American Ballet Theatre

May 23, 2005

Paloma Herrera in
Le Corsaire
Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

May 23–July 16, 2005

Reviewed by Clive Barnes


The gala marking the opening of American Ballet Theatre’s spring season (and this year the company’s 65th anniversary), for all its glamour, remained essentially a family affair. It’s the only occasion during the 8-week season when virtually all the principals and soloists of this 90-dancer troupe are paraded before an admiring audience.

One novelty this year was the guest appearance of Savion Glover, all but ricocheting his way through his exuberant version of dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Two works, Le Spectre de la Rose, with Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, and a shaky Polovstian Dances, provided a preview of the forthcoming celebration of the choreography of Michel Fokine. The rest were bits and pieces, including Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca properly steamy in a duet from Roland Petit’s Carmen, and Julie Kent and Vladimir Malakhov, somewhat chilly in their lakeside meeting from Swan Lake. The evening’s climax arrived with the closing Don Quixote Suite—a set of dances taken from the full-evening Don Quixote, with various solos and duets allocated among the company’s stars, who glittered and shone like a Christmas tree on speed.

The most important event of the season was the glorious reproduction of Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia (see “Reviews & Previews,” October), but also of significance was the Fokine Celebration. It is difficult to recall today that during the first decade of the 20th century the revolutionary Fokine was the key figure in ballet, who 65 years ago became one of the founding choreographers of ABT. Fokine’s reputation has faded with time—even his Les Sylphides, for decades the most popular ballet in the world, has become almost a rarity—and has not been much helped by the inaccurate, clumsy revivals that the Kirov Ballet has launched into its repertoire. However, in 1939 the already ailing Fokine put ABT forever in its debt by lending his huge reputation to founder Richard Pleasant’s fledgling effort.So to some extent this program, 65 years later, was payback time.

The program was made up of four ballets: Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose, both seen last autumn and reviewed at the time; productions new to New York were Petrouchka and Polovtsian Dances. Although these works have considerable historic importance, apart from Sylphides, the Chopin reverie that seemed to anticipate the plotless ballet, they have not worn well.

Frederic Franklin’s staging of Polovtsian Dances, using the traditional Nicholas Roerich backcloth, looked faintly anemic; the choreography appeared weak and repetitive, lacking the ethnic savagery that thrilled Paris when Diaghilev first brought it to Europe in 1909. (In fairness, no post-World War II productions—most of them directed by Serge Grigoriev or Nicholas Beriosoff—have been much better.) Gennadi Saveliev, as the Chief Polovstian Warrior, did well enough, followed by Jose Manuel Carreño, Sascha Radetsky, and, the best of all, Carlos Acosta. Among the women, Stella Abrera had just the right exoticism and glamour as the leading Captive Princess, while Misty Copeland sizzled as the Chief Polovstian Girl.

has been in the ABT reperotoire since the early ’40s; the present staging is by the best known of the Joffrey Ballet Petrouchkas, Gary Chryst. The production has considerable authenticity and, as the performances progressed, gained more of the proper atmosphere and theatricality.

Ethan Stiefel (out for injury during most of the season) should have danced the New York premiere, but unfortunately appeared neither in this nor Spectre. Bocca, depending more on facial expression than body gesture, failed to get the sawdust heart of the puppet, although Angel Corella fared better; most poignant and impassioned of them all was the young Cornejo. Of the other roles, Abrera, Reyes, and a somewhat petulant Amanda McKerrow were appropriately doll-like as the Doll, and of the various Blackamoors, the fiercely scimitar-wielding Marcelo Gomes, brutishly gorgeous, stood out, while Franklin contributed an effectively sinister vignette as the Charlatan, as did the more melodramatic Chryst.

There were many excellent performances in Sylphides and Spectre, with Gillian Murphy, Yuriko Kajiya, and David Hallberg very fine in Sylphides. In Spectre, Corella, Acosta, and corps member Danny Tidwell all left their mark, not least with their easy virtuosity. However, it was Cornejo who gave life to the elusive, legendary Nijinsky role.

Throughout its eight-week season, ABT had ample opportunity to show off its two newest stars, both having been seen briefly with the company before. Carlos Acosta is one of the great male classical dancers of his generation, and probably the finest black male classicist of all time. Elegant, powerful, and a natural actor, the 32-year-old Cuban dancer brings luster even to ABT’s unparalleled pantheon of male dancers. This season he first showed his quality in Don Quixote, partnering an exultant Gillian Murphy, and later proved airborne and dazzling in Swan Lake, paired with a steely Michele Wiles.

The other new star, guest artist Diana Vishneva, the 28-year-old ballerina from the Kirov, delighted as Kitri in Don Quixote, matched by an impeccable Carreño, and made her striking debut in Giselle. Brilliantly partnered by Corella, she gave this heroine matchless eloquence and musicality, effortlessly demonstrating why she is regarded as one of great ballerinas of our time.

In the Tchaikovsky Spectacular program, Vishneva, an eloquent and haughtily Czarist princess, was partnered by an elegant Malakhov in Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial. Also on the program was the last-act duet from Cranko’s Onegin, in which Alessandra Ferri and Bocca burned up the floorboards, and the young, small, but perfectly formulated Sarah Lane in Theme and Variations, partnered, also in a debut performance, by a brilliant Cornejo. This program also offered the first (and almost only) performance by guest artist Tamás Solymosi, looking distraught and untidy partnering Veronika Part in the Black Swan pas de deux.

Perhaps the finest performance in this season’s classic crop was given in Don Quixote by a bubbly Reyes and the still magnificent 38-year-old Bocca, who, reducing his roles, was giving his last performance of the virtuosic hero. (Next season is rumored to be his last.) Talking of retirement, on July 14 a radiant McKerrow, partnered by Stiefel, took her leave of the company in Giselle, with the appropriate fanfares.

Anna-Marie Holmes had two of her stagings of full-length Petipa in the season. The first was Raymonda, which I missed while I was in Copenhagen; I must, however, record the debut of Veronika Part in the title role. Holmes’ staging of Petipa’s 1899 version of Joseph Mazilier’s 1856 Le Corsaire, first given by the company in 1998, has not been in the ABT repertoire for four or five years. This version is described as having “choreography by Konstantin Sergeyev after Marius Petipa, staging by Anna-Marie Holmes after Petipa and Sergeyev.”

Le Corsaire
is a creaky but oddly attractive ballet, which lays emphasis on bravura dancing—in Holmes’ production, especially for the men. Of four casts, the first, including Julie Kent (Medora), Reyes (Gulnare), Bocca (Conrad), Corella (Ali), Carreño (Lankendem), and Cornejo (Birbanto), was probably the best. It was a marvelous assemblage of panache, but other exceptional male casting included Gomes as Conrad, Carreño and Acosta as Ali, and Cornejo and Saveliev as Lankendem.

The season ended with a week each of Swan Lake and Giselle. The production of Swan Lake had been cannily preceded a couple of weeks before by its appearance in a PBS broadcast, with Gillian Murphy as Odette/Odile and Corella as Prince Siegfried. Onstage, Murphy resumed her role, with Carreño as her partner and Gomes as Von Rothbart. Murphy, like Paloma Herrera and Michele Wiles (just promoted to principal), had a remarkably successful season.

Artistic director Kevin McKenzie’s staging makes shrewd use of the celebrated 1895 Petipa/Ivanov production, but just as shrewdly offers additions. There is much more for the male dancers to do; in fact, the entire production, with lavishly Gothic settings and costumes by Zack Brown, has more dancing. Murphy came across much as she did on TV—as an immaculate young dancer, perhaps among the top technicians in contemporary ballet, but emotionally still a little glacial as Odette. But she comes into her own in the diamantine glitter of the evil Odile.

Carreño, an impeccable partner and dance stylist, made a glamorous Prince (as did Corella on TV), while Gomes danced Rothbart with precision and bravura. (This production gives him a dazzling solo.) In supporting roles, exciting performances came from an exultant Cornejo, Kajiya, and Reyes in the first-act pas de trois, and Craig Salstein and Tidwell in the third-act Neapolitan Dance. See