Drama on Pointe

Ballet Companies Are Busy Acting Up

Outside the Met, where American Ballet Theatre's annual season of block busters runs through June 19, food-service workers seeking to unionize pass out pamphlets noting the appropriateness of the evening's offering, Petipa's La Bayadère (1877): it was created during a century of worker exploitation. In fact, the 19th century revisited in this classic was, and re mains, an escapist fantasy set in an India that never was. Many ballet fans would be happy to see only Petipa's hypnotically beautiful "Kingdom of the Shades" act (as staged by Natalia Makarova), with its cut- crystal classical variations and symphony of white-clad women. But the lumbering tale of desire, betrayal, and revenge, housed in PierLuigi Samaritani's stunningly Romantic temples and palaces, sets off that opium dream of the hero's foresworn dead sweetheart, and La Bayadère, despite 20th-century alterations, remains one of the few windows into grand-scale ballet orientalism.

Plum roles abound. In one cast, Ethan Stiefel dances Solor with magnificent ease, his leaps so clear and effortless that you imagine the ground has blown him upward by either elation or grief. His Nikiya, Ashley Tuttle, per forms the first act with wonderful passion, but in the spirit world she turns occasion ally stony. Young corps member Gillian Murphy displays gracious, rock-steady dancing as the princess Solor is pressured into marrying, but she's one-dimensionally arrogant, stalking toward Solor with an "I am your fate" glare. As the head fakir, John Selya flings himself into astounding ragged jumps.

Right or wrong, ABT dancers act with fervor. On one of the few mixed bills amid the full-lengths, those splendid dancers Susan Jaffe and Vladimir Malakhov enter the bedroom duet in Kenneth MacMillan's Manon with spectacular abandon, as if trying to start a fire with the rub of flesh on flesh. Oddly, the subtler emotions of Leonide Massine's 1938 Gaiéte Parisienne eludes some major dancers, perhaps because the ballet as a whole is hardly subtle, with its dancing waiters, saucy maids, and a parade of exuberant, well-trained ensembles dancing to Offenbach in a Paris nightspot of the 1890s. Still, one needs to make sense of the entanglements. As the jaunty, bustling Peruvian Visitor, brilliant Angel Corella mugs outrageously and misses the specifics—such as the fact that one of his hip wiggles is meant to be a tiny suggestive frisson of pleasure when the Glove Seller works a glove down over his fingers. (Corella wiggles—slowly—much of the time.) Christine Dunham's Glove Seller is all-purpose cheery, rather than involved in pointed coquetry with every important man onstage. Soldiers appear not to know that a particular lunge and arm movement represents stabbing with a bayonet.

A kiss before dying: Roelandt and Coppieters in Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette
Laurent Philippe
A kiss before dying: Roelandt and Coppieters in Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette

ABT's glory lies more in its dancers than in its repertory—in men like Stiefel, Joaquin De Luz, Jose Manuel Carreño, and Julio Bocca, who shine in a performance of Anton Dolin's Variations for Four; in women like Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera, who, with the beautifully solicitous Keith Roberts, dance elegantly in a revival of George Balanchine's 1947 Symphonie Concertante, with its aura of sweet conversations and friendly lessons.

Balanchine had no use for divas. His most dramatic images are of unachievable women—muses, guides, disturbing visions. (The Siren in Prodigal Son isn't a diva, she's a cobra.) Perhaps that's why the principal women in his own New York City Ballet have seemed slightly veiled in the dual leading role of Peter Martins's Swan Lake. (Nor does NYCB condone the drastic tempo changes practiced by the Russians.) But this 50th-anniversary season (through June 27) offers plenty of opportunities for dancers to reveal the drama of movement. Alexandra Ansanelli gives a stunning performance in Jerome Robbins's 1951 The Cage. As the novice in a world of insectlike females, taking her first test in mate-and-kill, she's at first all rubbery instability. Ansanelli seems fragile, her legs too long for her strength, which makes her sudden resolute stiffening all the more moving. And terrifying. Returning to roles in Balanchine's Apollo and Duo Concertant after time out to heal an injury, Nikolaj Hübbe looks soft. But although his dancing hasn't regained its edge, his warmth and curiosity toward the three muses in Apollo is exemplary, and he and Yvonne Borree dance Duo Concertant with a tender inquisitive ness toward each other, the two on stage musicians, and the spirit of Stravinsky.

For the mini Stravinsky festival within the season, Christopher Wheeldon has set the composer's Scènes de Ballet on 62 students of the School of American Ballet. The charm is a foregone conclusion, so is the premise: growing up in ballet. Wheeldon, however, throws a few curves. Ian Falconer's impressive set shows an ornate 19th-century ballet studio, but the barre, a double one, not only creates the illusion of a mirror, it cuts the room diagonally. Starting with two very small girls (Isabel Vondermuhll and Jan Burkhard), Wheeldon builds his patterns symmetrically yet on a slight slant; the front of the stage isn't the "front" of the studio. The steps are simple at first, but by no means easy to do, and the young dancers perform with aplomb. Avoiding the cliché of barrework, the choreographer keeps the stage filling and emptying; flights of girls in pink tutus, boys in black tights and white T-shirts furl the increasingly difficult dancing into wheels, loops, and con centric circles that recall the elaborate diagrams of baroque equestrian ballets. At one happy point, Wheeldon turns the mirror into a dream, in which one child watches the young woman she may become (the wonder fully lithe and assured Faye Arthurs) dance with a fine cavalier (Craig Hall). The drama of dancing, indeed.

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