups of temple dancers, their reactions to their impending nuptials were telling: her glances at him illustrating her fear of losing him, his indicating his panicked, claustrophobic realizations: “How did I end up here? Is it too late to escape?”

It is, of course, too late to escape. Part returns once more as a spirit, interrupting the wedding proceedings with her luxurious saut de chats (big leaps), just before the entire temple comes crashing down. In the wake of this destruction, we are left once again with that symbolic scarf, as it connects the two lovers, Nikiya and Solor, in the afterlife.