These days, ballet artists have to be chameleons, sensitive to diverse styles. A ballet master of the 19th century would be astonished by the challenges faced by dancers in American Ballet Theatre’s current “Master Works” program (one of four this season). Their very bodies have to change. Frederick Ashton’s 1946 Symphonic Variations, set to César Franck’s eponymous music for piano and orchestra, is a marvel of lucidity—as if the smoke and flame of war-battered England had been swept away and winter were yielding to the spring and summer gold captured in the beautifully austere swirls of line and color in Sophie Fedorovitch’s scenery.
In this plotless work, none of the six dancers leaves the stage; they wait for the music to call them into motion. For re-stager Wendy Ellis Somes (widow of the Royal Ballet’s Michael Somes, an original cast member), ABT’s virtuosos rein in their high arabesques and extend themselves more modestly into space, making Ashton’s brisk-footed passages or odd twists of Épaulement a contrast to the big jumps of one man (Carlos Lopez). When three women (the superb Ashley Tuttle, Marian Butler, and Maria Riccetto), reminiscent of the muses in Balanchine’s Apollo, fence in Maxim Beloserkovsky, each lays her head on the raised knee of the woman in front of her. Without dipping into sentimentality, Symphonic Variations speaks in miraculously tender tones.
In Martha Graham’s great lyric piece from 1948, Diversion of Angels, the dancers’ bodies must arch like bows in tension—their heads lifted, their gazes rapt. Coached by former Graham dancer Takako Asakawa, Stella Abrera as the Woman in White is even more luminous than she was in 1999 at ABT. Sandra Brown is tautly ecstatic as the Woman in Red, and Erica and Herman Cornejo are wonderfully vivid as the athletic Couple in Yellow.
Antony Tudor’s masterpiece, Pillar of Fire, set to Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and choreographed for Ballet Theatre, is, wrote Edwin Denby in 1942, “gloomy and hot,” its Edwardian heroine twisting on the two prongs of repression and desire for love. The dancers are game, but Donald Mahler’s staging and some miscasting have blurred the dynamics, emotional subtleties, and gestural nuances that Tudor was so particular about. Hagar gives herself to the sleazy man across the street because she fears the spinsterhood of her elder sister and believes that her flirty little sister has captivated the man she loves. The gifted Gillian Murphy plays her on one note—shoulders hunched and body caved in in misery. I remember Sallie Wilson in the role (why wasn’t she coaching the dancers?)—how sometimes she bore herself quite naturally, sometimes clenched in anguish, and sometimes expanded into dancing as if bravely laying herself open to the life she hoped would come to her. As Hagar’s seducer, Marcelo Gomez is sexy but arrogant, rather than cockily self-satisfied. In the part usually played by a more solidly built man (Tudor originally), slender young Carlos Molina is neutral in his dignity; his duets with Murphy lack the poignancy of questions asked and answered.
Anna-Marie Holmes’s staging of the “Grand Pas Classique” from Marius Petipa’s Raymonda looks fine, just a bit cramped on City Center’s stage. Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreño are superb dancers, but I find Herrera a bit too grand; she pays more attention to her remarkable legs and feet and the tilt of her head than to her partner or to us. Carreño smiled his charming smile, but she wasn’t inviting anyone to her party.
It’s rare for a modern dance company to take over works from a defunct one and give them a new life. Right now, the Ririe Woodbury Company of Salt Lake City is touring a program of works by the late Alwin Nikolais, selected by the choreographer Murray Louis, one of Nik’s original dancers. Produced by the Nikolais/Louis Foundation, the program is meticulously rehearsed by Alberto Del Saz.
Channeling Nik requires more than nimble, flexible bodies. Technical director Nicolas Cavallero has to deal with the legacy of a wizard—re-creating lighting designs that in the 1985 Crucible isolate the hands of otherwise invisible dancers in a horizontal beam of red light and timing lights and slide change, so that on a certain sound in Nikolais’s electronic score, we can chuckle at the sight of upside-down patterned legs atop their mirrored right-way-up images.
The program’s dances and excerpts span a career from 1953 to 1987, re-creating worlds of color, light, pattern, costumes (by Frank Garcia), and movement—worlds in which dancers are often transformed, dissected, and re-modeled wittily, eerily, or poetically. By bending forward and holding their arms behind them, four skittering women in long, stretchy skirts (“Lythic” from Prism) can become headless, armless archaic statues. Yet the human element is always somehow present, even when the dancers are disguised. They are the agents of their own transformation.