Monday, July 11, 2011

A Gentleman's Farewell: Jose Manuel Carreno's (Almost) Final Swan Lake at ABT

I hadn’t planned to attend Jose Manuel Carreño’s farewell** to American Ballet Theatre as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake on Thursday, June 30th. But, as the date drew nearer, I found myself checking the website for tickets every day or two.  By some magic, two days before the show some orchestra tickets opened up and I didn’t think twice.  I’m so glad I was there to witness this touching send-off to such a gentleman of the ballet.

Understandably, this performance of Swan Lake brought Siegfried, well Carreño, to the center of the story more than in any other I've seen.  On all prior occasions, Swan Lake seemed only to be telling me the tragic story of Odette (the white swan transfigured from a princess by von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer).  For this reason, I think I have never loved it - because it seemed too similar to so many other classical ballets where the heroine falls victim to the machinations and/or stupidity of men and then kills herself.  But, here, because the energies of the crowd and the company were so focused on Carreño, the story took on a different meaning for me and I enjoyed it much more. 

Carreño has always been a masculine dancer, and he did look a little mature for the role of Siegfried.  But he approaches his roles with such humility and honesty that it is impossible not to respect and like him every time he steps onto the stage.  Thursday night was no exception. In fact, we all loved him the more, because he put every drop of energy and effort he had left in him, and more, into every step he took, every jump, every turn.  The crowd roared in appreciation with almost every move.  By the grand jetes en manege in his solo variations in the Act III Great Hall scene, I was fighting some tears.  His pirouettes à la seconde lingered in the air, as they always do, and gasps filled the hall, as they always do.  I wasn't engrossed in the emotion of the story like I had been in the Gomes/Vishneva Giselle, I was captured by the story of this gentleman dancer's last moments of glory.    The eyes of every member of the corps on stage as guests at the ball were fixated in awe on Carreño and you could see some of them fighting the urge to applaud and cheer along with the audience.  In particular I noticed Alexandre Hammoudi with such a look of admiration on his face (I believe Carreño is a particular hero of his).  When the moment came for Carreño to leap to his death at the end of Act IV, you could tell the entire crowd wanted to shout "don't go!".  The sadness I suddenly felt at this moment surprised even me. 

Julie Kent as Odette seemed to fade a little into the background of this performance.  Her Odette was shy and victimized, but the partnering in the white swan pas de deux was still tender and beautiful.  (I wonder if it was particularly hard for Kent seeing Carreño go, since she has been dancing with ABT nine years longer.)  Even though Kent remains one of my favorite ballerinas, this time it wasn't Odette's story, and Kent's performance showed she knew it.  (More on Kent's Odette to follow in my thoughts on Saturday's matinee)

Gillian Murphy as Odile (the black swan / daughter of von Rothbart pretending to be Odette to trick Siegfried) was an entirely different matter.  Murphy's turn on stage was all fire and flash, which interestingly, fueled the audience's reception to Carreño rather than distracted from it.  Always an exceptional turner, Murphy threw in extra pirouettes and seemed to keep spinning for an eternity. Her eyes were flashing devilishly and she sold me. The emotional climax of this performance was absolutely Act III - and Act IV suffered a little for it (more than usual in McKenzie's uneven version).  But because of the circumstances, the almost reckless rampage of the black swan pas de deux and solos were wonderful on this occasion despite seeming to completely abandon the story and the characters for a bit.  This was by far the most I've enjoyed Murphy in a classical role.  More than ever, she reminded me of a dancer from a 1950s musical. (I also figured out that a lot of what keeps bothering me about Murphy's upper body positions is her tendency to raise her chin at the end of a move to an unflattering angle.  For most of the black swan section she kept this under control and it was beautiful.)

David Hallberg gave us a von Rothbart I'd never seen before, and I'm elated to report that I'm still intrigued with his portrayal so many days later.  Unlike the more physically powerful von Rothbart's ABT's men do so well, Hallberg is long and lean, and of course, blond.  This, combined with some wonderfully Machiavellian facial expressions made him seem to me more like a king swan than a sorcerer.  His control of the ballroom and the way he cast his spell over the four princesses (danced wonderfully by Misty Copeland, Luciana Paris, Renata Pavam and Isabella Boylston) was remarkable.  I really believed these girls would be quickly carried off and transformed into swans when he commanded them off stage.  I am really loving Hallberg in all the non-princely roles, where he has a little more character to play with.  His sharp angles and incredible legs were stunning in the von Rothbart choreography.  (Unfortunately we later learned that Hallberg sprained his ankle in this section - and strangely the same role in which Gennadi Saveliev had injured his calf earlier in the week.)

At Carreño's request and to the audience's delight, Joaquin de Luz crossed the Lincoln Center plaza from New York City Ballet to dance the role of Siegfried's friend Benno as he had during his time with ABT.  What a charming dancer. His jumps were high and covered a lot of ground, but he kept them nicely controlled (unlike some other showier dancers).  De Luz was great with Carreño and also did a good job, on what I'm sure was little rehearsal, creating some chemistry with his pas de trois partners Sarah Lane and Yuriko Kajiya. Both ladies sizzled with technical skill and girlish exuberance.  Lane's pirouettes were particularly strong.  (My only wish is that the two ballerinas would have had ANY recognition that they were dancing together - I saw not one glimmer of recognition, not one look or nod by either Lane or Kajiya acknowledging the other.)
Gemma Bond, Marian Butler, Misty Copeland and Maria Riccetto were wonderful as the Cygnettes.  They flew across the stage in perfect precision and unison in the pas de quatre.  As one of large swans, Simone Messmer was commanding and glamorous.  Her unison with the other large swan, Melanie Hamrick, was a little off - but I've found Hamrick to be off the music and visually out of sync the entire season (she was also the one girl out of sync I had mentioned in the dance of the Willis in Giselle).  But I give her a free pass for Thursday night, since it was such an emotional night for her fiancé.  The corps swans did themselves proud - incredible unison and energy.

Other standouts that need to be mentioned are Misty Copeland as the Hungarian Princess.  I've seen many dancers in this role and none compare to her.  She twinkles and gives off such a regal, girlish air.  Also Simone Messmer and Julio Bragado-Young as the lead Czardas dancers were phenomenal.  Usually I particularly dislike the Czardas section and find it boring, but Messmer and Bragado-Young led it with such vigor and eastern European flare that I was a little disappointed when it finished.  It was that good.  Similarly Roman Zhurbin sizzled with fire and strength in the Spanish dance, along side Alexandre Hammoudi, Hamrick and Karen Uphoff.  All four did a great job but my eyes kept going back to Zhurbin.

Craig Salstein danced the Neapolitan with Joseph Phillips.  Salstein is always terrific in this role, but Phillips was a little less inspiring and their sequential pirouettes were a little off the music.  I can't remember whom I'd seen paired with Salstein in past years but I remember it being much more uniform.

As usual, conductor Ormsby Wilkins seemed to be in a race with the dancers to see who can finish the ballet first, and as usual Wilkins "won".  I find his rushed pace increasingly annoying as the seasons go by.

The curtain call was of course a grand affair, with flower presentations and appearances from Alessandra Ferri, Julio Bocca, Irina Dvorovenko, Susan Jaffe (the night's Queen Mother), Paloma Herrera, Veronika Part, Ethan Stiefel, Marcelo Gomes, Max Beloserkovsky and Cory Stearns.  You could see how much this dancer is beloved and admired by his entire company - such a beautiful thing to witness.

The audience roared in appreciation for what seemed like an hour. Roses rained onto the stage as they should.  Carreño shared the moment with his two daughters and held back (for the most part) tears of joy (and surely a little sorrow).  I even had to pull out my phone to take a few pictures.
 **As it turned out, David Hallberg’s injury meant I, and the New York audience, would actually get to see Carreño’s Siegfried say farewell one more time on Saturday, as Marcelo Gomes was moved from the matinee to the evening opposite Polina Semionova.  My thoughts on both of those performances still to come.

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