Monday, November 21, 2011

Victory to the Home Team: ABT at City Center (Wednesday, November 9, 2011)

Say what you will about Kevin McKenzie’s increasingly lackluster programming choices, there was something exciting about November 9th's repertory program by American Ballet Theatre. I left with such a jolt of electricity that I couldn’t fall asleep until well after 4 am. Notwithstanding some turnover in the ranks since ABT did longer fall seasons in 2006 and 2007, Wednesday night was a return to the well-rehearsed, passionate, joyful and exceptionally strong group of dancers I remembered from City Center seasons past. This night showed some rumblings of something I couldn't quite yet put into words - something that would become a loud and clear statement by some of the dancers later in the week.

The evening started off with a welcome reprisal of Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas, a white ballet danced by three rotating couples to Scarlatti sonatas played live on stage by a solo pianist. I first saw this ballet performed at Avery Fisher Hall in 2009, by the same original cast but one: soloist Yuriko Kajiya was moved up into the spot left vacant by the radiant Stella Abrera (off this City Center season most deservedly dancing Aurora with the Royal New Zealand Ballet).

The standout of this cast was by far principal Herman Cornejo, returned from sitting out last Met season with an injury (and one of only eight of ABT's principal dancers performing at City Center). The powerfully calm, joyful and sensitive display by Cornejo made me realize that it has been quite a long time since I've seen him dance in a featured role, especially a classical one. And it also made me realize just how much I had missed him. His double cabrioles were unsurprisingly high and sharp, and his rotating partnering of all three women was strong and giving. I was especially moved by his sense of connection both the piece and each of the women; more so than any dancer in either cast I saw, Cornejo's eyes seemed transfixed always in the exact right spot - whether wistfully outside the planes of the stage or engagingly at his partner.

Corps member Alex Hammoudi, whose promotion to soloist is starting to seem long overdue, also had a mostly strong night.  In particular when partnered with Yuriko Kajiya in the earlier sections he showed a growing level of maturity and I thought the pair had a stronger, more present, connection with each other than I've seen either of them have with other dancers.  (I had heard that their Nutcracker last year was one of the best, and I look forward to trekking out to BAM to see it this December.) I've said it before, but Hammoudi has gorgeous long limbs and the shapes he creates with his body when he is in a featured role sometimes almost make me want to stop and take a picture with my mind.  He does still need a little more grounding in his movements, some weight to his transitional steps - every once and a while he still looks a bit weak when moving in plie - but his partnering is growing stronger quickly. He was also clearly more comfortable with Kajiya than in his duet with Julie Kent, where he looked a little less mature and you could see him thinking rather than just dancing freely as a 50/50 partnership as I saw in his briefer moments with Kajiya. 

For her part, Yuriko Kajiya came out with a lot of command, especially, in the exuberance of the first sonata and in her somber duet with Gennadi Saveliev, though in the latter she brought a much different feel than the more emotive and fluid Stella Abrera in performances past. Kajiya continues to have some of the most striking arm positions I've seen, and she was so strong and confident in the pas de deux that I had to keep reminding myself to even look at Saveliev. Unfortunately, I sometimes have the same feeling when I see Kajiya dance with her most practiced partner, the wonderful Jared Matthews; as much as I adore him, sometimes it seems as if she's dancing and her partner becomes almost more of a prop.  As I mentioned above, I did not get this at all when she danced with Hammoudi, somehow a much more equal feeling partnering, but I fear that since Hammoudi is quite tall and Kajiya one of the smallest and lightest in the company, we won't get to see them together that often.  

Later in the ballet, the more quietly confident Julie Kent really came to the forefront.  Although sometimes Kent doesn’t have as much variety in styles these days as other dancers, she's always so lovely that for me it's always a pleasure to watch her dance.  Xiomara Reyes rounded out the cast of six, but although her movements were energetic I often found myself distracted trying to figure out what she was looking at.  Wistful looked more like she was counting the overhead lights, and the rest of the time I wondered if she had been transported off to some storybook harvest festival or even dancing Titania from time to time.

The second offering of the evening was my first full-length viewing of Merce Cunningham's Duets.  Set to a percussive score by John Cage, it is my understanding that this piece was intentionally made separate from the music, and the dancers initially rehearsed it as such.  As someone who loves when music seems to be coming out of the dancers themselves, this was a bit strange to me at first.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the piece (though more so on Saturday).  The first duet, danced by principals Gillian Murphy and Cory Stearns, was for me the most forgettable of the six.  Stearns came out strong, but I found Murphy extremely unsuited to this type of dance and her costume extremely unflattering.  Perhaps if she had been allowed to dance with her hair down the modern Cunningham steps would have looked less awkward on her.   Principal Paloma Herrera and corps member Eric Tamm were very strong and Herrera gave probably my favorite performance of the piece.  Immediately I remembered her in fall seasons past - how I wish McKenzie would find more modern work for her at Met season.  Her lines and curves were picture perfect and inspiring, even in their abstraction.  Veronika Part and corps member Vitali Krauchenka left me cold - while Part had the strength and lines right, her eyes were vacant (as often) and nothing made sense to me in this duet - I didn't understand the relationship between the pair (which became clear when I saw the other casting on Saturday).  Julie Kent and Jared Matthews were the most balletic-without-being-wrong and the most sure footed partnership of the six.  Matthews in particular danced with a lot of maturity opposite Kent, as he had opposite Vishneva in Thais in 2010.  The most exciting duet for me was the perhaps less refined pairing of corps members Sean Stewart and Adrienne Schulte, who came out with the most attack and connection of any of the pairs.  Until this season Stewart had seemed somewhat stoic to me - a lovely dancer without a lot of persona. I recently learned that he has a strong contemporary background and boy did it show at City Center, beginning here.  I don't know enough about Cunningham to know if perhaps Stewart and Schulte were maybe a little too animated, but their more human and honest connection spoke loudly to me as a viewer. They were also saddled with horrendous lime and mustard costumes.  The sixth duet, danced by corps members Devon Teuscher and Luis Ribagorda was unfortunately right out of whatever Bournonville countryside Xiomara Reyes had landed in during Seven Sonatas.  It didn't help matters that I had seen Craig Salstein and Isabella Boylston rehearse this duet at Works + Process at the Guggenheim. Ribagorda in particular had such an open and puffed out chest that it was almost comical to watch the pair as a result.  But, I liked the piece more than I expected to, though didn't yet love it. Call me old fashioned, but I like the music to inform the dance, not compete with it. 

Duets was followed by the wonderful Marcelo Gomes and the lovely Maria Riccetto in Twyla Tharp's odd showy little number Known By Heart ("Junk") duet.  To be honest, I don't remember much about the piece other than Marcelo masterfully pushing the boundaries of horizontal and vertical space to the tune of steel drums.  His performance quality takes any program to a higher level of energy, commitment and talent.  There was even one jete which was concrete proof that he's been dancing along side Vasiliev on the Kings of Dance tour - the height was huge!

Last on the program was Paul Taylor's 2001 work set to depression-era recordings, Black Tuesday.  Although most of the individual performances were good, I found this piece a bit underwhelming.  I shouldn't have been so surprised, I suppose, since Company B also leaves me wanting more.  Gemma Bond was immediately captivating as the street urchin ((I Went Hunting) and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead) - though I immediately knew it must have been Marian Butler who premiered this role in 2001 (and it was).  Sean Stewart and Julio Bragado-Young were adorably snappy in Underneath the Arches.  Gray Davis continued to show growth and potential in his partnering, though could have used a little more abandon maybe.  Craig Salstein was (of course) wonderful wooing his three less-than-virtuous ladies in Are You Making Any Money? Alex Hammoudi and Luciana Paris weren't quite suited to this style - though their battements were terrific, Luciana sometimes has a little too much oompf for her partners going into lifts and they both seemed to lose a little steam trying to keep a little too much control.  Nicola Curry was funny but I lost the dancer in her long solo as a pregnant unwed woman, and she doesn't get enough spring in her sautes.  The highlight by far was Misty Copeland in her tragic solo, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams - she's never looked better than she has this fall.  Hers was the only vignette that packed any punch - the power and commitment to a character and choreography that you might see in a Gene Kelly number.  Daniil Simkin sadly lacked that same punch in the climax of the piece, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, although his competition-dancer style was at least a little less prominent than in past viewings.  His cause wasn't helped by the fact I'd heard the story about Ethan Stiefel's powerful performance of this role in September 2001 - I wanted it to live up to that moment in my head.

All in all, my head was buzzing after this lineup.  It had been SO very long since I'd seen some of these corps members and soloists dance in featured roles.  I hadn't forgotten how much I love them, but I had forgotten the degree to which their talent has been underused and shuffled under a big wig or flouncy skirt these past few years.  Although I did miss Stella Abrera (and Sascha Radetsky who, as luck would have it, didn't dance the nights I went), this company of dancers felt so much more cohesive, so much more a unit, than in the past two met seasons of guest principals, talented as they may be, soaking up so much of the spotlight.  This feeling would only grow as the week went on.  More to come.....

1 comment:

  1. Goodness - I totally forgot the Tharp was on Wednesday when I posted my original draft. Updated now. How on earth could I forget Marcelo!!! (Got the nights mixed up in my notes)