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A long review of a short ABT program

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While it may seem by now that any performance of ABT's recent, brief season at Kennedy Center before Friday night's premiere of Kevin McKenzie's new Swan Lake (which sounds interesting enough to make me long for a revival of their old David Blair staging) is yesterday's news, or, in this case, a few days before yesterday, some dead horses can't be beaten quite enough, and so, to quote a famous temporary resident of Washington, "let me say this about that."

I'd never been to Kennedy Center before, and I was struck by the beautiful Philip Johnson decor, from the outside looking a bit like the New York State Theater on steroids. I wasn't all that taken with the interior of the Opera House, which is relentlessly scarlet. I'm surprised they didn't make the ushers (mine sported a nametag proclaiming her to have the deliciously apt name of Aida) wear bright red as well, although perhaps ushers who blend in with their surroundings aren't a good idea. I spent too much mental energy trying to figure out what that pattern on the (red) curtain was supposed to be, if anything. I still think there's a picture hidden in there somewhere.

I'd heard the Kennedy Center stage is quite small, and from where I sat, it looked to be smaller than the New York State Theater, let alone the Met. The twenty-four shades in the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from La Bayadere looked uncomfortably cramped, although the stage dimensions were the least of their problems. Back when Makarova first staged this act on ABT in the seventies, the corps did a bang-up job of the opening procession of shades, each doing up to thirty-nine arabesque penchees (always on the same leg!). I won't say there was never a wobble back then, but that corps from a few generations ago had a cohesiveness that the 21st-century incarnation sorely lacks. Thursday night it was just a bunch of dancers going down a ramp. Of course, I think that ABT's Shades scene started going downhill when they "completed" their full-length production of La Bayadere, although I suppose it was inevitable. The Shades scene never seemed as special after that, nor did the addition of decor from the full-length production help matters. If there's ever a ballet that exemplifies dance as a form of living architecture, it's Shades. Those girls don't need a setting -- they build their own, right in front of our eyes.

Unfortunately, Thursday night they were building on a foundation of clay, or perhaps Foggy Bottom swampland. Or maybe the Kennedy Center stage is really as terrible as it's sometimes made out to be. Whatever the reason, the corps had a bad case of the wobbles thoughout their opening scene. I can overlook one girl who's having a bad night, but when the angles of ever dancer's legs are all going off in slightly different directions for their ecarte developpes, and three or four (I didn't have the heart to count) girls are wobbling and hopping to hold those difficult flat-footed balances, well, it does not make for a magical night at the theater. I've read the current ABT women described as their best corps ever; they were certainly keeping it a secret Thursday night. Te be fair, they did look quite lovely in the sections where they were able to hold each other for support, or sit elegantly on the stage.

If ABT couldn't manage to get twenty-four women to dance cohesively, you'd think they could've accomplished it with only three, but that was not to be. In their first dance together, Yan Chen, Ekaterina Shelkanova and Michelle Wiles approached every step like three girls shooting "odds or evens" to see which one would be "it" in a game of hide-and-seek, with each girl holding back a bit at the count of three to see if she could steal a glimpse at her rivals' fingers before committing herself. "You do the brisé first." "No, you." "No, I insist.""While you two are futzing around, I'll do the damn brisé, and beat you to the next step, too." "Bitch."

I did notice moments when, to her great credit, Yan Chen, often the "leftmost" of the soloists, would almost desperately try to position herself onstage so as to even out the spacing between her, Shelkanova (in the center) and Wiles (who rather firmly established her ownership of the downstage right corner, and any other bit of real estate she happened to be inhabiting). This mostly went for naught, as Shelkanova drifted rather obliviously from left-center to right-center and back again. Chen couldn't fix the spacing by herself, but at least she was aware, and trying.

This brief torture was replaced by another sort when Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreno took the stage. Herrera once again showed that gorgeous insteps do not make up for affectless manner and effectless phrasing. I sensed her reaching a bit, at the start of her adagio with Carreno, for a sense of tragedy and grandeur (Nikiya, one of ballet's more bubble-headed heroines [could this be why I like Julie Kent so much in the role?], gets much more interesting after she's dead [they always do, don't they?]), but soon reverted to the Herrera I've come to know so well in recent years -- her strong technique just isn't brilliant enough these days to make up for her distressing blandness. I'd say she should never be let onstage without a tambourine or fan in her hand, but soubrettes, at least, know how to sparkle. The tappy-tap-tap of her not-quite-broken-in toeshoes whenever she bourreed didn't help her in her quest for ethereality, either. Perhaps she could've redeemed herself by making that final diagonal enchainement of soutenu turns into something that defied and transcended death, but, like the rest of her performance, they were simply adequate.

Carreno, for his part, partnered Herrera with strength, ardor and grace. His solos were, as usual, impressively strong and cat-like, although it was clear he had to restrain himself to keep within the confines of that smallish stage.

One of the challenges of the Shades scene is to take us from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. That opening corps section, which can be achingly beautiful when given a proper performance, and the poignant first duet for Solor and Nikiya, are followed by those solos with their somewhat silly, applause-getting tricks (the travelling releves in arabesque, that "Look ma! No hands!" running-on-pointe bit -- soon to be echoed by the entire corps in the coda). It's the peculiar task of this act's cast that they must give full weight to each of these applause-getters while remaining respectable, ghostly shades. Minkus' charming but beer-gardeny score only adds to the difficulty. Then, suddenly, at the scene's end, after the romp of the coda, we're back at the world of pain and regret that Nikiya and Solor inhabited during their adagio, for that brief apotheosis before the scene's final tableau. It's as if the giddy energy of the coda has somehow catapulted Solor and Nikiya to some more, yes, sublime layer of this dream-afterlife, where they're at least together until the curtain falls (or Solor's hookah hits wear off).

On Thursday night this roller-coaster never got off the ground, and the soloists didn't get much past the trick stage. At least when they were dancing one at a time we weren't subjected to their appalling lack of togetherness. Perhaps I'm getting a bit of a tolerance for Yan Chen, but I'm finding her everpresent charm to be not quite as relentless as in former seasons. She's certainly strong, and carried off the travelling releves well enough, although she still needs to work on toning down her affectation of spontanaety.

Apparently Shelkanova had taken a big fall in Shades on opening night, and perhaps it was her concern over slipping again that led to the most striking and unfortunate moments of her own solo. While I'd gotten used to the clatter of the girls' toeshoes (although not as loud as the Kirov's at the Met last summer), I was puzzled by a loud "scritch" noise, not unlike the dragging of fingernails across a blackboard, that seemed to be emanating from Shelkanova's feet when she'd do a beat. At first, I figured it couldn't be coming from her, since her feet were never touching the ground at the moments of the mystery noise. But then, from where? I finally figured it out: Shelkanova, doubtless chary of slipping again on that treacherous marly, must've approached the rosin box much as a Neopolitan peasant girl approaches a vat filled with freshly harvested grapes. That scritching noise just had to be from one rosin-encrusted toe shoe scraping, however briefly, against the other. One learns something new every day, and I'd never seen, or heard, the like before.

Although the solving of this mystery distracted me from focussing much on the quality of Shelkanova's solo, there was plenty of time to contemplate every langorous and ever-so-strongly held arabesque and attitude in Michelle Wile's third solo, in what this old-timer will always think of as the "Jolinda-Menendez-Vaster-Than-Empires-And-More-Slow" variation. There was plenty of time to contemplate how much blonder (in appearence) she'd become since I'd last seen her, and to wonder if there'd be any blossoms left on the cherry trees by the time she got to the sprightly conclusion. Yes, the tempo was a bit on the slow side. Wiles came through with a strong and sharply defined performance, but wasn't quite canny enough to breathe life into this turgidly paced variation, at least until that perky running-on-tippytoe bit.

I seem to have gone on more about the corps and soloist here than about the leads, but Shades is an ensemble effort, and glaringly highlights a company's defieciencies or strengths at each level. Carreno at least had a clear idea of what his Solor was about, and delivered. Most of the other dancers onstage looked like they could use either a lot more practice or a vacation. A long one.

After ABT's Tudor-less fall season at City Center, it was lovely to see Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas again. I remember being greatly disappointed by ABT's revival of De Mille's Fall River Legend last fall, and despairing of ABT's ability to convincingly perform the dramatic one-act ballets which were once such a staple of its repertory. Perhaps because Tudor is quite different from deMille (an understatement!) or because Jardin has a much smaller cast than Legend, this Jardin was clear, and, for the most part, moving. Julie Kent has a gorgeous instrument of a body, innate musicality and a well-honed gift for adding just the right touch of plastique to her phrasing. This was all to the good in her Caroline, and served the Tudor choreography magnificently well. If only Kent's kinetic smarts were matched by her dramatic ones. I seldom got a sense from Kent of Caroline's inner turmoil and desperation, although she did handle the stunning "Excuse-me-while-I-have-a-strange-interlude" bit quite well. For me, Kent's most convincing moment came when she hovered downstage left, pretending not to be carefully watching The Man She Must Marry and choosing the right moment to slip away from him for her brief rendezvous with Her Love (Maxim Belotserkovsky, looking quite dashing indeed in his military jacket, epaulets and sash).

Sandra Brown's An Episode from His Past wasn't a tower of regret, as with Martine van Hamel and other memorable interpreters of the role, but rather a petite, dark vortex of passion, pain and anger. Her performance was a surprise high point of the evening for me, especially the way she attacked a brief solo with deceptively difficult pointwork with what seemed to me to be just the right subsumation of technique to character.

Of the men, as noted, Belotserkovsky was appropriately handsome, and he seems to grow in confidence and artistry each season. Having said that, I also felt that he didn't let me very far inside the character of this man. This is one of the great challenges and themes of this ballet -- the contrast between the proper and reserved external lives of these four people, and their passionate and doomed internal lives. The dancers have to show us both sides of their character, often simultaneously, and often while working through Tudor's tricky puzzle-box choreography. A great performance of Jardin leaves me heartbroken, not just for Caroline, but for all four characters and their ruined lives. Robert Hill's groom was a bit of a cipher -- I'd like to have gotten more of a sense of his own misgivings at this star-crossed marriage.

While it wasn't quite everything I would've wanted, this was still a fine and poignant performance, and, I hope, a sign that Tudor's repertory will remain viable in this new century.

Having gone on at some length about these two old chestnuts of the ABT repertory, I find myself a bit surprised that I don't have more to say about Twyla Tharp's new ballet, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, set to Brahm's orchestral work of much the same name. It was pretty, well-danced, less ambitious and ideosyncratic than her recent The Beethoven Seventh for City Ballet, and, in that its sights were clearly set lower (one does not set a ballet to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony without making a Statement), it was much more successful in attaining them. I find myself looking at these new works of Tharp's, and contrasting them to the Tharp I admired back in the Seventies, when she managed to shake up and enliven the entire dance world, and became, in her own way, as much of a superstar as the dancers with whom she worked. In some ways, she's made a 180-degree turn from the choreographer she was back then. There's nothing wrong with growth and change, and we're not the same audiences we were back then (I personally have more waistline and less hair), either. One thing I remember of the Tharp of yesteryear was that she eschewed such pedestrian concepts as symmetry and unison in her ensemble work. Yet there was a lot of symmetry in the Beethoven, and even more in the Brahms -- quite emphatic, split-down-the-middle symmetry. If eight dancers were on the left side of the stage, there'd be eight on the right perfectly mirroring their every move. Sometimes lead couples would similarly mirror each other, placed conspicuously downstage right and left, and occasionally a lucky one or two were allowed to occupy the sacred center ground. I remember when a hallmark of Tharp's work was a sort of organized chaos -- I don't think there was a single instance of such a conspicuously balanced design in such older works as Sue's Leg, or Deuce Coupes I and II, Push Comes to Shove, or even, from what I remember, Give and Take, her long-gone, delightful hommage to Balanchine's Stars and Stripes. If a beginning choreograpic student were to make such use of symmetry, I imagine her teacher might have a few words to say about the aesthetic perils of the over-employment of such a strong and unsubtle technique.

Yet Tharp is no novice, and perhaps she was trying, in good post-modernist fashion, to make her emphatic use of symmetry into a statement about Symmetry, or perhaps she's decided, after thirty-some years, to explore it and get it out of her system. I don't think she could possibly have more to say on the subject after this piece.

Years ago, Arlene Croce wrote a piece proclaiming that the dance style of the brave new decade (I think it was the eighties -- remember them?) would have as a hallmark the of super-dense, deeply articulated vocabulary that was then such a marked quality of Tharp's style. I'm sure I'd have a hard time convincing the current generation of dance-goers that there was a time that I'd want to see Tharp's work over and over because there was so much neat movement going on, packed so intensely together, that I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed something. Her original Push Comes to Shove seemed, at the time, to be a brilliant wedding of her own dense style with classical ballet, which seemed quite langorous in comparison.

Clearly Tharp's interests or abilities, or both, are not in this style of movement, at least not in the work I've seen -- the vestiges of it in the Beethoven and Brahms seem little more than tics, and I'd wonder, in both ballets, why these pretty dancers would suddenly seem to suffer a brief fit of kinetic Tourette's Syndrome. There was, thankfully, much less of this in the Brahms than the Beethoven, and perhaps she felt the need to toss in a few twitches to remind us that she is, after all, Twyla Tharp. What I did see was a lot of balletic movement that sometimes struck me as the kind of vocabulary a newcomer, or, in Tharp's case, an outsider, might make on a foray into the classical lexicon -- lots of dancers starting or ending phrases in deep elonge poses in fourth, or using as transitions chasses that began and ended in such a pose, lots of supported pirouettes for the women ending in first arabesque. Fairly basic building blocks, really, and I can perfectly understand why I recently read someone damn this work with the faint praise that it looked as if it could have been choreographed by Hans van Manen.

However, Tharp is nothing if not a smart cookie, and I'd like to think that she knew exactly what she was doing every step of the way. Another thing I remember from the Tharp of years ago was almost always feeling as if every movement, from the first to last, was part of a grand, cohesive and powerful (though nonverbal and often non-linear) argument. Sometimes the points she'd make were almost social commentary (those wonderful hammy phony curtain calls in the original Push come to mind), sometimes musical or spatial. She avoided pedantry by usually abstracting her themes quite a bit from the immediate movement at hand. I often didn't quite understand everything she might be trying to say, but I knew she was, indeed, saying something more than just the sum of her dancers' movements. This is also the way I feel about Balanchine's work, and Tharp has repeatedly expressed her admiration for Balanchine over the years. If there was such an argument in the Brahms, I couldn't undestand or sense it.

Now, having concluded these brief introductory comments, what can I say about what I actually saw onstage? It was pretty. Very pretty, and very sweet. The symmetry, which I found a bit disturbing in the Beethoven (at the time I wondered why she wasn't being more sophisticated), here became, after awhile, surreal and soothing, like watching changing cloud formations through some mirrored facets of a kaleidoscope. And if there was little about her specific steps for her dancers that stuck in my memory, I was struck by the the work's lilting and upbeat flow. As with the Beethoven at City Ballet, ABT's dancers clearly loved dancing this work. God knows if I were a dancer, I'd pick a new piece by Tharp over something by, say, John Meehan any day of the week. Tharp kept shuttling her five lead couples on and off the stage for brief turns with authority and alacrity, and, as with the Beethoven, I liked the sense of community she created -- she doesn't look at dancers as machines for producing steps, and has as much interest in her corps dancers and soloists, in their way, as her lead dancers. Again, no wonder dancers take to her works (well, her new works) with a vibrant enthusiasm.

I was once again impressed with Sandra Brown, filling in with verve for an injured Susan Jaffe. Although Brown's not a newcomer, this evening was my first chance at seeing her dance leading roles, and she was, for me, the surprise hit of the evening. I plan on paying much more attention to her in the future. Brown's dash matched her partner's, Carreno, quite nicely. Julie Kent and Angel Corella were the bubbliest couple, although they should give us some sort of warning when they're both about to smile simultaneously, so we don sunglasses. I liked the abandon with which Marcelo Gomes tossed Paloma Herrera around (there was some nice, breathless girl-tossing in places), but Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky were the the class of the performance for me. Dvorovenko seems to grow in poise and authority daily, and her mile-long legs are nicely complemented by Belotserkovsky's. According to my program, Ashley Tuttle was onstage as well (partnered by Herman Cornejo).

So, although I found much troublesome Thursday, I found much to like as well, and I'm looking forward to seeing the Tharp again in New York.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited March 30, 2000).]

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited March 30, 2000).]

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"Relentlessly scarlet" is an awfully poetic description of the Opera House decor. I think "gaudy, Hilton-hotel red" would have been my choice. You must have been rather overwhelmed by it, since you didn't pick up on the fact that the ushers do in fact wear bright red jackets. Anyway, the main reason for my response is to tell you that your usher Aida is my usher friend, and she was absolutely tickled when I showed her that she'd been mentioned BY NAME in your review!

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Nice review (as usual)!

Small nit-picking from an architect's wife, regarding the architecture of the Kenn Center. Phillip Johnson had nothing whatsoever to do with the design of the Kennedy Center. Heaven forbid, as Johnson is a true Architect &, besides, one of true architectural geniuses of the 20th Century. Edward Durrell Stone designed the KC. Stone is considered--ah...how to phrase this delicately--an "exterior designer" in the world of architecture. wink.gif

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 30, 2000).]

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Rocks in my head. Not Indiana limestone either! The architecture faux pas is mine...answering questions without listening to the question.

I take full responsibility for misinformation...oh well. But I don't think Edward Durrell Stone is as awful as all that....most 1960s architecure in this country is lamentable...Back to ballet....

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This isn't the sort of info that any ballet specialist would be expected to know. Not trying to point out boo-boos for the sake of pointing them out. Just thought you & the rest would get a kick out of knowing what 'insiders' in the world of architecture think about Stone & his fellow Exterior Decorators, compared to Johnson, Corbu, Mies and other REAL architects. Balanchine & Kirstein knew that they were selecting a REAL architect in Johnson; that's why the State Theater is considered the true gem among the Lincoln Center Theaters, for architects, anyhow. The quality of the architecture reflects the quality of the works on stage, right? wink.gif

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as good as it is to read your reviews here, I do believe in a better world you'd be a longtime ballet critic for the NY Times or some general interest national rag.

But you oughta see the Kennedy Center at Christmastime, when they put a big red bow around it. eek.gif


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Originally posted by alexandra:

...I do wish you'd come down for "Dracula."...

Thanks, Alexandra, but I thought we were friends! Seriously, it's depressing how Stevenson can take good ideas and drive them into the ground.

I DO hope to make it down for at least one Bolshoi performance, however.

And, thanks for the kind words, kfw.

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