Theater archives

Masterworks and Edgy Ventures at American Ballet Theatre


Any season in which ABT mounts fine productions of Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading and Twyla Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen has to be considered a gift to dance lovers. Both these marvelous works show how great choreographers build form and steps onto music to create an art work that moves us in ways beyond the reach of words.

Leaves, made for ABT in 1975, represented for Tudor the kind of creative renewal that marked Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969). Tudor had composed his greatest ballets during the 1930s and 1940s, and most of the relatively few ballets he choreographed between 1960 and 1975 were made for his Juilliard students. For whatever reason (perhaps Gelsey Kirkland in her youthful glory inspired him), Leaves, set to a several pieces by Antonin Dvorak (primarily from his Cypress) flows onto the stage as if in the grip of a summer breeze. But, despite Patricia Zipprodt’s filmy, subtly patterned, rose-pink dresses and shirts, the ballet isn’t an exercise in mindless Utopian prettiness. Its lyricism runs deeper, its events cleansed by memory. The appearance of a woman in a long green gown to begin and end the ballet tells us that everything we’ll see, or have just seen, happened years ago.

Even more so than Robbins in Dances, Tudor builds images of community, of sharing. People stroll on to watch one another dance. They gaze at the horizon. Couples finish a dance and look questioningly into each other’s eyes. Using eight women and only five men for his ensemble, he mingles them in ways that reinforce the aura of youth and dreams. In the first minutes of the ballet, the women are dancing delicately, each in her own spot, not traveling much; the men pass through and among them, dancing with each woman they comes to. The women without partners do the movement anyway, as best they can. Soon, they move among the men in the same way.

The movement has an ease to it that gives it loft and makes it seem as simple as breathing. When a man lifts a woman, the act seems merely an extension of an ardent breath. Even in moments of ecstasy or playfulness, there’s a certain Tudoresque reticence to these people’s behavior, as if they were afraid of breaking the mood of a beautiful moment. There are many such moments, and they vary in tone. Anne Milewski and Jacquelyn Reyes are like quivery colts in their happy dance. In one duet, the partners (Yuriko Kajiya and Arron Scott) give each other gentle little pushes. Melissa Thomas is all innocence with Roman Zhurbin, while Veronika Part flings herself more hungrily on Cory Stearns. These pas de deux fold in and out of a flow of dancing that’s vigorous and bold as often as it’s floaty.

The night I saw the ballet—scrupulously staged by former ABT dancers Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner—the principal roles were danced by Xiomara Reyes and Gennady Saveliev. Reyes has changed much since she first joined ABT; her chest seems more open, her neck longer. I’ve never seen her so lovely as she is in Leaves—quietly flirtatious, fluid, joyous, wrapped up in her attentive partner. And as he carries her off after their duet, she flails happily in his arms as if she could no longer resist the deliciousness of passion.

I first saw Baker’s Dozen at its 1979 premiere by Twyla Tharp’s own company. Nothing can quite eradicate my memories of those dancers. Every revival becomes a palimpsest beneath which that production lurks. I still remember the moment when Sara Rudner fell from high in the wings (for the second time) into Richard Colton’s arms and the nonchalant way he tossed her back to invisible hands before embarking, kneeling on the ground, on a beguilingly self-satisfied little solo. That doesn’t mean that Simone Messmer and Craig Salstein don’t fill those roles excellently; it only proves that some recollections won’t be repressed. (Salstein’s been terrific in everything I’ve seen him do; he’s the only one in two casts of Jerome Robbins’s 1944 gem Fancy Free who made me see how astonishing and wonderful this young sailor found Manhattan’s skyscrapers and bustling streets to be).

Baker’s Dozen is set to tunes by Willie “The Lion” Smith (played very well, if not inspiringly by Barbara Bilach). Tharp captures their slouchy ease, their breeziness, their moments of bravura (as in the section, “Tango à la Caprice) with parades and eddies, and turbulent rivers of dancing. The twelve dancers in their sleek white clothes by Santo Loquasto meet in pairs, return in trios, form quartets, flirt with the idea of a quintet, and group in sixes for a Tharpian take on the Polonaise familiar from older ballets. But none of these swirling, no-two-people-alike constructions is pointed up; they surface out of a constant flow and, transformed, frolic away. The movement is complicated in a silky, jazz-born way; tricky coordinations have to look as fluid and unplanned as the “mistakes” and stumbles that make us laugh. ABT’s dancers may not be as juicy in their dancing as Tharp’s people were, but they all make a fine showing in this witty, dazzling work. For the record: Kristi Boone, Misty Copeland (yes!), Maria Riccetto, Sarawanee Tanatanit, Michele Wiles (lovely and relaxed), Julio Bragado-Young, Thomas Forster, Jeffrey Golladay, Blaine Hoven, Isaac Stappas, Messmer, and Salstein. We can look forward to the new Tharp ballet that ABT will premiere during its spring season.

ABT also offered two new ballets this fall—one by the in-demand Finnish choreographer, Jorma Elo, and one by fast-rising star Benjamin Millepied. When I see a ballet by Elo, I think dark thoughts about William Forsythe. I admire Forsythe immensely, but the ideas he has worked out about body parts competing with one another practically on a cellular level sit less convincingly on choreographers I imagine to have been influenced by him. Whatever the cause, an epidemic of distortions, twitches, dodges, backings off, and punitive encounters seems to be running its course in new ballets, and audiences love its nervy speed and virtuosic tangles.

Elo’s C. to C. is calm compared to other Elo ballets. The initials in the title stand for “Close to Chuck,” and the score is Philip Glass’s A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close (elegantly played for the ballet by Bruce Levingston). The painter and the composer have indeed been close friends for many years. I’d have to hear Glass’s music by itself to see if I could discern Close’s personna in the music, but, just as Close’s best-known works atomize portraits by assembling his subjects’ faces via smalll, vibrantly painted diamond shapes, Glass’s music is built of tiny units that repeat and expand to create a large picture. Elo, of course, is Mr. Fragmentation.

The ballet is divided into two halves; two different Close self-portraits (themselves atomized or truncated by being presented in extreme closeup) succeed one another as backdrops. One is in black-and-white, the other vibrantly colored. A black curtain that drops briefly during the transition may perhaps mark a turning point in Close’s career and private life: the moment when an accident caused severe spinal damage and confined him to a wheelchair. C. to C. is full of moments that invite deciphering. When Sascha Radetsky, standing bare-backed under a harsh beam of light, ripples and contorts his spine in remarkable and disturbing ways, we think of Close. But it’s hard to know what Elo has in mind when Radetsky, standing beside Riccetto, reaches down to scoop up an imaginary substance. Levingston, seated at the onstage instrument, also has his back turned to us, so that Glass’s score ripples out without obvious effort on the pianist’s part. Nor is it easy to fathom why three of the ballet’s six dancers initially wear black cloaks. Ralph Rucci’s gorgeous costumes are themselves enigmatic. At first Riccetto and Radestsky, Reyes and Salstein, Stella Abrera and Hoven wear long, full, stiff, black silk skirts that flare open in the back to reveal colored lining (the men are bare-chested). They discard these after a while for trimmer attire that makes it easier for them to flings their legs about.

A passage in which Salstein and Reyes move their limbs stiffly may or may not refer to Close’s physical difficulties, but surely the emphasis on posing in other sections refers to the process of portraiture. Throughout, the movement looks broken up, disjointed, kinky—bright bolts that twist and shatter before they reach what might be considered a conclusion. It’s one of those ballets I’d have to see more than once before deciding what I might glean from it. But the initial experience was upsetting and unfulfilling.

Millepied offers few mysteries. In his years as a member of the New York City Ballet, he has learned much from performing works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. He knows how to dispatch dancers and give them attractive steps to do. For his From Here On Out, he even designed some very nice costumes—purplish blue, purple, or maroon, with rectangles and lines of a lighter shade sparingly decorating them.
With Roderick Murray’s excellent lighting as the only décor, and to a very interesting and variegated commissioned score by the young composer Nico Muhly (played by the orchestra under David LaMarche), a dozen dancers engage in a variety of lively intersections. The beginning perhaps alludes to the title. As high violin notes cry out, rumbling sounds slide in, and drumbeats erupt, the performers stand clustered in near darkness. They sway; some lean out from the group and are pulled back, as if all were part of an organism that’s re-forming. Murphy and Hallberg begin the process of breaking away. Although near the end of the ballet, the cast members clump together again in a snakepit of arms and legs, that’s not the final image. Everyone hastens into the wings.
Millepied’s choreography for this work moves tastefully between a solid classical base and edgier territory. During the main pas de deux, the music introduces what Muly describes in a program note as “a louche French texture,” and Murphy and Hallberg supplement their display of long, arrowy legs with sinuous torso movements. It’s one of those duets in which two people appear to be constantly changing their minds as to whether they’d rather be together or apart. But earlier, Tanatanit and Reyes, too, ripple and undulate as they go. There’s also a playful passage of running and sliding that’s anything but classical. The choreography keeps the stage picture changing and spectators’ eyes busy. I like that. In one passage, five men leap this way and that—each one differently—like popcorn in a hot pan.

ABT dancers are constantly surprising me. Maybe it’s Tanatanit, suddenly more alive and self-confident onstage, or Misty Copeland, outstanding in a variety of styles. Or tall Stearns becoming princely. It’s Paloma Herrera, minus her usual tutu, showing some sass in Fancy Free, Jose Manuel Carreño’s doling out sly charm as the third sailor, and Murphy doing a fine acting job as the ballet’s second woman. I could go on. Attending several performances, you can feel you get to know these dancers. Even from City Center’s top balcony, they seem closer to us than they do during the company’s spring performances at the Met. And, while the stage may look slightly cramped for a work like Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina, that’s only a minor inconvenience. I could wish the season lasted longer, but maybe two weeks is a good length. It keeps us hungry for more freshly polished old gems to delight in and more new ballets to argue about.