The novelty of American Ballet Theatre’s fall season is Christopher Wheeldon’s VIII. Who’d have imagined a historical drama centered on Henry VIII, even one in which the dancers wear simple clothes by Jean-Marc Puissant and the authentic gowns and headdresses worn by the dimly lit ghosts of Henry’s six wives are see-through shells?
Wheeldon shows the English monarch casting aside Katherine of Aragon, to whom he’d been betrothed in childhood, then wooing, wedding, and getting rid of Anne Boleyn. The theme isn’t love; it’s Henry’s need for a son. In this somber ballet, set to Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the king roisters only with his men friends, in the single scene that allows Angel Corella a respite from his grave-stalking and anguished reaching toward a shadowy child (costumed to prefigure Edward VI, the son Henry eventually sired). The all-male dance, which cleverly and subtly suggests a hunting party, and a lively court entertainment by masked performers (Erica Cornejo, Jesus Pastor, Sascha Radetsky, and Carlos Lopez) are the only happy moments in a gloomy work.
The handsome court dances through which Henry prowls emphasize his lack of a serviceable partner. Alone with Katherine (Alessandra Ferri), he grabs her in order to thrust her away. His first duet with Anne (Julie Kent) is all about testing her suitability; another spookily hints at her coming execution. His pursuit of dynastic posterity fuels a tragic solo for Katherine (eloquently danced by Ferri) and a coup de théâtre suggesting Anne’s beheading (a curtain descends low enough to mask her head as she joins the ghostly procession at the rear, and lighting designer Natasha Katz turns the backdrop, with its projection of the Tudor rose, blood-red). At the end, Henry is alone onstage with a woman he has detained: Jane Seymour, the mother-to-be of his son.
Trey McIntyre is asking for it, naming his lighthearted, all-purpose opener Pretty Good Year. Set to three movements of Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Trio No. 1, this premiere showcases seven of ABT’s fine dancers in brightly classical steps with kinky edges. But after a while it seems just to bubble along without variation or development. McIntyre’s like a bird dog, veering between delectable new scents. He presents the wonderful Herman Cornejo as a central figure—awakened by Stella Abrera with a touch on the butt, leaping as a kind of leader, and carried off like a baby. The dancers in Liz Prince’s raggy, sparkly versions of classical attire do odd things for no apparent reason. A duet moment: Bo Busby lies down with one arm stretched up, face averted; his partner (Zhong-Jing Fang) pastes her forehead to his cupped hand. Pretty good, huh?
In Come home Charley Patton, part three of Ralph Lemon’s Geography Trilogy, Lemon and his extraordinary performers explore roots closer to home than the Africa of part one and the Asia of part two, and more painful to contemplate: the American South where the blues were born, the word nigger came quickly to white folks’ lips, and black men were lynched. For all Lemon’s easygoing manner, his skin seems covered with sensors that absorb impulses from history, and his ears ring with vanished voices.
Early on in the montage of words, songs, film images, narrative fragments, and dancing, Lemon wonders how he’s going to shape all the material he’s gathered, and a sober, computer-animated sage representing James Baldwin advises him to let us see everything through “John” ‘s eyes. The subsequent identification of John with “Elias” and Lemon leads to mysteries—not the least of which is John (although we learn he was lynched for sleeping with a consenting white woman).
The difficulty of absorbing and channeling the past is exemplified by Lemon—filmed by his daughter, Chelsea Lemon Fetzer—waist-deep in a turbulent river, snared in the branches of an old tree, and reading aloud from Arna Bontemps’s short story “A Summer Tragedy,” while balancing a teacup and saucer.
We learn bits and pieces of this story—about how on Elias/John’s birthday, a loving couple, Jenny and Jeff, get all dressed up and ride their horse over a cliff into the river. A wooden table with moving legs (by Douglas Repetto) becomes the horse. A man crumples against a nicely wallpapered panel. Two men repeatedly climb attic ladders and fall violently to the floor. On-screen, a jovial black man shows off his gun collection, and Lemon, on a deserted street where a hanging tree once stood, attempts to feel what it was like to die there. Race issues aren’t simple. The brilliant Okwui Okpokwasili—tall, skinny, and beautiful—sings in English, French, and German, and tells of being called “nigger” by a white kindergarten classmate because she said she’d prefer listening to Verdi than to her laissez-faire art teacher playing the djembe.
The performers, who include Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, Darrell Jones, Gesel Mason, and David Thomson, dance a lot. Maybe even too much, except that it’s fascinating to watch their loose, awkward, shambling, thrashing steps—as if they were channeling old street-corner hoofers, or at one point, dodging bullets. Near the end of this rich, thrilling stew, Lemon dances doggedly while being sprayed with a fire hose—slipping, sliding, refusing to quit until he’s down.