Garth Fagan doesn’t need to think about creating positive images of African Americans onstage; his dance style itself is empowering. The glorious dancers he has trained come across as both passionate and profoundly cool. No attitude detracts from what they’re doing. When Norwood Pennewell lays himself out on air, balancing on one leg, his body
a single flat line from stretched fingers to stretched toes, he is both a man performing this movement (call it an arabesque, but it’s really nothing like that ballet cousin) and the movement itself, its essence. Fagan’s clean-lined choreography imprints such moves in your mind: Chris Morrison grabbing a leg and holding it somewhere around his ear; Steve Humphrey, compact in the air as he turns and leaps; Sharon Skepple getting her shoulders in dialogue with each other; Natalie Rogers suddenly poised on the ball of one foot, motionless as a hawk riding an air current. Valentina Alexander, Micha Willis, Bill Ferguson, and the others all have that ability to look utterly focused on the moment. Soaring leaps come from nowhere and cause no strain. Movement gets tossed into the air and hangs there. Strictly trained as these dancers are, they appear free and individual in Fagan’s buoyant yet earthy steps.
Fagan’s new Two Pieces of One: Green, like many of his works, shows a serenely energetic community going about its dancing business— this time to music in contrasting styles: pieces by jazz musician Tony Williams frame a religious chorale by 16th-century composer Cristóbal de Morales. The texture constantly changes, the stage filling and emptying; leaving behind, say, a solo; other people gradually entering to reconfigure the picture; then everyone spinning rapidly away. The dancers relate to one another largely through the steps and moves they share, but there’s one lovely moment when a flock of them stands motionless in different poses, and Pennewell rubs his cheek against each in turn.
Two Pieces of One: Green doesn’t really build up steam; it just ends. But the 1997 Nkanyit progresses from a solemn evocation of regal Africans in gold cloth, softly treading, to folks in sweats bringing a more contemporary verve to the party. The opportunity for individuality increases, but the sense of bonding remains. Pennewell, Skepple, and Rogers form a family— father, mother, daughter— and at the end, both groups join in circling the three, as if Fagan meant to tell us that the family’s the heart of any culture.
“Bring on the men!” American Ballet Theatre, its corporate ear to the ground, must believe it hears the public howling these words. Great male dancers are hardly an anomaly these days, but ABT prides itself on a collection of platinum virtuosos who spin like weather vanes in a wind and leap as if they had springs in their shoes. The lineup of ballets for the company’s fall season clearly aimed to display them. Two pyrotechnical all-male works— a revival of Anton Dolin’s sparkling classical Variations for Four and Nacho
Duato’s sultry, muscular Remanso— between them chalked up eight performances on the 16 programs. Jerome Robbins’s witty classic about sailors on leave was featured on five. The newly acquired Spring and Fall by John Neumeier suggests a murky coming of age rite for a blithe youth (the always radiant Angel Corella), and its most effective scene shows a silhouetted parade of men thrusting their limbs in various directions.
The men are gorgeous. And it’s a pleasure to watch them in the elegant Dolin work, all tricked out in white satin and silver spangles. Go twice and you can compare José Manuel Carreño and Maxim Belotserkovsky in the first solo, see Belotserkovsky ace the lyrical variation on which Vladimir Malakhov has already set his velvety mark, and watch Corella essay those meticulous diamonds Ethan Stiefel’s legs cut in the air.
Though Twyla Tharp’s new Known by Heart received only three performances, it raises the atmosphere in the theater the way a thunderstorm releases ozone into the air. By the end, we’re snorting artistic oxygen, and the dancers look as if they could use a little of the real stuff. The opening duet is kin to the quick-footed, buoyant courting dances that Auguste Bournonville used to dream up in 19th-century Copenhagen, but pressurized until it crackles and sparkles. Julie Kent and Corella grace this spun-sugar marathon with every ounce of their skill and charm. When Mozart’s Danse Allemande cedes to Donald Knaack’s “Junk Music,” a more contemporary pair— Susan Jaffe and Stiefel, both of them brilliant— takes over. These two give each other no quarter, yet this urban wrangle is free of malice. Stiefel crouches and feints and punches the air— the punk with solid gold dancing; she ducks, ratchets out a few tap steps on pointe, and skids across to him; her kicks could kill. They have a crisp vaudeville pantomime involving knocking on an invisible door. And they dance and dance, their repartee simmered down into pure movement.
To selections from Steve Reich’s Music for Six Pianos, Keith Roberts and Griff Braun, side by side, travel around and around the stage, pausing occasionally to wrestle; their tricky ongoing steps have the feel of jogging. Just as you think they might die, they’re spelled by Marcelo Gomes and Sean Stewart. Meanwhile the pairs from the first section take turns racing in, reprising bits of their duets, and rushing away. Gradually they mix and match; Corella does the door number with Stiefel. If you haven’t noticed yet that Tharp’s back in one of her favorite playgrounds— contrasting classical style with contemporary— you do now.
As the dance approaches its end, she increases its density. Oksana Konobeyeva, Ekaterina Shelkanova, Giuseppe Picone, and Belotserkovsky plunge into the full-throttle dancing, form trios with Gomes and Stewart. Roberts and Braun take back the Castor and Pollux routine. The original pairs swirl in and out; they’ve got 10 seconds to say everything they know and then say it again differently. Tharp loves dancers and dancing and expresses that better than just about everyone.
Duato’s Without Words, set to Schubert songs arranged for cello and piano, is a slow, sweet piece. The four couples who inhabit it tend to suddenly intensify their gestures, as if delving into their thoughts. Resilient dancing (the women wear soft slippers), imaginative partnering, and images of waiting suggest a community of lovers for whom regret is always just over the hill. Sandra Brown and Belotserkovsky, Paloma Herrera and Corella, Sara Mau and Roberts, Kent and Malakhov mold it beautifully.
Indeed, most of the performing I saw was superior, from corps to principals. Among the highlights were the marvelous Stiefel in Frederick Ashton’s charming Currier and Ives skating party Les Patineurs, Amanda
McKerrow and John Gardner in the fleet and loving duet from Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading, sparkling Yan Chen and the plushier Herrera opening Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, Ashley Tuttle and Roberts in its second movement, and the entire cast of Tudor’s wicked Gala Performance. Commenting on what appears to be an indifferent ballet company around the turn of the last century, Tudor also satirized ballerina styles: the Russian who bends so far toward the audience that her balance is in peril (a Danilova cartoon?), the icily stalking, steel-legged Italian, and the effusive French flirt. Christine Dunham, Jaffe, and Chen excelled in the roles. Since Tudor gave their weary partners (Ethan Brown and Malakhov) and every corps de ballet girl a distinct personality too, you don’t just laugh at the jokes, you take in a whole foolish little world. And think to yourself: ballet companies have come a long way.