Dancing Saves the Day

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

Punching up its long season at the Metropolitan Opera House (through June 28) with the obligatory novelty, American Ballet Theatre concocted a double-barreled affair called HereAfter. Heaven, choreographed by Natalie Weir to John Adams's Harmonium, and Earth, set to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana by Stanton Welch, share a knock-your-eyes-out installation by Santo Loquasto. An elaborate skeletal structure pierces and activates the vaulting vertical space of the stage that dancing usually ignores, with the huge chorus that is central to both scores perched on its rising tiers, bathing the scene in sound. Clearly this spectacular scaffolding is rising toward a "world of light," and both ballets are relentlessly apocalyptic in tone.

In both cases, the situation suggests an everyman reviewing his life as he is confronted with death. The ballets latch on to the conventional notion that such an examination brings about understanding of "what it all means" and, thus, catharsis. The symbolic figures in the process are trite too. When it comes to women, for instance, we get sacred love and profane love (the good girl and the bad girl), with selfless love (muse? fairy godmother? Mom?) thrown in for good measure.

Conjoined at the end of the show by a gimmick so unconvincing it looks like an act of desperation, Heaven and Earth do actually share some features. Weir and Welch both couple the showier elements of the classical vocabulary with gut-sprung modern-dance moves. And both deliver a commodity that is more pageant than dance. Miraculously, many of the principal performers—notably Marcelo Gomes, Ethan Stiefel, and Herman Cornejo—manage intermittently to make this portentous nonsense look like a window of opportunity.

The real news of ABT's season to date is not a dance but a dancer—Alina Cojocaru, appearing as a guest artist in Natalia Makarova's production of La Bayadère. Born in Romania, trained at the Kiev Ballet's school in the Ukraine, the 21-year-old wunderkind is now a principal with England's Royal Ballet. There she has forged a partnership with the Danish-trained Johann Kobborg, and they bring out the emotive best in each other. When I saw the two in Copenhagen last fall, as guests with Denmark's Royal Ballet in John Cranko's Onegin, they brought down the house. Here in New York, as the heroine of Petipa's enduring blend of Hindu-inflected melodrama and classical sublimity, Cojocaru was a singular sensation but an authentic one who fully earned the audience's near hysterical acclaim.

Cojocaru is a petite, exquisitely proportioned woman with an appealing heart-shaped face and a light-up-the-room smile. Her technique is formidable, with strength and accuracy merely givens. What you notice most is her hummingbird swiftness and lightness, the flexibility she uses with a sculptor's sense of plastique, and the delicate articulation of her feet. Understanding the importance of varied dynamics, she offsets her diamond cutter's precision with moments of blurry-edged wildness, flying across the stage, when the urgency of the ballet's story calls for it, like a moth bent on self-immolation. And by some mysterious miracle of projection, the scale of her dancing is immense.

The most significant thing about Cojocaru, though, is her tremendous expressive power—the very element missing in today's typical ballet star. I wouldn't say that Cojocaru acts her roles superbly—her performances are uncannily innocent of contrivance—but that she embodies them. She becomes her character, reacting so spontaneously that turns in the plot seem to surprise her. The last time we saw this phenomenon, this impassioned immediacy, was with Gelsey Kirkland. The model for it in living memory is Margot Fonteyn.

Meanwhile, across the plaza, the New York City Ballet began its season (New York State Theater, through June 29) with new work from its artistic director, Peter Martins, and its resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon—both prolific guys. Wheeldon, who seems determined to prove himself in every last ballet genre, came up with a piece clearly intended to attract children—Carnival of the Animals, set to the familiar Saint-Saëns music. The production has two enormous flaws, either of which would easily doom it.

One: It is largely incomprehensible. John Lithgow wrote and narrates a tale in doggerel verse of a boy who, accidentally locked overnight in the Museum of Natural History, dreams that its taxidermic animals come to life and represent folks in his own world—a few benevolent, most of them annoying. Nearly all the creature-person connections Wheeldon makes are feeble; besides, it's well nigh impossible to make them via dancing. Ironically the choreographer who came closest to succeeding in this domain was Balanchine; his setting of Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges was essentially a failure, but a magical one.

Two: Wheeldon's ballet is arch and precious. It aims for fantasy, is apparently willing to settle for clever charm, and is so self- congratulatory as it goes about its business that it suffers the fate of an ill-timed soufflé. And what about the misbegotten appeal to the upper crust? The young hero is costumed for a British prep school of decades past (though his parents seem to be working-class, as portrayed by Tudor) and goes by the name of Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third. What Everychild will make of all this, I can't imagine, but the dance-mad youngster in my life is not going to be allowed anywhere near it.

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.

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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