Theater archives

Does Plot Matter?


Raymonda may be the only story ballet without much story. Criticism of its slight scenario was bruited about St. Petersburg even before Marius Petipa’s lavish spectacle appeared onstage in 1898. Yet because of Alexander Glazounov’s beautiful, danceable music, the 80-year-old Petipa’s undimmed genius, and the juicy roles, the ballet has been remounted over and over. American Ballet Theatre’s new two-act version, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes and conceived and directed by Holmes and ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, subtracts mime and processions but preserves much of Petipa’s cornucopia of choreography—notably the great last—act “Grand Pas Hongrois” and “Grand Pas Classique.” Bright new dances show off ABT’s fine contingent of men, such as David Hallberg and Gennadi Saveliev. (In 1898, a critic was thunderstruck that Russia’s Imperial Ballet had four male dancers who could negotiate double air turns!)

The Holmes-McKenzie version, however, doesn’t resolve Raymonda‘s lack of meaty fantasy-drama. The heroine is torn between her crusader fiancé de Brienne and a Saracen knight, Abderakhman, who crashes her sweet-16 party and strenuously woos her. The White Lady, Raymonda’s family’s puzzling guardian spirit, guides her into a dream ballet full of lovely variations that usefully contrast De Brienne’s chivalry with Abderakhman’s innate cruelty. De Brienne may be a wimp, despite his gorgeous brisées and cabrioles, but he’s a courteous partner, while the tempting stranger swings her around till she’s dizzy, lets her down from a shoulder lift headfirst, and crushes her tutu in his ardor. So that, really, is that. The rivals do square off with a dance competition. Abderakhman’s entourage presents a sexy harem duet, a Spanish dance, and an endearing number for eight prancing little boys with finger cymbals; the side of virtue counters with the splendid heel-clicking czardas and the classical variations. The villain’s attempt to abduct Raymonda is barely noticeable: With no retinue to speak of, he gets her only a few steps up the stairs. In seconds: rescue, duel, predictable triumph. Petipa did a bit better with the drama; for instance, the White Lady caused the “infidel” to lose the duel, which came before the Grand Pas Classique, allowing the brilliant variations their full celebratory glory.

Raymonda has a number of charming pas that show off her pointe work, including the delicately smoldering “Hungarian” solo in the last act and one with a scarf. The opening night heroine, Irina Dvorovenko, danced sweetly and elegantly, with splendid flying leaps, but without depth of character. As de Brienne, Maxim Beloserkovsky jumped admirably and showed the requisite devotion and jealousy. Marcelo Gomes, predictably, stole the show with Abderakhman’s sinuously evil allure, bravura steps, and abandoned-to-passion postures. Other fine performers were Veronica Part and Michele Wiles as Raymonda’s girlfriends and Martine van Hamel, herself once a memorable Raymonda, as the heroine’s gracious aunt.

Nureyev’s Freudian 1975 version of the ballet for ABT featured dark, heavy decor. Zack Brown’s pastel, vaguely art nouveau, somewhat Disney-esque designs for this production seem about to float away (parts do in one instance). Some of the rhinestone-strewn costumes are medieval—heavy silks with hennins for the ladies—while others are made of drifty materials in spring green and lavender, as pretty and insubstantial as the plot.

To honor George Balanchine’s centennial year, ABT is presenting its own Balanchine-Tchaikovsky program across Lincoln Center Plaza from the master’s New York City Ballet, with results sometimes stunning, sometimes alarming. Theme and Variations, choreographed in 1947 for ABT and now part of NYCB’s Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, and Ballet Imperial (1941), known at NYCB as Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, are both big, grand works that pay homage to Petipa and the Russian tradition that nurtured Balanchine. Ballet Imperial is danced in front of Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s blue-draped vista of St. Petersburg’s Neva river. The piano (expertly played by Barbara Bilach) forms cascades as brilliant as the female dancers’ coronets.

Balanchine creates symmetrical ensembles and parades in the Petipa tradition. In Ballet Imperial, the ensemble, or part of it, is always onstage, framing the dancing of the principals. But both ballets also use the corps in more unusual ways: the two vines of four women who support the ballerina in Theme and Variations; the chains of women that the premier danseur, temporarily bereft of his partner, swings desolately open and closed as if they were gates. And, of course, Balanchine extends the classical lexicon, speeding up steps, twisting them to add new shimmer and depths.

ABT’s ensemble performs both these ballets with clarity and comprehension. The principals I saw in Theme, Gillian Murphy and Hallberg, are both sleek and lustrous dancers with miraculous feet and elegant lines. Strangely, Murphy’s port de bras occasionally look almost awkward—as if, said my knowledgeable companion, she were thinking of her shoulders and her hands, but not of what lay between—and she now carries her head in a way that seems mannered. I look foward to seeing Hallberg in increasingly important roles; he’s noble, easy, and precise in Balanchine’s choreography, although he came a cropper attempting double air turns in the sequence interspersing air turns with pirouettes (steady singles were good enough for Baryshnikov). Leading Ballet Imperial, Paloma Herrera is, as usual, gracious, ample, and rock-solid. As her partner, Saveliev brought off some striking jumps and conveyed the princely problem of “she was here just a moment ago, where can she be now?” with restrained ardency. What looks like his slight unease in dealing with Herrera will undoubtedly disappear.

The program’s low spot came from Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky’s performing in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Lovely to look at, appealing, technically adroit, and slightly synthetic (she only), they rode roughshod over Tchaikovsky in ways that would have appalled Balanchine. Finishing part of a difficult solo early, Dvorovenko hurried to a corner of the stage and began the next passage well before the music meant to usher it in. This happened more than once.

The high point came with Balanchine’s last full ballet, the ravishing 1981 Mozartiana (set to Tchaikovsky’s Suite no.4, op. 61), sensitively staged by Maria Calegari with an ideal cast to bring out its complex beauties: Ashley Tuttle, Ethan Stiefel, and Herman Cornejo. Tuttle is wonderful in this in ways that suspend your breath; she lives the poignant questions of the opening “Preghiera,” surrounded by her four touchingly miniature little-girl attendants. Every gesture seems so spontaneous that you wait to see how it will turn out, how she will shape its flow. And in the playful theme-and-variations section she and Stiefel share, they are both full of understated fun and lively interest in each other. The solos and duets created on Suzanne Farrell and Ib Andersen are among Balanchine’s most complex—crammed with difficult, unexpected turns of phrase. Tuttle and Stiefel make them look like lovely games of sleight of body. Cornejo is equally splendid in the also tricky “Gigue.” He, too, is a dancer able to convey not just virtuosic steps, but a sense of what a whole piece of choreography is about, and he plays nimbly and dashingly with the solo’s springy twists and dartings. This is no court-jester role, and his seriousness is correct—in keeping with his sudden stillness as the four grown-up women in black surround him. Balanchine would surely have smiled watching this Mozartiana. Anyway, I did, and wept a little at its heart-deep beauty.

Ariane Anthony has always approached text and narrative in thoughtful and unusual ways. Her latest and most ambitious piece, Do I Dare?, set to a very effective score by John Stone, riffs off T.S. Eliot’s bitter and poignant poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” using a cast of seven and spare scenery by Roger Predmore that contrasts the stuffy coziness of a London flat (armchair, lamp, mirror) with the stairs the protagonist wearily ascends and descends, with windowpanes that float down and buildings that fly up to reveal sky.

The choreographer herself plays the Prufrock of Eliot’s fears: wire-rimmed spectacles, drab suit, too-tight collar, bowler, furled umbrella. She’s wonderful at conveying his timidity, slight prissiness, and attempted jauntiness. I had always envisioned the “you” of “Let us go then, you and I” as a lady of the streets. Anthony is accompanied by a slightly bolder self (Andrea Thome) who appears from behind the mirror, and who does “dare to eat a peach.” At one point, the other cast members, in Prufrock attire and masks, invade the protagonist’s lair—sit in his chair, open his book, try his pipe.

In Anthony’s hands, the literal becomes strange, fey, revelatory. Eliot’s images—the stairs, distant voices, tea and cakes, the coffee spoons with which Prufrock thinks he has measured out his life, the scuttling ragged claws of sea creatures—crop up manipulated or transformed.

Performers in black pants and T-shirts dance holding florid, ruffled red gowns (by Agata Oleksiak) against themselves. As the tempo and mood become more hectic, an orgy develops. You’d swear you were seeing partners tangling on the floor before Prufrock’s shocked and concupiscent eyes.

Jody Sperling opened Anthony’s Henry Street program with one of her imaginative contemporary evocations of Loïe Fuller’s late-19th-century magic with fabric. In Night, Sperling emerges from a swirl of black silk (by Michelle Ferranti) that becomes a cloak, reveals an evening gown, and turns her into a winging black bird. Divested of it, she stands in black underwear and sunglasses, unknowable in a different way. Sperling’s strangely affectless performing notwithstanding, that‘s drama.