May 18, 2009

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, NYC. May 18–July 11, 2009

Reviewed by Lynn Garafola


With two repertory programs, six full-length ballets, and wildly cheering crowds, the eight-week American Ballet Theatre season at the Metropolitan Opera was in many ways business as usual. However, with Nina Ananiashvili’s farewell performance, the presence of exciting newcomers, and the appointment of Alexei Ratmansky as ABT’s artist in residence, the season marked both the passing of a torch and a welcome shift in artistic direction.


To honor this year’s Ballets Russes centenary, ABT mounted an All-Prokofiev Celebration. Only one of the three ballets, Balanchine’s 1929 Prodigal Son, was actually created for the Ballets Russes, and musically, it was the strongest of the three. It was also the tightest dramatically. Filling in for an injured Ethan Stiefel, Herman Cornejo danced the lead role magnificently. He made it a piece of living theater, conveying the heat of the Son’s desire, his vulnerability, and in the scene of his despoiling, the tortured beauty of a Catholic saint. The very young Daniil Simkin gave a thrilling performance that time will certainly deepen.


Like Prodigal, Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper, his first ballet for ABT, is a dramatic work grounded in music, in this case Prokofiev’s last ballet score before returning to the Soviet Union. Like a number of Ratmansky works, Dnieper takes place in a Soviet world innocent of politics and hunger. A young soldier, Sergei (Marcelo Gomes) returns to his village in the Ukraine, but instead of marrying his loyal sweetheart, Natalia (Veronika Part), he falls in love with Olga (Paloma Herrera). Her fiancé (David Hallberg) challenges Sergei; a brawl ensues; and the lovers ultimately flee, with the help of a heartbroken Natalia. It’s an old story, and Ratmansky tells it well, revealing his ability to give gestural meaning to dance movement and create both sympathetic characters and wonderful choreography for his dancers. In the case of Herrera, he has tapped a reservoir of banked passion that transforms this sometimes reticent dancer into a ballerina of great emotional depth.


Nevertheless, the first half of Dnieper comes alive only intermittently. The stage is often busy, and the music divorced from the action. But once everything drops away, leaving only the members of the love triangle, the ballet quickens, registering the emotions of the protagonists in a passionate duet for the lovers, fated, like Romeo and Juliet, to love, and a lament for the woman they salute and then abandon. Simon Pastukh’s minimalist setting contributes to the mood of sensuous possibility, although his fence-like components restrict the space for dancing.


James Kudelka‘s Désir, to excerpts from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Waltz Suite, Op. 110, was thin stuff, by contrast, despite the composer’s modernist textured waltzes and a lyrical pas de deux that capitalized on Isabella Boylston’s glamorous extensions. With Prodigal the only first-rate score, this Prokofiev evening fell musically flat.


Natalia Osipova paid a flying visit from the Bolshoi Ballet. In Giselle she left an indelible impression, with her astonishing lightness and elevation, huge leaps and back-traveling cabrioles. She was less impressive in La Sylphide, although this partly reflects the eccentricities of Erik Bruhn’s staging, with its coquettish sylph, overbearing James, and comic Madge. Diana Vishneva danced another spellbinding Giselle and a wonderful Sylvia—by turns a warrior Amazon, seductive mistress, and love-struck maiden. Yuriko Kajiya, a soloist, made a charming Gulnare (although Le Corsaire is looking tired). Hee Seo, a corps de ballet member, made her debut in La Sylphide and danced her first Juliet with Cory Stearns, debuting as Romeo (a performance I did not see). Tall, good-looking, but emotionally stolid, Roberto Bolle (new principal from La Scala via the Royal Ballet) danced Swan Lake with Veronika Part, who gave one of the great performances of her career. How different from Marcelo Gomes, who partners all his ballerinas with gallantry, and David Hallberg, who seems to “swing” with the music, no matter what he dances. As for Nina Ananiashvili, the first of the glasnost ballerinas, she cast a glow of autumnal pleasure over this farewell season, performing as always with beauty and artistry.



Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in
On The Dnieper, Ratmansky’s first work for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.



Montpellier Dance Festival
Various venues. Montpellier, France. June 19–July 4, 2009

Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf


Talk about an emotional roller coaster ride! A pall washed over this normally sunny town when dance aficionados learned of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Pina Bausch. Two names not generally found in the same sentence, their untimely passing nevertheless elicited profound reactions during the 29th edition of one of Europe’s most adventurous festivals.


The best tribute, then, was to go on with the show(s). With 28 choreographers from 10 countries presenting 17 new works in 16 days to some 38,000 spectators, the festival’s scope was mind-boggling. Founded in 1981 by dancer-choreographer Dominique Bagouet (he died of AIDS at age 41 in 1992), it’s been directed by Jean-Paul Montanari since 1983.


Curiously, the solos and duets resonated most. At 52, Angelin Preljocaj danced onstage for the first time in 16 years in Un funambule (The Tightrope Walker). Based on Jean Genet’s meditation on love, death, and being an artist, the premiere featured the elfin choreographer reciting the text while swooping about a set strewn with rolls of butcher paper. Tossing off a cartwheel one moment, balancing on a lighting grid the next, Preljocaj ended by showering himself with gold glitter, an apt metaphor.


Less a meditation than action painting, El final de este estado de cosas, Redux, is Israel Galván’s one-man Guernica. A 75-minute work in which the Spaniard deconstructs flamenco, the piece is a convention-smashing triumph. Donning falsies during one segment, Galván ran his body through a cubistic wringer, reshaping it from centaur and steed to warrior and lover, all through astonishing footwork, balletic jumps, and dying-swan–like arms. The finale? Galván standing upright in—gulp—a plain wooden coffin.


Also thrilling: Winter Variations, Emanuel Gat’s latest work. A study in heterosexual male bonding, danced by the choreographer and Roy Assaf, the 50 minutes teem with perfect unisons, militaristic marching (on their knees, no less), and minuet-like stylings to taped music, including Strauss and the Beatles. Gat’s lighting design—an exotic abyss—creates an intimate tableau on the vast stage of the 2,000-seat Opéra Berlioz.

Raimund Hoghe’s new concept piece, Sans-titre, proved less successful. Paired with young Congolese dancer-choreographer Faustin Linyekula, Hoghe, an erstwhile dramaturge for Bausch and a middle-aged cerebral German who happens to be humpbacked, is limited by his body. Hoghe primarily walks, bends, and lies on the floor, while Linyekula indulged in some ecstatic dance, all set to the emotionally manipulative music of Bach, Purcell, and gospel.


After Hoghe had plunked down squares of blank paper and removed his shirt, Linyekula placed stones on and around the hump of the prone Hoghe. Yes, the Teuton exudes a sense of dignity, but his work begs the question: Is it art (à la Diane Arbus); a voyeuristic spa treatment; or does the emperor need a robe?


Mathilde Monnier didn’t need clothes but needed more dance in her hour-long City Maquette. Having premiered in Berlin last year with more than a hundred amateurs and Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (playing music from Heiner Goebbels’ opera Surrogate Cities), the Montpellier version took place in a church with 80 participants from four generations moving to taped music. Somewhat pedestrian, the piece obviously lost something in translation.


Spanish-born Andrés Marín also failed to connect. His agonizing, two-and-a-half-hour El cielo de tu boca featured the flamenco dancer stamping, turning, and clapping to the live bell-janglings of composer/musician Llorenç Barber. Another Spaniard, Mercedes Ruiz, displayed more technique than duende in her one-note Mi último secreto, which never really got off the ground, her aggressive shawl-twirling notwithstanding. 


A different kind of aggression coursed through Rita Cioffi’s premiere, Passengers. Grooving to the onstage sounds of rock group Rinôçérôse, Cioffi gyrated and flailed about. That her partner, Claude Bardouil, was a non-dancer gave the scattershot work a Spinal Tap feel, with wigs, strobe lights, and amped-up rock riffings creating sound but little fury, at least movement-wise. 


The premiere Manta, choreographed by Héla Fattoumi and Éric Lamoureux (both from France, as is Cioffi), was danced by a hijab-clad Fattoumi. Promising to reveal what lay beneath the garment, Fattoumi instead did slow quarter turns, flaunting an occasional hand and finally resorting to cliché—singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”


Stephen Petronio’s premiere, Tragic/Love, a multimedia take on Romeo and Juliet, fared better. Making use of 30 dancers of Ballet de Lorraine and set to a musical collage, including Prokofiev, the evening-length work employed two actors reading letters written to the Juliette Foundation (a kind of Santa Claus clearing house for desperate lovers), while the hard-working dancers offered sensual duets and exquisite line formations.

The same troupe performed Bagouet’s 1988 classic Les Petites Pièces de Berlin. Restaged by Sylvie Giron, the five quirky works were reminiscent of an earlier time, the whimsical backdrops enhancing an occasionally robust—and robotic—vocabulary.    


Bruno Beltrão’s H3 is a high-octane hip hop romp for nine men, stuffed with armless flips, backwards hops, and pinball machine–like maneuverings. Exploring the Machine Age more comically than this Brazilian group were Turkey’s Filiz Sizanli and Mustafa Kaplan, whose premiere, Dokuman generated much-needed laughter. The Tunisian actor/comedian Nejib Ben Khalfallah failed to elicit yuks in his misconceived new solo, Falsou.   


Closing the festival, which also offered free outdoor events and a critics’ symposium, were performances by Portugal’s Vera Mantero and the Mark Morris Dance Group. While two sections of Morris’ Mozart Dances were tepidly received, his 1993 Grand Duo, set to the late Lou Harrison’s funky modalities and hard-charging rhythms, drew wild applause.


Dance, like life, is fleeting. With mortality hovering over the festival, it was gratifying to be in this dance lovers’ paradise, where emotions could be expressed in so many ways with the body.