Every spring, American Ballet Theatre displays its world-class dancers at the vast Metropolitan Opera House, primarily in tutu-and-tiara blockbusters. But many of us look forward more eagerly to those two fall weeks when we can see the company at closer range in premieres, in works new to it (such as Twyla Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen), and in some of the one-act masterpieces that made it famous. The opening-night gala gave a taste of what we could expect.
Seeing ABT perform George Balan-chine’s delicious 1978 Ballo della Regina on this stage for the first time reminded me of New York City Ballet’s decades-ago seasons at City Center, when we could feel we knew the dancers well. Coached by Merrill Ashley, the star of the original production, the dozen women in filmy blue dresses and the four more prominent ones in lavender soar through Balanchine’s brilliant designs with precision and charm. It’s easy to believe that the choreographer wished these females and their floods of bounding, leaping steps to embody the waves implicit in the original undersea ballet that Verdi wrote for his opera Don Carlos. But the nymphs also prance like can-can girls, as well as frame the prince and princess who discover that they love both each other and the same spirited steps.
Balanchine made an intricate, gleaming dance for each of the four soloists, and ABT’s Misty Copeland, Maria Riccetto, Hee Seo, and Jacquelyn Reyes execute them delightfully. David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy were the opening-night leads. Tall Hallberg wears his elegance lightly and warmly, as if perfection of line and height of jumps were as natural to him as the smile that breaks out amid a spate of pirouettes. Murphy hasn’t his ease, but she possesses the clarity and speed of foot needed to ace the dazzling orgy of pointe work that Balanchine devised for Ashley.
Fancy Free, the hit of the company’s 1944 season, was created by two smart and witty 25-year-olds: Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein. The more than 60-year-old ballet about three sailors on shore leave competing for two girls can still delight audiences with its terrific music, boisterous dancing, colloquial manner, and sly jokes. Fastidiously staged for ABT by Jean-Pierre Frohlich, it was danced with brio and wit by Herman Cornejo, Sascha Radetsky, and Marcelo Gomes (although Radetsky occasionally overplayed the “sweet” sailor’s shyness, and Gomes performed the first steps of his solo facing in a direction that blurred their design). Stella Abrera and Julie Kent shone as the feisty girls.
ABT trotted out its hunks in an excerpt from Stanton Welch’s 2001 Clear (music by J.S. Bach). Xiomara Reyes and Cornejo were the wonderfully expressive leads in this pas de deux, backed by a cadre of bare-chested male athletes. Like Clear, Antony Tudor’s 1975 The Leaves Are Fading appears in its entirety on other programs, but at the gala, we caught only a glimpse of its windblown lightness in a pas de deux, danced with just that quality by Michele Wiles and handsome corps member Alexandre Hammoudi.
A gala wouldn’t be gala without one flashy duet to toss to spectators who love to count fouettés. The choice was the grand pas de deux from Marius Petipa’s 19th-century classic Don Quixote, with long-ago upgrades by Alexander Gorsky. Jose Manuel Carreño and Paloma Herrera wore terrible costumes (too much cleavage for him, too much red sparkle for her), but they pulled off the tricky steps with the skill you’d expect. Something was amiss, though: Carreño looked slightly ill at ease for all his smiles and gracious manner, and Herrera is more a royal courtesan assured of her power than a frisky girl with Spanish smolder. She unfolds one beautiful leg in a développé with the air of a woman summoning a servant to bring her a shawl.