American Ballet Theatre: Fall Season

November 21, 2011

New York City Center
November 8–13, 2011

Performances reviewed:

Nov. 8, 9, 12 (matinee) & 13

After skipping a couple of seasons at City Center, ABT returned to the renovated theater, which suited the company’s contemporary repertory season, even if just for one week. The selected works reminded us of the extant riches produced by modern dance’s masters—Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham—and of the gambles of commissioning little-known choreographers, in this case Demis Volpi.

Volpi, 25 years old, is a corps member at Stuttgart Ballet, where he has choreographed as well. In his ABT premiere, Private Light, guitarist Christian Kiss sat onstage, playing, with crystalline clarity, music ranging from bluegrass to classical Spanish. Five couples stood in pools of light, the womens’ backs to us. Pecking like hummingbirds at a flower, they kissed for an overly long time. Each woman hovered on pointe, dutifully circling back to her man, who throughout seemed to possess an invisible remote control for his partner, powered by love or violence. In a repeating motif, presumably meant to be humorous, a man “grasped” a woman by the neck (as she clutched his arms) to move her where he liked as her feet spasmed uncontrollably.

There was plentiful such disturbing imagery— jerking limbs and stuttering feet—that read as a reflexive reaction to bodily harm. Five “dolls” were hoisted onstage by their necks and positioned by Roddy Doble, who flopped their lifeless heads to and fro. Only Simone Messmer lashed out at her imprisonment, twisting and writhing in defiance, but eventually surrendered to Cory Stearns. In a highlight, Joseph Gorak performed fundamental ballet steps, displaying his perfectly arched feet and musculature. It was not enough, however, to sweeten the bitter taste left by a general aura of flippant misogyny, intentional or not.

Martha Clarke’s The Garden of Villandry (1979), a romantic triangle between Julie Kent, Julio Bragado-Young, and Roman Zhurbin, was a langorously paced psychological study with some inventive three-way partnering—Kent (in a prim Victorian gown) aloft, birdlike; or pulled like taffy between the men, who wore formal, dove grey suits. It suited Kent’s alabaster aloofness, and gave Bragado-Young, normally cast in comedic or character roles, a refreshing romantic lead.

Given Twyla Tharp’s history with ABT (in the late 1980s, her troupe merged with the larger company), her prominence in this brief season felt right. Sinatra Suite (1992) was danced by Luciana Paris with Herman Cornejo, who was a welcome sight after missing last summer’s season. His relaxed, sensual demeanor suited the louche attitude set by Sinatra’s world-weary tone. The choreography—often charming, sometimes tasteless—captures the zenith and subsequent fading descent of a shooting star, or a glamorous life.

Tharp’s Known by Heart (the “Junk Duet” excerpt, 1998), to clangorous music by Donald Knaack, is a proverbial kitchen sink of steps that, in the hands of a choreographer with lesser technical breadth, might be taken as a folly. The lithe, luminous Maria Riccetto was partnered by Marcelo Gomes (a 2011 Bessie Award winner for last season’s Albrecht in Giselle), who filled the house with his magnetism and witty interpretations of Tharp’s ad hoc vocabulary. In another cast, a sassy Gillian Murphy danced with Blaine Hoven, who is still gaining confidence to match his strong technique.

Hoven was also featured in In the Upper Room (1986), an adrenalized Tharp primer, and here the rigorous tasks at hand seemed to provide him focus. Kristi Boone, with Murphy, was one of the sneaker-clad leads; her appearances this season were a happy reminder of her bright, athletic presence. Upper Room is a stellar showcase for the company’s women, both off and on pointe; the latter included Riccetto, in top form; Isabella Boylston, a rising star; and Paloma Herrera, whose reserve feels well-suited to contemporary work. Other standouts in this devilishly challenging work to Philip Glass’ exhilarating score were Sascha Radetsky and Patrick Ogle, showing off their tattoos, and Craig Salstein, reliably charismatic.

Paul Taylor’s style fits well on ABT, where it gains polish but loses some of the groundedness that his own company gives it. Black Tuesday (2001), a company premiere, like other Taylor dances, contains solos that underscore each dancer’s attributes. In Taylor’s company, the performers become the roles with time, so to see ABT dancers in these otherwise inhabited roles is disorienting. Still, Nicola Curry charmed as the pregnant third wheel, Misty Copeland (another standout this season) poured out her heart as the despondent hooker, Gemma Bond made for a feisty tomboy, and beggar Daniil Simkin may not have had a dime, but he still had his pirouettes. Company B (1991) gave other dancers chances to shine, including Mikhail Ilyin, Curry, Salstein, Paris, and Radetsky in featured roles.



Scene from Paul Taylor’s
Black Tuesday. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy ABT. 


Both of Taylor’s works showed that in addition to succinct characterizations, he’s a master at inventive economy, using dancers as moving set pieces. Behind Company B’s upbeat solos or duets, soldiers move in slow motion, silhouetted, reminders of the war. And in Black Tuesday, two lines of dancers slowly rise and fall like carousel horses behind Simkin before rushing downstage to extend a palm alongside him.


Merce Cunningham’s Duets (1980) revealed more surprises. Who knew that the lyrical Veronika Part would excel in this abstract movement, as well as Herrera? Both possess long, elastic lines and a quiet remove that complement Cunningham. Devon Teuscher also distinguished herself in Duets as well as in Company B, and Sean Stewart looked impressively at ease.

Seven Sonatas
(2009) rounded out the season. This Ratmansky ballet with three couples features pianist Barbara Bilach onstage playing Scarlatti. Cornejo sparkled in the work’s quick tempo sections; he danced with Xiomara Reyes, well-suited to Ratmansky’s witty, rapid movement. Kent, whose stop-action arms reminded us of time’s inexorability, was partnered impressively by Alexandre Hammoudi, who has a princely bearing. And Yuriko Kajiya, often cast in soubrette roles, here danced a more serious part, cowering in fear of some invisible force.

Not every company member danced in this short season, but artistic director Kevin McKenzie has some spots to fill with the full or part-time departure of several principals, mostly male, after years of riches. Two guest artists were just announced, but perhaps some promotions of homegrown talent, as showcased at City Center, are in order.

Photo at top: Kristi Boone in Twyla Tharp’s
In the Upper Room. By Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy ABT.