Mixed bill: Jorma Elo's new clothes....and then a masterpiece

American Ballet Theater
"Glow Stop," "Sinatra Suite," "Known by Heart," "Green Table"
City Center
New York, NY
October 19, 2006

by Michael Popkin
copyright 2006 by Michael Popkin

For all the ballets on the program Thursday at ABT had in common with each other, the evening might have been a continuation of the Fall For Dance festival. The debut of Jorma Elo’s new ballet, “Glow Stop,” was followed by two Twyla Tharp works, “Sinatra Suite” and “Known by Heart” (the last is a fragment of a longer work — “Junk Duet” — and proved to be a little gem); and finally by Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table.” The voyage from Elo’s cold modernism to Jooss’s Apocalypse by way of Tharp and Frank Sinatra was a strange one. In the end, though, it did attain a kind of logic, though not the one the company probably intended: the last two ballets highlighted what was missing from the first two, and “The Green Table” in particular got a fantastic performance.

Elo’s ballet was preceded by a veritable blitz of media and hype and drew a large crowd of patrons and press to the theater. It proved, however, to be a mediocre knockoff of the Jiri Kylian/Mats Ek school in its first half and worse — obscure, tedious and cold — in its second. The ballet is for twelve dancers (six men and six women) to a two part score: the first part is an allegro movement from a Mozart symphony (Fourth Movement of No. 28); and the second is the adagio from a Philip Glass piano concerto (Second Movement of the “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”) — that is if Glass, with his pulsing orchestral line that never ceases, can ever truly be said to have written an adagio.

Although the stage was dimly lit to the point where it was often difficult to tell individual dancers from each other, my eyes occasionally, and the program the rest of the time, assured me that the cast was a good one: Julie Kent, Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, Renata Pavam, Kristi Boone and Sarawanee Tanatanit were the women; and Sascha Radetsky, Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo, Jared Matthews, Blaine Hoven and Craig Salstein were the men. The costumes were by Zack Brown, who dressed the women in soft maroon v-neck shifts and the men in velveteen maroon leotards and tank tops.

ABT has performed a couple of Kylian’s works to Mozart in the past season or two; Elo danced for Kylian for over a decade beginning in 1990, and Kylian’s work thus came particularly to mind during the Mozart section of the ballet. It was here that Elo was most successful. As he did in “Slice to Sharp” at NYCB last Spring, Elo in “Glow Stop” moved his dancers horizontally across the stage mostly in highly athletic “leap frog” duets. A typical riff would be a pair of dancers crossing the stage together, each one ending a section of movement in a jumped turn while the other simultaneously moved beyond. This method created choreographic phrases while maintaining flow. If it was visually uninteresting — there was still no overall structure, the work went nowhere and there was certainly no feeling for the uplifting lyricism of the music — it worked well enough as a visual image of a Mozart score and by this means Elo preserved the flow of the dance while providing visual phrases. In a tip of his hat to the avante garde, he then distorted his dancers upper bodies and arms into little hieroglyph figures, though in “Glow Stop” these were mostly poses at the end of phrases rather than the sinuous writhing motions he used in “Slice to Sharp.”

So far there was nothing much to praise but nothing much to complain of either in any of this. If the ballet had ended there, the disappointment would have been a function of the hype that preceded the work more than of the rather bland product in front of one. The more acute trouble came when Elo attempted to apply his visual method to Glass’s compositional structure, where there are few well defined musical phrases and where his choreographic tool of having his dancers jump and spin in a continuous leapfrogging series of stops had nothing musical to hang onto. The lack of structure and emotional content in Elo’s work at this point suddenly became most evident. With Glass as a background, “Glow Stop” became tedious and visually unintelligible: dancers entered and exited by twos, by fours, then by twos again; the dance went on with nothing for the eye to seize upon; everyone was equal, everything was equal too; there was no beginning, middle, or end, just anonymous figures lost pirouetting, jumping and lifting each other in the gloom . . . until it all ended with two of them left alone gesturing and backing offstage in silence.

How to judge such a work? A comparison with everything else seen this week at ABT is one way. In a week when the company performed, among other things, Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” as well as her “Junk Duet” and “Sinatra Suite;” Balanchine’s “Symphonie Concertante” (also to a Mozart score); Agnes De Mille’s “Rodeo” and Mark Morris’ limpidly beautiful “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” (also a work commissioned by ABT, but at a time when commissions were apparently more fruitful) — Elo’s new ballet was well below the standard set by all of these ballets.

The revival of Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite” was also much anticipated and, although I missed it at the opening night Gala, the ballet was said to have been well danced by Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane on that occasion. On Thursday, though, Jose Manuel Carreno and Luciana Paris had difficulty with it. Paris is a very promising young dancer from the corps de ballet but was performing the work for the first time and showed evident jitters. This could be allowed for, as well as the partnering difficulties between the couple. Carreno’s problems were more surprising and unaccountable. “Sinatra” is a ballet that depends on character. The choreography does not so much dramatize the Sinatra lyrics as create a mood around them. This requires that the dancers flesh out their parts, something neither did on Thursday. Carreno’s character (the original was made on Baryshnikov) is by turns exuberant (“Strangers in the Night”), aggressive with his Belle (pushing her around in “That’s Life”) and, in an extended solo (“One for my Baby and One more for the Road”) poses as disillusioned when he is equally innocent and eager underneath — disillusion being one of innocence’s poses as it were. Carreno, though, performed the whole thing as if he thought he was the Big Sailor in “Fancy Free.” Given his proven gifts and Paris’s talents, their interpretation should improve.

The entire level of performance then suddenly rose when “Sinatra” was followed by Tharp’s “Known by Heart.” This was danced by Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky and had everything that the first two ballets lacked. In comparison with Elo’s dark and muddy composition, there was light, clarity and structure. By utilizing the form of the classical pas de deux — entrée and tandem dance for the principals, variation for each and then recapitulation for the two — Tharp gave the work a shape that could be grasped, a clear opening, middle and an end. She likewise made it visually intelligible and interesting when she first established the classical lexicon of steps before departing from it. When, for example, Beloserkovsky repeatedly went to fifth positions before starting to shadow box, there was something to distort before it was distorted. Unlike “Sinatra,” the characters and personalities were also vivid. It has been years since I have seen Dvorovenko dance this well (if indeed I ever have) or look this good on stage.

And if this wasn’t enough to redeem the evening, an extraordinary performance of “The Green Table” followed. Jooss’s masterpiece is a 1930’s modern dance drama from Weimar Germany that begins and ends with a group of masked imperialists posturing before a green table, while the middle section is a wartime action where a series of characters are claimed by a masked figure of Death. It was a huge success when ABT performed it at City Center last year and rightly so. In the meantime, the company has taken the ballet on the road and has only gotten better at staging it.

The difference is in the level of detail the dancers bring to their characters. On Thursday, from Jennifer Alexander’s portrayal of the Young Girl (drawn out of a bordello and attracted to David Hallberg, as Death, as she would have been drawn to the soft embrace of a lover); to Carmen Corella’s dramatization of a partisan Woman shot by a firing squad; to Carlos Lopez’s Profiteer (stripping the dead and peering at a ring he plunders from the battlefield with all the passion of a character from Tolkien); to Jesus Pastor’s Old Soldier (drawn to the comradeship of Death, it seemed, as to a friend and or a companion at arms) — everyone on stage had fully thought out their performances and rendered them with a scrupulous detail that gave substantive depth to the drama.

Hallberg’s portrayal of Death, the principal role, was a Tour de Force. A year ago he was effective in this role and he played Death at that time as a frightening, relentless and somewhat mechanical character. Since then he has grown immeasurably in the role and on Thursday night his character had become nearly human. Using his eyes, gestures, postures, every resource available to the dance actor, he portrayed death as both inhuman and, at the same time, as lonely and seeking to connect with human life. (Ironically and tragically, he only could by taking it). Like a Norse God in Wagner, he belonged to another order but still sought human relationship. He was attracted to the Young Girl when she was drawn to him. Crouching and sniffing above her horizontal body, he was nonetheless like a dog about to enjoy a meal, or a child coldly examining a butterfly it has caught and crushed. He enjoyed the Old Soldier’s presence; to him, too, the soldier was a comrade in arms. This performance brought the entire ballet into focus. The great irony in “The Green Table” is that Death is ultimately kinder, ultimately more human than the masked figures around the Green Table who open and close the drama and drive the entire tragedy. Hallberg’s performance, indeed the entire cast, should not be missed.

Photo of David Hallberg as Death in "The Green Table" by Marty Sohl.

Volume 4, No. 38
October 23, 2006

copyright ©2006 Michael Popkin



©2006 DanceView