Past Perfect Treasures

ABT polishes a heritage; the dancers make it shine

American Ballet Theatre devotes its spring seasons at the Met mainly to big ballets—19th-century classics, more recent charmers like Frederick Ashton's Sylvia, and the odd new full-length work. It's gratifying that the company now uses its City Center fall seasons to showcase smaller 20th-century masterpieces. This year's lineup is especially exciting: company premieres of Kurt Jooss's The Green Table and Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, revivals of Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies, George Balanchine's Apollo, Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room, and Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, along with Mark Morris's Gong, last season's Fokine revivals, assorted sparkly pas de deux, and one brand new ballet.

The new one, Kaleidoscope, is by the promising 26-year-old Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz. Like Christopher Wheeldon, Quanz doesn't stick to one pattern. He made one previous work to Cole Porter tunes; another involved silent film characters. Kaleidoscope, on the other hand, is an affair involving tutus, grand manners, and a corps of 12 women and six men rushing around to frame and encircle two couples. Set—not always felicitously—to Camille Saint-Sa fulminatingly virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 5 (finely played by Barbara Bilach), the ballet reveals Quanz's talent for moving groups around the stage (mostly they run). The initial exploding cluster of women in steel-blue satin pleasingly etches a kaleidoscope in front of the white triangles that dot Robert Perdziola's backdrop. The women bustle around Ethan Stiefel when he jumps boyishly into their midst, and form a diagonal aisle for Gillian Murphy.

Both the Stiefel-Murphy pas de deux and a later one for Veronica Part and Maxim Beloserkovsky are couched in not particularly inventive ballet rhetoric. I'd rather watch the luscious Part fall graciously backward into the arms of pairs of attentive men, or savor a very nice solo for Murphy. Quanz occasionally fumbles. Once the men stalk in, look at Part, and leave. À la Balanchine, one woman and then another run under the bridge formed by Murphy and Beloserkovsky's clasped hands, but the image never gets developed. Murphy races through a pathway of women to reach Stiefel; you expect that when she gets there, they'll do something more charged than echoing the women's little waltz-in-place balancés.

The opening gala and the following evening offered some wonderful choreography and some memorable performing. Julie Kent and Stiefel, meticulously coached in Faun, convey, if in a slightly muted way, the air of magical discovery and delicate eroticism that Robbins created between two young dancers alone in a studio on a sunny afternoon. Stiefel appraises his image in the mirror intently—almost with puzzlement—as he carefully manipulates his partner; Kent is more self-conscious. Each seems to be thinking "How do I look with him (or her)?" rather than "What are we creating together?" I miss the moment of linked arms with which Robbins's 1953 work invoked Nijinsky's 1912 original, but appreciate the attention to detail.

Seeing Erica Cornejo meltingly rapturous in La Sylphide, you mightn't imagine her as the Cowgirl in de Mille's Rodeo, but she's endearingly clumsy attempting to sit a horse and not fall off; it invariably runs away with her just when she's feeling one with the guys—specifically the handsome Head Wrangler (Isaac Stappas). And as the tomboy's embarrassment at appearing in a dress dissolves into joy in dancing and getting the attention of the men, Cornejo (coached by great former Cowgirl Christine Sarry) makes it all real. Occasionally she overdoes being woebegone, and misses subtler layers of reaction, but not often. And she has an excellent Champion Roper beau in Craig Salstein. Forget feminism and political correctness when watching this ballet; it's a lovely piece of work, with de Mille's tender, wisely theatrical choreography buoyed by Aaron Copland's marvelous score.

Morris's 2001 Gong, with Isaac Mizrahi's lollipop-bright costumes and Colin McPhee's Balinese-influenced score, offers more than just stunning patterns (for 12 principals plus six women) and arresting, unexpected moments (like the virtuosic Murphy being promenaded in lowarabesque by Sasha Radetsky). Although this is an ensemble piece, Morris weaves into the fabric a chance for every one of the main dancers to shine. And shine they do.

 
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