DanceView Times, New York edition
ABT's Season Opens With a Sizzling Gala
Here's a good recipe for an opening night gala: showcase all the company's principals and soloists without resorting to a single warhorse pas de deux; keep the menu varied, with a touch of the unexpected; and give a solid, representative sense of what the season to come will bring. On Monday, ABT whetted the appetite for the eight-week season to come and sent the very festively dressed audience on its way to the party after two and a half swiftly-paced hours of well-chosen highlights.
They were treated to substantial excerpts from two of the season's major attractions: the new production of Raymonda and the revival of Ballet Imperial, as well as two pieces d'occasion: an affectionate salute to soon-to-be-90-year-old Frederic Franklin, and Kirk Peterson's spiffy Carmen Fantasy, with special guest violinist Sarah Chang brilliantly leading the way in the showy Sarasate score.
On the applause meter, the hands-down winner came early in the evening: the amorous first act duet from Kenneth MacMillan's Manon—by now a staple of ABT galas. Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca made it clear why: totally enraptured by each other, making every swooping lift an expression of sensual abandon, these two veteran Macmillan interpreters rode the impetuous arc of the Massenet music to an exhilarating final clinch. A close second, in terms of the volume of the audience's roaring approval, was Jose Manuel Carreno's bravura solo from the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, a late addition to the program. This is the kind of thing Carreno does do well—exuding masculine power but somehow not making the beefcake aspect look silly—and it's what audiences love to see him do, so adding this roughly one minute to the program was certainly justified.
Among the novelties, Balanchine's Tarantella (in an uncredited staging) was a welcome treat. Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel, tall and golden, were interestingly cast against traditional type for this ballet, but as expert Balanchineans quickly made it their own. The piece became less feisty and more a sunny celebration. Murphy's skillfully applied her amazing clarity and expansiveness to the brisk witty footwork, and her always amazingly smooth and musically refined turning ability came in very handy here. Stiefel downplayed his innate elegance to put on a more rough and eager manner, but mainly impressed with the scale and vigor of his dancing. Tarantella here became less of a character piece and more of a simply joyful, vibrant give-and-take.
The company's other major virtuoso, Angel Corella, was featured in a piece even further afield from ABT's usual fare: David Parsons' solo Caught, usually seen in New York on the much smaller Joyce Theater stage. It's a gimmick piece: with the stage dark, the dancer controls a strobe light that catches him in mid-air leaps, so that he appears to travel through space without touching the ground. Thanks to Robert Fripp's dreamy, reverberant score and the effective new-agey costume of flowing white pants and bare chest, the clever piece evokes a sense of liberation and transcendence, and Corella very effectively performed the sequence where he seemingly circles the stage in stag leaps, as though he has left gravity behind. The opening, grounded moments, when the dancer defines and claims the stage space with muscular, grounded movement that was so mesmerizing on Parsons looked more like marking time, but once Corella took to the air, the piece took off as well.
Parsons once found inspiration for a funny, gimmicky dance (The Envelope) in Rossini overtures, as this program included another choreographer's get-'em-laughing effort set to a Rossini overture: La Grand pas de Deux by Christian Spuck. As performed with perfect self-mocking flair by Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky, it made audiences cheer at City Center last fall, and the Russian duo's adept timing and self-mocking yet stylish performing made the work no less effective in the vastness of the Met. The bespectacled Dvorovenko's shenanigans with a pink purse quickly become tiresome and irrelevant, and I leave for someone else to ponder the significance of the cow sculpture placed upstage, but the work is brief and sassy enough to just avoid becoming tiresome.
Frederic Franklin's staging of Coppelia returns to ABT's repertory this season, and artistic director Kevin McKenzie put together a gloss on that work in A Sweet for Freddie, in which matched Swanildas (Amanda McKerrow and Ashley Tuttle) performed side-by-side solos before the divinely elegant Franklin himself strolled on to observe, and occasionally offer an arm in support, to a total of four Swanildas and their deferential Franzes. From time to time one of the women would freeze into a pose like the Coppelia doll, and one of the men would gesture to Franklin, who would undo the momentary spell with a wave of his arm. At the end, having unfrozen all four woman one more time, he happily strolled off surrounded by Swanildas, as the guys good-naturedly dealt with the abandonment.
Peterson's Carmen Fantasy was ideal gala fare—brisk, scintillating, and different from anything else on the program. It was also a showcase for a guest artist worthy of the name: violinist Sarah Chang, resplendent in a sexy Carmen-red gown and playing her violin with a blazing abandon appropriate to the opera's eponymous heroine. The work opened with an unusually sensual-looking Xiomara Reyes, sultry in a sleek red sheath, puffing the obligatory cigarette, which was soon tossed aside by her smoldering partner, Carlos Molina. Their taut, confrontational yet playful duet subtly evoked the impassioned face-off of the Carmen-Don Jose relationship while avoiding Spanish clichés. A new section of the music introduced two knowing, sleek passers-by, Misty Copeland and Adrienne Schulte, before Erica Cornejo and Herman Cornejo appeared for some rapid, smooth partnering. Peterson capitalized on their strong, sharp technique but gave the proceedings a contemporary edge. Things really started to sizzle as the pace quickened and the two women and the Cornejos traded off, flying across the stage in some amazingly sharp, fleet passages, carried along by Chang's virtuosic violin.
The women of ABT's corps de ballet were rightfully given their moment to shine, openings the programs' second half with their entrance and adagio from the "Kingdom of the Shades" act of La Bayadere. They performed their moonlit meditation with beautiful clarity and unified purpose. Ballet Imperial is not yet in ABT's bones the way Bayadere (which has been steadily in the rep now for nearly 25 years) is, and the corps looked well-rehearsed and precise, if a bit dutiful, in the first movement of that seminal Balanchine work, which opened the evening. It was touching to see, during the work's introductory minutes, the women glide through a passage of repeated arabesques that reads as Balanchine's nod to the famed Bayadere shades sequence. It was also a bit disconcerting to renew acquaintance with the overly-busy costumes of the ABT production—closer to the imperial spirit of Balanchine's original, but cluttered-looking in comparison to the softer, cleaner lines of the costumes in which NYCB now dances the work.
Two very contrasting ballerinas took on the lead roles: Paloma Herrera was cautious and reined-in during the challenging entrance solo, in which the ballerina has a chance to seize the stage and announce her presence. But she danced with more freedom and lucidity during the extended duet sequence, in which Gennadi Saveliev made a strong impression with some refined airborne passages. Michele Wiles, as the second ballerina, was expansive and clear, relishing the swift, crisp demands of the choreography. She claims the stage proudly yet modestly, while Hererra rarely radiates a presence that fills the space around her.
Two excerpts from the upcoming Raymonda made a better impression than the pallid, unbecomingly-costumed portion the company performed with so little flair last fall o a mixed-repertory program. The costuming is still a bit much, but maybe will make more sense seen in full context. Nina Ananiashvili did the ballerina honors in the Pas de Sept that has her being partnered and paid homage to by Marcelo Gomes (as the courtly Jean de Brienne) and Saveliev (as the Saracen knight Abderakhman), and she was in her element—refined, bold yet precise. Two pairs of supremely classical soloists—Wiles and David Hallberg, Veronika Part and Ricardo Torres—lent support in the background, and then the two women performed the well-known solos. One could not help notice the contrast between these American- and Russian-bred soloists. Wiles danced scrupulously yet somewhat primly, adept at the technical challenges but lacking a distinctive overlay. Then on came Part, with her unbelievably creamy phrasing and air of quiet delight, to imbue her solo with not only classical polish but sublime reverie. Her few minutes alone onstage were the opposite of what galas usually put forth, but they were a true highlight of the evening.