American Ballet Theatre
Lady of the Camellias
Metropolitan Opera House, NYC
May 25–June 7, 2010
Reviewed by Rose Anne Thom
Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle as Marguerite and Armand. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.
What a perfect subject for a ballet is Marguerite Gautier, the tragic heroine of Alexandre Dumas, fils’, La Dame aux camélias. (Antony Tudor thought so in l951, as did Frederick Ashton in l963.) A robust cast of demi-monde players in mid–19th century France complement this consumptive courtesan, her aristocratic lover, Armand, and his scheming father, Monsieur Duval. Add Chopin’s music and a two-page synopsis to the mix, and, voila, a romantic full-length ballet made to order for ABT’s spring season at the Met.
But John Neumeier’s revised version of his 1978 Lady of the Camellias lacks the vital spark of imaginative choreography to fire the narrative. The story evolves from the memories of Armand and his father. The stage is often frenetically busy: Some of the dancers watch the opera Manon Lescaut, others dance it, while Armand and his father observe from the sidelines. The choreographer fails to guide the viewer’s eye through the sequence of pivotal events, diminishing the romantic thrust of the plot.
Further, Neumeier is frighteningly unmusical. When audiences are familiar with how masters Fokine (Les Sylphides) and Robbins (Dances at a Gathering and The Concert) used Chopin, the bar is set rather high. Neumeier doesn’t necessarily ignore the music but its nuances are lost in much histrionic partnering and lackluster ensemble work. There are moments when Neumeier does harmonize with the score. In the first pas de deux, with Armand prostate at her feet, Marguerite’s wavering emotions manifest in rapid-fire bourrées, as she skitters anxiously around him. In the second act, the lovers intimately encircle each other—with their arms, their legs, and tiny steps—eventually expanding into a rapturous circular path enhanced by floor-skimming lifts. They fully convey their all-consuming passion in response to the music. But gratuitous lifts and too much rolling over each other on the floor clutter Neumeier’s pas de deux.
Of the two casts that performed on May 25 and 26, Cory Stearns embodied Armand more ardently, his dancing as poignant as it was precise. He commanded attention even in those scenes when he lingered on the apron. His Marguerite, Irina Dvorovenko, balanced her characterization between capricious pleasure-seeker and self-sacrificing lover. Roberto Bolle was a more subdued Armand, while the always-exquisite Julie Kent emphasized Marguerite’s tragic aspect, appearing a touch too retiring when escorted by her throng of admirers.
Gillian Murphy and Stella Abrera beautifully danced the thankless role of Manon Lescaut, in the parallel story of another doomed courtesan. A trio of admirers fawned over Manon, manipulating her like a pretzel while her relationship with her lover Des Grieux, danced by David Hallberg and Blaine Hoven, was almost inconsequential. Adding a smidgen of humor, both Julio Bragado-Young and Alexei Agoudine, alternating the role of Count N, buzzed around their respective Marguerites like pesky mosquitoes. Marguerite’s friends, providing a carefree romantic antidote to the tragic lovers, were danced by Xiomara Reyes and Jared Matthews, in one cast, Luciana Paris and Gennadi Saveliev in the other. They romped through their solos, each women flicking a fan as she hopped on pointe, each man wielding a phallic riding stick through a whirlwind of fancy jumps.
In all performances ABT’s dancers, as expected, brought what life they could to the limited choreography. But they could not salvage a ballet that failed to live up to the potential of its narrative.