Masterworks and Edgy Ventures at American Ballet Theatre

A stellar company wraps up a vibrant season

Any season in which ABT mounts fine productions of Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading and Twyla Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen has to be considered a gift to dance lovers. Both these marvelous works show how great choreographers build form and steps onto music to create an art work that moves us in ways beyond the reach of words.

Leaves, made for ABT in 1975, represented for Tudor the kind of creative renewal that marked Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969). Tudor had composed his greatest ballets during the 1930s and 1940s, and most of the relatively few ballets he choreographed between 1960 and 1975 were made for his Juilliard students. For whatever reason (perhaps Gelsey Kirkland in her youthful glory inspired him), Leaves, set to a several pieces by Antonin Dvorak (primarily from his Cypress) flows onto the stage as if in the grip of a summer breeze. But, despite Patricia Zipprodt’s filmy, subtly patterned, rose-pink dresses and shirts, the ballet isn’t an exercise in mindless Utopian prettiness. Its lyricism runs deeper, its events cleansed by memory. The appearance of a woman in a long green gown to begin and end the ballet tells us that everything we’ll see, or have just seen, happened years ago.

Even more so than Robbins in Dances, Tudor builds images of community, of sharing. People stroll on to watch one another dance. They gaze at the horizon. Couples finish a dance and look questioningly into each other’s eyes. Using eight women and only five men for his ensemble, he mingles them in ways that reinforce the aura of youth and dreams. In the first minutes of the ballet, the women are dancing delicately, each in her own spot, not traveling much; the men pass through and among them, dancing with each woman they comes to. The women without partners do the movement anyway, as best they can. Soon, they move among the men in the same way.

Scene from Benjamin Millepied's From Here On Out.
Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Scene from Benjamin Millepied's From Here On Out.

The movement has an ease to it that gives it loft and makes it seem as simple as breathing. When a man lifts a woman, the act seems merely an extension of an ardent breath. Even in moments of ecstasy or playfulness, there’s a certain Tudoresque reticence to these people’s behavior, as if they were afraid of breaking the mood of a beautiful moment. There are many such moments, and they vary in tone. Anne Milewski and Jacquelyn Reyes are like quivery colts in their happy dance. In one duet, the partners (Yuriko Kajiya and Arron Scott) give each other gentle little pushes. Melissa Thomas is all innocence with Roman Zhurbin, while Veronika Part flings herself more hungrily on Cory Stearns. These pas de deux fold in and out of a flow of dancing that’s vigorous and bold as often as it’s floaty.

The night I saw the ballet—scrupulously staged by former ABT dancers Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner—the principal roles were danced by Xiomara Reyes and Gennady Saveliev. Reyes has changed much since she first joined ABT; her chest seems more open, her neck longer. I’ve never seen her so lovely as she is in Leaves—quietly flirtatious, fluid, joyous, wrapped up in her attentive partner. And as he carries her off after their duet, she flails happily in his arms as if she could no longer resist the deliciousness of passion.

I first saw Baker’s Dozen at its 1979 premiere by Twyla Tharp’s own company. Nothing can quite eradicate my memories of those dancers. Every revival becomes a palimpsest beneath which that production lurks. I still remember the moment when Sara Rudner fell from high in the wings (for the second time) into Richard Colton’s arms and the nonchalant way he tossed her back to invisible hands before embarking, kneeling on the ground, on a beguilingly self-satisfied little solo. That doesn’t mean that Simone Messmer and Craig Salstein don’t fill those roles excellently; it only proves that some recollections won’t be repressed. (Salstein’s been terrific in everything I’ve seen him do; he’s the only one in two casts of Jerome Robbins’s 1944 gem Fancy Free who made me see how astonishing and wonderful this young sailor found Manhattan’s skyscrapers and bustling streets to be).

Baker’s Dozen is set to tunes by Willie “The Lion” Smith (played very well, if not inspiringly by Barbara Bilach). Tharp captures their slouchy ease, their breeziness, their moments of bravura (as in the section, “Tango à la Caprice) with parades and eddies, and turbulent rivers of dancing. The twelve dancers in their sleek white clothes by Santo Loquasto meet in pairs, return in trios, form quartets, flirt with the idea of a quintet, and group in sixes for a Tharpian take on the Polonaise familiar from older ballets. But none of these swirling, no-two-people-alike constructions is pointed up; they surface out of a constant flow and, transformed, frolic away. The movement is complicated in a silky, jazz-born way; tricky coordinations have to look as fluid and unplanned as the “mistakes” and stumbles that make us laugh. ABT’s dancers may not be as juicy in their dancing as Tharp’s people were, but they all make a fine showing in this witty, dazzling work. For the record: Kristi Boone, Misty Copeland (yes!), Maria Riccetto, Sarawanee Tanatanit, Michele Wiles (lovely and relaxed), Julio Bragado-Young, Thomas Forster, Jeffrey Golladay, Blaine Hoven, Isaac Stappas, Messmer, and Salstein. We can look forward to the new Tharp ballet that ABT will premiere during its spring season.

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