Masterworks and Edgy Ventures at American Ballet Theatre

A stellar company wraps up a vibrant season

ABT also offered two new ballets this fall—one by the in-demand Finnish choreographer, Jorma Elo, and one by fast-rising star Benjamin Millepied. When I see a ballet by Elo, I think dark thoughts about William Forsythe. I admire Forsythe immensely, but the ideas he has worked out about body parts competing with one another practically on a cellular level sit less convincingly on choreographers I imagine to have been influenced by him. Whatever the cause, an epidemic of distortions, twitches, dodges, backings off, and punitive encounters seems to be running its course in new ballets, and audiences love its nervy speed and virtuosic tangles.

Elo’s C. to C. is calm compared to other Elo ballets. The initials in the title stand for “Close to Chuck,” and the score is Philip Glass’s A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close (elegantly played for the ballet by Bruce Levingston). The painter and the composer have indeed been close friends for many years. I’d have to hear Glass’s music by itself to see if I could discern Close’s personna in the music, but, just as Close’s best-known works atomize portraits by assembling his subjects’ faces via smalll, vibrantly painted diamond shapes, Glass’s music is built of tiny units that repeat and expand to create a large picture. Elo, of course, is Mr. Fragmentation.

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


American Ballet Theatre
City Center
October 3 through November 4

The ballet is divided into two halves; two different Close self-portraits (themselves atomized or truncated by being presented in extreme closeup) succeed one another as backdrops. One is in black-and-white, the other vibrantly colored. A black curtain that drops briefly during the transition may perhaps mark a turning point in Close’s career and private life: the moment when an accident caused severe spinal damage and confined him to a wheelchair. C. to C. is full of moments that invite deciphering. When Sascha Radetsky, standing bare-backed under a harsh beam of light, ripples and contorts his spine in remarkable and disturbing ways, we think of Close. But it’s hard to know what Elo has in mind when Radetsky, standing beside Riccetto, reaches down to scoop up an imaginary substance. Levingston, seated at the onstage instrument, also has his back turned to us, so that Glass’s score ripples out without obvious effort on the pianist’s part. Nor is it easy to fathom why three of the ballet’s six dancers initially wear black cloaks. Ralph Rucci’s gorgeous costumes are themselves enigmatic. At first Riccetto and Radestsky, Reyes and Salstein, Stella Abrera and Hoven wear long, full, stiff, black silk skirts that flare open in the back to reveal colored lining (the men are bare-chested). They discard these after a while for trimmer attire that makes it easier for them to flings their legs about.

A passage in which Salstein and Reyes move their limbs stiffly may or may not refer to Close’s physical difficulties, but surely the emphasis on posing in other sections refers to the process of portraiture. Throughout, the movement looks broken up, disjointed, kinky—bright bolts that twist and shatter before they reach what might be considered a conclusion. It’s one of those ballets I’d have to see more than once before deciding what I might glean from it. But the initial experience was upsetting and unfulfilling.

Millepied offers few mysteries. In his years as a member of the New York City Ballet, he has learned much from performing works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. He knows how to dispatch dancers and give them attractive steps to do. For his From Here On Out, he even designed some very nice costumes—purplish blue, purple, or maroon, with rectangles and lines of a lighter shade sparingly decorating them. With Roderick Murray’s excellent lighting as the only décor, and to a very interesting and variegated commissioned score by the young composer Nico Muhly (played by the orchestra under David LaMarche), a dozen dancers engage in a variety of lively intersections. The beginning perhaps alludes to the title. As high violin notes cry out, rumbling sounds slide in, and drumbeats erupt, the performers stand clustered in near darkness. They sway; some lean out from the group and are pulled back, as if all were part of an organism that’s re-forming. Murphy and Hallberg begin the process of breaking away. Although near the end of the ballet, the cast members clump together again in a snakepit of arms and legs, that’s not the final image. Everyone hastens into the wings. Millepied’s choreography for this work moves tastefully between a solid classical base and edgier territory. During the main pas de deux, the music introduces what Muly describes in a program note as “a louche French texture,” and Murphy and Hallberg supplement their display of long, arrowy legs with sinuous torso movements. It’s one of those duets in which two people appear to be constantly changing their minds as to whether they’d rather be together or apart. But earlier, Tanatanit and Reyes, too, ripple and undulate as they go. There’s also a playful passage of running and sliding that’s anything but classical. The choreography keeps the stage picture changing and spectators’ eyes busy. I like that. In one passage, five men leap this way and that—each one differently—like popcorn in a hot pan.

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