Watching the superb dancers of American Ballet Theatre maneuver their way through three new ballets on a stage intended for orchestral performances is like seeing a horse race on a putting green. Avery Fisher’s stage is large, but it has no easy exits; one door in each wooden side wall leads into the wings. The floor wasn’t made for leaping; when even the most buoyant of ABT’s males hits certain hollow spots, he might as well be jumping onto a drum. Brad Fields manages minor miracles with the available light.
The music for all three ballets, played live onstage, sounded fine—once pianist Barbara Bilach hit her stride with the splendid torrent of Scarlatti sonatas that accompanies Alexei Ratmansky’s luminous Seven Sonatas. The premise of Ratmanksy’s piece is simple: Three gentle-mannered couples in simple, fluid white clothing by Holly Hynes treat the music as if it were a glade in which to dance together, alone, and in couples. One of Ratmansky’s great gifts is stitching together classical steps in ways that are full of trickery. Yet the unexpected twists or changes of directions or choice of movements never look plotted. His choreography breathes, sighs, pauses, plays a joke, and runs off laughing, as if complex, difficult dancing were a simple, easy-to deliver utterance.
Seven Sonatas also contains enigmatic allusions to drama. A dancer is suddenly laid out on the floor, and others, kneeling, hover over her. That’s hinted at once and repeated as the ballet ends. It’s not the first time that a Ratmansky ballet reminds us that death is a presence in life. He is also prone to quirky moments. At one point in this ballet, people exit ebulliently, rolling their hands around, as if winding wool at top speed. One happy pas de deux ends with the woman supine and the man diving beside her to press his face against hers (this is followed by a blackout, which seems unnecessary in this friendly society).
The second-night cast gives a lovely performance of this lovely ballet. Sarah Lane and Joseph Philips, Hee Seo and Jared Matthews do most of the quick-footed allegro dancing. Seo flutters around her partner like a butterfly, and Matthews shows off some bold, folkdance steps in a solo. The long, silky duet performed by Yuriko Kajiya and Carlo Lopez is less sunny. She clings to him, languishing in his arms as he impassively turns and lifts her. He needs to leave—does so for a few seconds; she wants something, or mourns for something beyond her reach. In the end he drags her away (but gently).
Aszure Barton set her new ballet, One of Three, to Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G. All the works by Barton that I’ve seen until now were unusual and daring. The new piece, tailored for a big ballet company that’s famous for its men, is much tamer and doesn’t hesitate to dive into cliché. Its strong suit is the movement for eight louche guys—lounge lizards so at ease in their twitchy hips and jabbing legs and hands clasped behind their backs that they seem to be sliding and swiveling around inside their black suits.
Cory Stearns is the boldest of these men on the make, but Matthews and Lopez also have some intrepid moments. Three women enter the male precinct, one per movement of the music. The first visitor (Michele Wiles in the cast I saw) wears a slinky white gown suspended from a jeweled collar (costumes by Yannik Larivée). All she needs to complete the image is a long cigarette holder. She has little to do but preen, hit the occasional arabesque, and wait for the men to flock around so she can dismiss all but Stearns. (Did I see him sniff his way along her arm before dashing away? Surely not.)
Misty Copeland is forceful with all the slyly deferential fellows. She slaps the languid Matthews, but he partners her anyway. Paloma Herrera seems pleased with herself, and she’s come for a good time. When the eight men decide to form three trios, she joins one of them as an equal. I get the impression that Barton wanted One of Three to be a little weirder than this, but pulled back and let the output of smoke machines stand for mystery.
Benjamin Millepied refused to be daunted by the architecture of the Avery Fisher stage. For his bravely titled Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once, he put conductor Ormsby Wilkins and the six musicians playing David Lang’s brainily impudent music on a platform along the back of the stage. Often, rather than have all 24 dancers try to crowd offstage through the available exits, Millepied lines them up along the sides like rows of well-dressed living pillars (Karen Young has costumed everyone in black—the men in open vests and tights that end above the knee, the women in elegantly cut short skirts and transparent bodices layered over white).
Not everyone hangs around, however, to watch wonderful Marcelo Gomes and Isabella Boylston enjoy a quiet, intricate moment together. Once Gomes has entered to find about half the cast tangling in the center of the stage, they take their cue and leave. There are variously mixed duets and double duets for four other couples: Kristi Boone and Blaine Hoven, Maria Riccetto and Roman Zhurbin, Simone Messmer and Alexandre Hammoudi, and Leann Underwood and Thomas Forster. Hoven (excellent in this) and Gomes spar amiably. The small, nimble Danil Simkin has a bravura passage in which he hurtles on, leaps, and is caught by a cadre of men in mid-air, after which he cartwheels, flips, and somersaults—a court jester who has stumbled into a military barracks.
And, as Millepied’s title promises, not everything happens at once, although the images that stay with me are of people rushing into action, dodging in and out of formations, forming aisles for others to travel down, marching and sashaying and strutting in lines and circles, pulling unison into counterpoint. Consider Millepied as a witty, well-organized drill sergeant. You can almost imagine him as a virtual presence calling out orders for his attractive, dedicated, and energetic platoon. I enjoy watching the ballet’s combination of order and shot-from-guns exuberance; it just doesn’t give me a lot to chew on afterward.
A bonus on this evening of premieres: Jerome Robbins’s gently rapturous and charmingly playful Other Dances, created in 1976 for two good-friend Russian émigrés, Natalia Makarova and Mikail Baryshnikov. Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, coached by Isabelle Guerin, who performed the duet in the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging, are gorgeous dancers and they’re sensitive to the flow of Chopin mazurkas (plus one waltz), beautifully played by pianist David LaMarche. Murphy is very occasionally a tiny bit guarded, and Hallberg can’t make his moment of simulated dizziness after a spate of spinning into the little joke it is. But they’re ravishing to watch—so sweetly attentive to each other that you believe them as comrades, lovers, what you will, dancing together in this bower that Robbins created.