Of Sylphs and Princess Ballerinas

To some, a ballet evening without tutus is like a martini without gin

On January 11, 1940, the company originally known as Ballet Theatre began the first performance of its first season with a 1909 classic: Les Sylphides. One coup was that the one-act ballet to orchestrations of Chopin piano music had been staged for Ballet Theatre by its 60-year-old choreographer, Mikhail Fokine. Another was that, at a time when "ballet" meant Russians (or pretend Russians), most of the cast was American.

Fokine would have approved of the atmosphere on view when the curtain goes up on ABT's current production of his ballet. His colleague Alexandre Benois's backcloth of foliage and picturesque ruins graces a glade bathed in moonlight by lighting designer David K.H.Elliott. In this staging by Kirk Peterson, the dancers correctly evoke Marie Taglioni and her sister ballerinas of the 1830s and '40s in gauzy flight, and also display the breathing upper body and rippling arms that Fokine gleaned from Isadora Duncan along with the Chopin piano pieces that were orchestrated for the ballet. David Hallberg, the sole male in this kingdom, magnificently evokes the poet dreamer through his ardent gaze, noble restraint, and arrowy arabesques. Stella Abrera, Erica Cornejo (especially radiant), and Maria Riccetto create images of windblown buoyancy. The white-skirted women of the corps move in impeccable unison as they flutter their arms toward the wings where a bounding colleague has just exited, as if to say, "Leap again, girl!"

Fokine, however, wasn't just a great choreographer; he was a fierce and demanding director. What these dancers miss is the specificity of the gestures he designed. Were he alive today, he'd be slapping at hands meant to be conveying listening and calling instead forming vague, pretty, crumpled shapes somewhere in the vicinity of the women's faces. There are nature spirits to be summoned beyond the confines of the stage and mysterious responses to be heard.

There's nothing mysterious about the pas de deux from Paquita, the kind of glittering 19th-century ballet Fokine leap-frogged backward over in an effort to recapture in Sylphides the romanticism that flourished several decades before Marius Petipa revised an 1846 Paris Opera ballet to suit Russian imperial taste. Various choreographers have toyed with the pas de deux from Paquita's Grand Pas—adding, for instance, strong-arm, Soviet-style lifts. Dancers often select whatever bravura feats suit them best and whichever solo they prefer from the original set of variations. The grand manner, triumphant balances, and soaring leaps, of course, remain.

The second night of the ABT season, Paloma Herrera chose a different solo from the one Irina Dvorovenko performed at the gala the night before with the elegant Maxim Beloserkovsky, and the duet was the better for it. Herrera gives the steps of the serenely poised, delicately vixenish solo both amplitude and a Spanishy edge, and she and her partner—Jose Manuel Carreño of the amazingly smooth, steady turns—strike sparks that ignite the audience. Beloserkovsky has developed enormously as a dancer. His lines are clean, his leaps high, his manner noble and ardent. The audience approves of him, but Carreño evidently makes their pulses pound, and not just because of those buttery turns. A macho Latino thing? His apparently spontaneous enjoyment? Maybe. But I think it's also Carreño's rapport with his partners that fires up spectators. Although Beloserkovsky is attentive to Dvorovenko (his wife), she is less so to him. A strong, lithe dancer, she performs with calculated charm, as if listening to some inner coach telling her when to cock her head just so, when to flash a smile.

The gala audience also got a peek at Herrera and Carreño in excerpts from Peterson's The Howling Cat (subtitled Imaginary Tango), which the company will premiere this spring. In a dreamily sirenish solo, Herrera's strong legs flash through layers of red and black fringe (costumes by Sandra Woodall), and, after a well-organized macho outing for four sleek gents (Grant DeLong, Jesus Pastor, Jared Matthews, and Luis Ribagorda), Carreño enters her life. This happy brute is able and willing to pas-de-deux a girl out of her mind, as well as showing her his tricks. I would have liked the duet a lot better if Peterson hadn't chosen the hackneyed tango melody "Jealousy," to which my school friends and I used to yodel "Lep-ro-syyyy!", seeing who could contrive the most gruesome follow-up lyrics.

 
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