Sylphides," "Petrouchka," "Le Spectre de la Rose,"
reassuring notes of Chopin floated out to the house. The ballet-goers
The opening night of American Ballet Theatre’s Fokine Celebration also happened to be the opening of Midsummer Night Swing, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra swinging into an upbeat medley from “South Pacific” just as ballet goers were crossing the broad swathe of the plaza at Lincoln Center to enter the Met. The weather had been indifferent bordering on inclement, but ballroom dancers were turned out in festive droves, there was ice clinking in drinks, and laughter and expectation in the air, and right there was just about the best place you could imagine being, or wanting to be. New York, New York.
Until you got inside, and the chandeliers floated skyward, the lights dimmed, the music started, the curtain went up on “Les Sylphides,” and we were in Paris, some ninety-odd years ago. There, at the Théâtre du Châtelet, the first of the ballets on ABT’s Fokine Celebration program, was first performed on June 2, 1909. The previous month, the last piece on the bill, the altogether different “Polovtsian Dances” was first presented. “Petrouchka,” here in a new ABT staging by Gary Chryst, was also first seen at the Châtelet, as was “Le Spectre de la Rose,” both in the spring of 1911. Thus, plausibly, you were seeing now in New York what you might have seen then in Paris, had you been lucky enough to be holding tickets for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. In the latter two ballets, you would have seen Nijinsky, and, in all likelihood, you never would have forgotten him.
There were admirable performances at the Met, but the evening’s real star was the choreographer, and, in turn, the stagers who have set his dances so vividly to life here. What a wonderful program this is! To see all four ballets together is to grasp Fokine’s range, and to understand the unity of impression of his ballets, whose movement style, sets and music are each of one accord.
The most beautiful is the “Sylphides,” so infinitely romantic, touching, ephemeral. This ballet is so modern in its sublimation of story, absorbing not only “La Sylphide,” but also notions of the corps de ballet familiar from “La Bayadere” and “Swan Lake.” That is, an enchanted gathering of otherworldly females (the ghostly harridans of “Giselle” are the inversion of this). Seeing what Fokine does here reminds one of what Balanchine would later do—as in, for instance, “Symphony in C,” another work that wraps up the past and moves it forward. Kirk Peterson’s staging–he also did the current ABT “Spectre”—is quite blissfully soft, with swansdown jumps, and that charming cant of the upper body that makes the ladies look—just the slightest most charming bit—like adorable rabbits. Maxim Beloserkovsky was fine as the poet, though he doesn’t have the magnetism that some have brought to the role. Gillian Murphy, who lead the mazurka, can do just about anything. She is naturally a strong sylph. Yuriko Kajiya, who danced the waltz, was reticent. In the prelude, Maria Riccetto had a marvelous, fine period look that enhanced the impression of time travel.
What with its traditional beginning, middle, and end kind of narrative, “Petrouchka” would seem to be far more traditional a number than “Sylphides”, and yet it is the less so when it comes to structure. For while “Les Sylphides” is perfectly symmetrical, “Petrouchka” is diffuse in focus, the way life is. The center of the stage is clearly where the main action is, and yet, in all of the crowd scenes, our attention is diverted, most often upwards, to our left, where an old man with a beard carries on with a couple of gypsies. No matter where you choose to look on stage, something is happening.
The principals were Marcelo Gomes as the Moor (nicely lascivious and self-satisfied); Amanda McKerrow as the Ballerina (more rouge on the cheeks would be good, by the way, to go with the “I’ll take the boyfriend with the better apartment” attitude); and Julio Bocca as a Petrouchka more comic than tragic, and more bathetic than pathetic. The indirect stars of the piece were Guillaume Graffin, up on that balcony, and—but of course!—that nonagenarian Commander of the British Empire Frederic Franklin, whose cheerfully malevolent Sorcerer was his usual star turn.
Franklin was also one of evening's stagers, for the Polovtsian Dancers (from “Prince Igor.”) With Gennadi Savaliev swashbuckling around as the Warrior Chieftain, and Stella Abrera—who had warmed up as a gypsy in “Petrouchka”—at the top of her game in the oomph department as the Polovotsian Princess, this was Fokine in Cecil B. de Mille mode. (What a perfect closer—like Balanchine’s “Western Symphony.” Plenty of sex appeal, and a score you can hum. “Take my hand,” the orchestra sings, “I’m a stranger in paradise, tum tum tum ti tum tum tum, a stranger in paradise.”) Warriors with bows, harem girls, some young boys, not to mention a mezzo-soprano, all carrying on like mad in front of a set and wearing costumes Elizabeth Dalton has devised according to the Nicholas Roerich originals.
Ah, Roerich. Does that name remind you of anything? It reminds me of Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which Roerich also designed. And seeing this dance, and also the “Petrouchka,” which was a Nijinsky vehicle, was fascinating in that regard. To think about not only what came before this interesting program, but what came right after. The “Rite” really ties together the “Polovtsian Dances” and “Spectre.” The latter is a solo (well, there’s a girl in it, but she is asleep); the former a group number. The “Rite,” of course, was both. In addition to these formal matters, there is the question of character, or perhaps "personality" would be the better word. In the “Petrouchka” role, you can see something of the same plight which Nijinsky gave the Chose One in his "Rite." Trapped, and made to dance.
In the “Spectre,” that other Nijinsky role, you can not only see but feel what a genius performer he must have been. It’s really just about impossible to pull off the role without looking like a phallic symbol in a flower-petal shower cap—the only person I’ve ever seen do it is Baryshnikov—and whatever Herman Cornejo’s considerable virtues and talent, he is not a wafter. However, he danced the piece here not for the value of the tricks, but for line, for softness. He danced, in other words, with taste. This is something.
How versatile Fokine was! This program is an excellent notion, and an intelligent one, along the lines of a collected works, as opposed to the more frequent anthology approach found on so-called mixed bills. What fabulous taste Fokine had, but not recherché. He knew how to work with Benois and Bakst, and how to showcase talent, and how to please a crowd, even one that wouldn’t be coming along for almost a hundred years. To call this bill a "celebration" is exactly right.