Dancing Saves the Day

The Balance of Power Shifts Between America's Top Two Ballet Troupes

Martins, for his part, continued his exploration of John Adams's music. He matches the eerie, ominous Guide to Strange Places, adopted as the ballet's title, with a foreboding intergalactic panorama created by five couples. Moving with sleek, long-limbed ferocity, as if on a preordained grid, the citizens of this outer space are essentially look-alikes—though Darci Kistler and her staunch cavalier, Jock Soto, emerge as the designated stars. Kistler's once wonderful technique deserted her long ago, so her bits in the limelight constitute a choreographic exercise in what can be managed when your dancer can no longer leap and pirouette with aplomb—obviously, supported or grounded stuff. Part of the dubious solution is a passage in which Soto raises the floating skirt of Kistler's costume, ties it around her neck, and then escorts her to the floor for what looks like a bout of nasty sex. The rest of the piece suggests a choreographer who's just going through the motions—handsomely, to be sure, but wholly without affect.

Heaven knows: Ethan Stiefel astride the American Ballet Theatre corps at the Met.
photo: Richard Termine
Heaven knows: Ethan Stiefel astride the American Ballet Theatre corps at the Met.

NYCB and ABT, America's top two ballet troupes, have been playing rival spring seasons at Lincoln Center for more than two decades. Time was, the most profound and thrilling art lay with NYCB. Little by little, without Balanchine's galvanizing presence as chief choreographer and—this should not be underestimated—chief coach, the power of attraction shifted to ABT, with its warmer performing style, its growing complement of male virtuosi, its recent cultivation of tall, fresh, and athletic "American Girl" ballerinas (Gillian Murphy, Michele Wiles), and the occasional dazzling guest star. Overall, ABT's repertory can't compete with the stock of Balanchine and Robbins dances held by the NYCB. But with that unique heritage now unevenly performed and glutted and dulled with an excess of Martins and Wheeldon, ABT has slipped into first place. With its ingratiating performances, it's the company that offers more fun.

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