Dancing has always fired imaginations as a metaphor for life, conveying transcendent human effort and bringing form to potential chaos. American Ballet Theatre’s opening gala was a frank parade of the stellar dancers who grace the company’s City Center season (through Sunday). Yet in these shaky times, the tropes of contemporary classicism shine a little more meaningfully. Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas De Deux—its feats of balance managed with aplomb by Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky—affirms the continuity of courtly behavior. An excerpt from Kirk Peterson’s premiere Amazed in Burning Dreams pits a daredevil leader-hero (the amazing Herman Cornejo) against his own human limitations. Ashley Tuttle’s exquisite rendition of “Prayer” from Coppelia casts a benison over the stage. In two duets, Lar Lubovitch’s My Funny Valentine and Nacho Duato’s Without Words, partners cling to each other as if trying to fuse. (Sandra Brown and Marcelo Gomes in the first, and Julie Kent and Vladimir Malakhov in the second, give lovely performances.) Angel Corella and Erica Cornejo, prancing winningly through Eliot Feld’s witty Variations on America to Charles Ives’s eponymous music, remind us that being affectionately irreverent about flags and the Fourth of July is part of our heritage of freedom.
Robert Hill’s touching, slightly drawn out pièce d’occasion, Reverie, offered three senior dancers—Georgina Parkinson, Martine van Hamel, and Frederic Franklin—walking softly about the stage to Schubert sung by Camille Zamora. (Franklin at 87 has lost none of his elegance, nobility, and simplicity.) Gesturing toward the horizon and to one another, the three could have been marking—remembering—past ballets. Or presiding like good spirits over present ones.
This season ABT adopted George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, first performed in this very theater by New York City Ballet (then Ballet Society) in 1948. On opening night, Victoria Simon and John Taras’s staging looked spick-and-span, but airless—even in the ravishing second movement, when Balanchine’s steps and Bizet’s music conjure up the ghost of Swan Lake, and Nina Ananiashvili swoons softly backward into Jose Manuel Carreño’s arms. Corella’s shameless third-movement charm binge, Sandra Brown’s surprisingly ill-at-ease dancing in the fourth section, and the ensemble’s glued-on smiles are, I hope, only temporary. Not surprisingly, Ethan Stiefel, ex-NYCB, looked most at home in this magnificent musical hymn to order—and to dancing as intricate and variable and deep as life.
Dazzling men are both the commodity that Australian Stanton Welch’s new Clear delivers and the engineers who run it to us at top speed. In the allegro sections from two Bach concertos, seven men shoot on and off the stage. How can they execute such big movements—classical steps inventively mixed with canted, rampaging contemporary ones—so rapidly? The ballet may end in a tender duet for Corella and Kent, but, although she threads through the finely managed barrage of virtuosity, Kent gets short shrift. Gomes and Belotserkovsky lift her attentively when she enters their lyrical follow-the-leader duet, but soon usher her off and go back to their contrapuntal games.
Despite the spins and leaps for these three men and Herman Cornejo, Joaquin De Luz, Jerry Douglas, and Sasha Radetsky, their manners are not always showy or exuberant (Corella, serious here, seems a whole different dancer). The gravity does not come from the men’s peculiar, often distracting gestures—like lightly covering their eyes with their hands—but from the rigor of rewarding work wholeheartedly pursued.
In choreographing Steve Reich’s great 1971 Drumming, Belgium’s Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker reinvestigates her artistic roots: the austere and remarkable solo and duet she made in 1982 to Reich’s Violin Phase and Come Out to Show Them. With Drumming as in these earlier works, rather than following Reich’s music exactly, she creates analogous structures, echoing his techniques of layering, of buildup and reduction. One musician from the Belgian ensemble Ictus steps up to his bongos on BAM’s Opera House stage; one dancer stops looking around and bounds into action. During Reich’s third section, the musical texture thins out; De Keersmaeker has a single man pick up dancers one by one and carry them away. Reich adheres to one basic rhythmic pattern throughout; De Keersmaeker wrests an hour’s worth of variations from one substantial phrase.
Reich’s music, however, is a vital, driving percussion work, while De Keersmaeker has drawn her vocabulary from a filmed solo (part of her 1996 Woud), in which she danced with flyaway recklessness in fields and along roadways. The solo with which Marta Coronado begins Drumming is airy, flingy, almost childlike; she whirls but we see straight lines and angles more than curves.
Whenever the stage is full of dancers—13 in all—an interplay of stillness and motion develops. We notice individuals, like tall Ursula Robb, who begins simply walking through the orderly melee. There’s something fascinating but perplexing about the luminous stage picture. It may be that each dancer defines center and front differently; their paths almost collide or tangle or bunch up on one side of the space.
De Keersmaeker’s elegant choreography alters its dynamic profile less than Reich’s score does (he moves from bongos to marimbas and voices to glockenspiels, piccolo, and whistling, and then combines them all; she has only human beings). There’s something wispy about the dancing; you have to stick with it to love it.
Akram Kahn appeared at the Kitchen as part of the UKwithNY festival. Born in London to Bengali parents, he infuses a contemporary sensibility with Indian traditions gleaned from the Kathak style, which he has studied and also performs. This meld means not only that he can go from rhythmic stamping to a flying assemblé battu, but that dives and rolls are contained by Asian conventions of rhythm and design. His positions are always clear in space, end-stopped, often as two-dimensional as a temple relief. But he is just as likely to scrabble on the floor as to stand and wheel his arms expansively. Solid yet pliable, capable of ferocious bursts of rapid motion and of sinuous calm, Kahn has an animal’s serenity and capacity for suddenness. In Fix and Loose in Flight, his gaze shifts cleanly like a Kathak performer’s, but instead of focusing on his own gestures, he may gaze into distant space. Loose, with its curious ending (he shakes his lifted arm as if scolding it), is especially compelling.
Andy Cowton’s electronic landscape, plus unexpected blackouts and changes of light (by Michael Hulls) shape Rush, an absorbing trio for Kahn, Gwyn Emberton, and Moya Michael. Never touching, the three move in and out of unison, often on the floor—prowling precisely, barreling across the space. There’s no particular build to what they do and no narrative—just a dramatic weave of powerfully constructed phrases that stir up stillness and then return to it.