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Jack Anderson

Big Companies, Big Ballets, Big Problems


American Ballet Theatre
(Metropolitan Opera House, May 14-July 7, 2007)
New York City Ballet
(New York State Theater, April 24-June 24, 2007)
Reviewed by Jack Anderson.

Once again, as has become the custom at this time of year, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet had late spring and early summer seasons at adjacent Lincoln Center theaters, seasons prompting cheers, tears, and furrowed brows.

Cheers first, for the overall high quality of the dancing. Despite some aggravations, both companies gave pleasure. The New York City Ballet's crisp account of "Moves," Jerome Robbins's ballet in silence, triumphantly affirmed the autonomy of movement, proclaiming dance an art of motion that need have nothing to do with any sonic accompaniment. A message worth heeding in a company in which, because of its Balanchine heritage, some choreographers do little more than tailor steps to music.

As for individual interpretations, in Ballet Theatre's "Bayadère," it was fascinating to watch how Diana Vishneva's Nikiya appeared to inhabit a spiritual calm that transcended the hot-blooded events around her. And in every role in which I saw him, Herman Cornejo was not simply a nimble technician, but also an artist who made virtuosity meaningful as well as spectacular.

At the New York City Ballet, it was eerie to behold a performance of Balanchine's "Sonnambula," in which Wendy Whelan, simultaneously spectral and alluring in the title role, bewitched Nikolaj Hübbe, an increasingly obsessed Poet. Hübbe was also a noble protagonist in "Apollo," even though the work continues to be given in its feeble abridged version. Some dancers, ineffectual in certain roles, blossomed in others. Thus Nilas Martins, who failed to become a mythic presence in "Orpheus," came alive in "Liebeslieder Walzer," in which, partnering Kyra Nicholas, he seemed a young man unsure how much about his personal life he ought to reveal to the sophisticated and possibly older woman with whom he was waltzing.

Hübbe will soon leave the company to head the Royal Danish Ballet, and this will be a serious loss, for he brings both classical elegance and dramatic intelligence to his portrayals. He will be much missed.

This was a season for weepy balletomanes, and two occasions inspired floods of tears along with bursts of cheers: the retirements of Kyra Nichols at the New York City Ballet and Alessandra Ferri at Ballet Theatre. Whereas Nichols had a single all-Balanchine farewell, June 22, Ferri, a member of the company since 1985, said goodbye in two Kenneth MacMillan multiact productions, dancing "Manon," June 11 and 14, and a final "Romeo and Juliet," June 23, all of them with the Italian guest artist Roberto Bolle.

When Nichols joined the New York City Ballet in 1974, her speed and clarity amazed audiences. She also soon demonstrated that, without resorting to melodramatic effects, her lucid dancing could reveal the emotional implications of movements, even in abstract works. Her concern for nuances was evident throughout the season: for instance in the Preghiera section of "Mozartiana," in which her raised arms became signs of prayer, while her subsequent widening of the arms hinted that prayers were being answered.

Her final performance found Nichols cast in varied moods. She went from youthful joy to melancholy in "Serenade." In "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbündlertänze,' she was the infinitely long-suffering woman who surely represents the wife of the ballet's unnamed troubled protagonist (possibly Schumann himself), played by Charles Askegard. Here, Nichols let each well-timed look or gesture speak volumes. Then, in the "Rosenkavalier" sequence of "Vienna Waltzes," she was swept away in the intoxication of waltzing.

Alessandra Ferri's farewell performance of "Romeo and Juliet". Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Ferri's Manon followed a poignant downward moral path from innocence to corruption and then to helpless exhaustion. As Des Grieux, Bolle partnered her strongly, yet his characterization could have been more richly detailed. Both dancers excelled in "Romeo and Juliet," in which Bolle was a tall handsome hero beside whom Ferri's Juliet looked especially frail. However, as the ballet proceeded, Ferri showed that her Juliet could gain strength of will.

Although "Romeo" is possibly the finest of MacMillan's full-evening narratives, it has its dull stretches, and "Manon" unravels before it concludes. Yet MacMillan kept creating multiact works of this type and Ballet Theatre keeps devoting much of its summer seasons to them.

In terms of programming, the company has developed an alarming split personality, emphasizing varied one-act pieces at City Center in the fall and full-evening spectacles at the Met in summer. The Met's stage undeniably invites spectacles, but too many of Ballet Theatre's extravaganzas there have had more outward pomp than choreographic substance. In past years before the present policy had hardened, I saw the company give admirable accounts at the Met of such smaller-scale ballets as Agnes de Mille's "Three Virgins and a Devil" and the dance-dramas of Antony Tudor.

This summer, Ballet Theatre's contemporary multiact productions included the two honorable but not totally successful MacMillans, James Kudelka's so-so "Cinderella," and Lar Lubovitch's "Othello," which prolongs one of Shakespeare's most compact plots with three acts of lugubrious dancing. Other full-evening pieces came from the 19th century: a fine "Bayadère," a "Swan Lake" with both felicitous and infelicitous touches, and a new, and lamentable, "Sleeping Beauty," staged by Kevin McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland, and the dramaturge Michael Chernov.

Scene from "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gene Schiavone.

It's a mess. Although great chunks of the traditional choreography by Marius Petipa have been preserved, there are needless additions and complications, possibly to provide the proceedings with extra touches of symbolism. For instance, there's now a river supposedly consisting of the tears of Aurora's mother (but you really have to read the program note to know this) from which the Prince drinks and in which he bathes.

Conceivably, the symbolic touches in the stage business could easily be removed. Even so, the production would remain annoying because, with its scenery by Tony Walton and costumes by Willa Kim, it's distressing to look at. It's all clutter; stage space is not merely crammed with stuff, it's loaded with visually unappealing stuff. The palace is bulky with squat turrets. A throne room with curtains at the back seems cramped, even when the curtains eventually part. Another regal chamber looks overcrowded, with a miniature stage within the stage that is never used for any real purpose. Aurora must make an awkward first entrance down a staircase. The costumes have far too many frills.

Fortunately, the dancing at the performances I saw ranged from competent to excellent. But there was so much visual competition that the dancers were hard to see.

Audiences puzzled by Ballet Theatre's bizarre "Beauty" may also have furrowed their brows over the New York City Ballet's own ambitious new effort, Peter Martins's "Romeo and Juliet," designed by Per Kirkeby, a prominent and, in my experience, an often imaginative Danish painter. But what he has devised here is a drab rectangular unit setting that opens and closes to indicate various interiors and exteriors. It is undeniably functional, but not especially attractive.

Martins's choreography has people bustling about, yet never suggests real life. The doomed lovers let their limbs get into intricate entanglements, without conveying genuine feelings. Martins has cast some very young dancers in the leading roles, and they all look endearing. But his choreography never allows their youthfulness to serve as a basis for convincing emotional expressiveness. A Mandolin Dance for five sassy acrobatic boys receives well-deserved cheers. Yet how strange it is when such a diversion proves more memorable than a tragic Shakespearean drama.

New York City Ballet, Ballet Theatre and, to judge from their seasonal schedules, too many other companies the world over may now be foolishly assuming that grandiose long productions are automatically significant ones. Big is not always beautiful. Length does not guarantee profundity.

Therefore at Ballet Theatre, amidst the ostentation of the multiacts, it was refreshing to see a double bill of Balanchine's "Symphonie Concertante," to Mozart, and Ashton's "The Dream." It proved to be a highlight of the season. "Symphonie," which can often look dry and mechanical, had a quiet grandeur, as led by Stella Abrera, Gillian Murphy, and Maxim Beloserkovsky. And, although Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes turned inexplicably coy in their final pas de deux, "The Dream" moved speedily and graciously along, and Herman Cornejo's gleeful, high-jumping Puck was a total delight.

Whereas the New York City Ballet's announcements trumpeted "Romeo," the troupe's most satisfying novelty was a one-act ballet lasting little more than twenty minutes. Christopher Wheeldon's "The Nightingale and the Rose," set to a score by Bright Sheng and based on a simultaneously sentimental and cynical fairy tale by Oscar Wilde about a Nightingale who sacrificially sheds her blood to aid a Student whose beloved demands a red rose, even though no red roses are growing at the time. But the fickle damsel rejects the rose and the callow Student wanders off, oblivious to the Nightingale's martyrdom.

Such a plot might inspire choreographic mawkishness. Wheeldon, fortunately, created his own strange magic world, in which ensembles grouped in unusual formations became rose bushes. And Wendy Whelan, who has often been his muse, was a thrilling Nightingale, who twisted her agile and apparently infinitely pliable body into one astonishing shape after another.

"Nightingale" may be a little ballet, but it is not a trivial one. Its drama is genuine; so is its passion. Yet one wonders how often it will be performed. Although a fairy tale, it is really not a children's show. And some adults may find its fancies too peculiar. Yet such an unclassifiable high-quality piece is just the sort of thing one might hope great companies would dare to produce. It certainly offers more in a few minutes than some grandiose works do in several hours.

But Wheeldon has announced that he plans to leave the company to establish a troupe of his own. And this decision may well prompt whole new spasms of furrowed-brow consternation.

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