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That big gala on Valentine's Day

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After ascending to the heavens of the "cheap" seats for last night's "Millennium International Ballet Gala" at the New York State Theater and looking over the program, I found myself remembering the old gag TV show they used to have on Saturday Night Live: "What Were You Thinking?" I pondered the listings of ancient and not-so-ancient warhorses, wondered what had happened to Diana Vishneva (whose name had been featured prominently on gala posters), and began to think that perhaps I might've been wiser to have stayed at home, pocketing the absurd ticket price, and doing something useful, like writing or changing the cat litter. What was I thinking, indeed?

This sinking feeling continued through the first number on the program. Each was introduced by an announcer intoning the dancers' names, and the piece they'd be dancing. He did do a marvelous job with all those pesky furrin names, but he wasn't quite as sonorous as the wonderful announcer they have at Yankee Stadium, although I kept on expecting him to tell us not only who'd be dancing next, but their uniform numbers and positions. "And now, ladies and gentleman, the first baseman, Igor Zelensky." Seriously, given that the music was entirely canned, it didn't seem inappropriate to have some sort of procedural nicety to delimit what otherwise might've seemed a rather indiscriminate procession of numbers.

Anyway, first up were ABT's Susan Jaffe and City Ballet's Charles Askegard in the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Of all the pas de deuxs presented last night, this one seemed to me least amenable to presentation as an excerpt - even less so than the one from Apollo, which these two presented later in the evening. Although certainly replete with tricks, such as the three consecutive fish dives, this duet's sweet air of purity and lightness can get lost when it's not the climax of a grand classical production. Or at least that's how it seemed last night, with the State Theater's stage appearing quite vast and bare. Although over the years since I first started watching her, Susan Jaffe has developed an appealing sweetness quite appropriate for Aurora, her changeless, fixéd smile mirrored the familiar undifferentiated quality of her dancing. Askegard comported himself well as her partner (filling in for ABT's Guiseppe Picone), despite some scary moments in the third fish dive, and some occasional sloppiness in his solo. He's a fine, clean dancer - I just wish he could make himself a bit more interesting.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous (a recurring theme of the evening), the Bolshoi's Anna Antonicheva and Yuri Klevtsov presented Yuri Grigorovitch's inevitable pas de deux from Spartacus. I've often thought that the years have blurred the once marked distinction between the styles of the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets, but this pair's scenery-chewing rendition of this piece of balletic kitsch made me wonder. Antonicheva has the long neck, small head and soulful eyebrows so typical of Russian ballerinas these days, and showed off her sky-high extensions to great advantage in her opening solo, where she seems to express her longing for Spartacus by occasionally hugging one of her own skyward-pointing (and quite gorgeous) legs. Yes, it seems that the curse of Sylvie Guillem was much in evidence last night - more on that later. While Antonicheva has a kind of straightforward physicality and lack of subtlety I found appealing, or at least appropriate to the work at hand, Klevtsov seemed almost a charicature of the stereotypical Bolshoi man - broad-chested, virile and a bit muscle-bound. There's a certain naïve charm to both of the works these two performed (they later danced the Diana and Acteon pas de deux), and they both were suitably straight-faced and passionate for the signature overhead lifts. Repeatedly Antonicheva would back away the entire length of the stage from Klevtsov before charging at his outstretched arms, so he could hoist her far above his shoulders. I always half-expect the man to pound his chest and emit a Tarzan yell at such moments, and it wasn't hard to imagine Klevtsov doing so. They did turn the big, extended toe-shoes-to-the-ceiling lift into an applause machine, and I found myself wishing they'd have been even more over-the-top.

The Paris Opera Ballet's Marie Agnès Gillot followed with an equally kitschy but far more pretentious piece, a solo by Carolyn Carlson called Diva, set to a recording of Maria Callas singing a solo from Andrea Chénier. I guess this was the token barefoot-modern piece, and, if nothing else, Gillot demonstrated that, regardless of the circumstances, no Parisian ever looks wholly at sea if given an opportunity to model black-velvet gloves, hat and cocktail dress (OK, it was really navy blue, but you get my point). While marching up and downstage, carefully removing said hat and peeling said gloves and tossing them to the stage, and soulfully stretching her arms skyward (she did manage to sneak in an attitude or two), Gillot gave the impression of being on the verge of expressing some great profundity, but never quite delivering.

Next up were the Kirov's Igor Zelensky and the Royal Ballet's Darcey Bussell in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire. This was my first look at Bussell in the flesh, and she certainly has enough of it. Ever since I first gazed upon Martine van Hamel, I've adored tall women who can really jump, and Bussell doesn't disappoint. Tall, leggy, but with actual hips and a waist, Bussell's a strong, healthy Amazon of a gal. She and the also statuesque Zelensky looked superb together, as both their physiques and temperaments seemed quite complementary. I don't know how much these two have performed together - there was one slightly iffy moment where Zelensky ventured a wee bit too close to Bussell's whirling foot as he moved in to support her after a grande turn à la séconde, on pointe - but for the most part they appeared to be quite comfortable with each other. I loved the contrast between Zelensky's brooding, Byronic scowl, and Bussell's excitable, Gelsey-Kiklandish smile. I was impressed by Bussell's strength and flexibility (six-o'clock penchées were the order of the evening), but even more by her great appetite for consuming the vast spaces of the State Theater's stage, much like City Ballet's Monique Meunier (another big gal), whom I've missed terribly this season. In this forthright attack, Zelensky matched Bussell, and my strongest impressions of this pas are of yards and yards of their beautifully proportioned legs and feet scything through the air. It's easy, and sometimes entertaining, for dancers to camp up these roles, but here I was glad that Bussell and Zelensky played it fairly straight, and let their dancing speak for itself.

After this old chestnut, San Francisco Ballet's Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre danced the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake. I'd only seen Lacarra once before, dancing the novice in Robbins' The Cage during SFB's season at City Center last year. She was fine, but that cannibalistic, insectile female is hardly the measure of a ballerina. Since then, I'd been increasingly aware of her growing reputation. I tend to be skeptical when first viewing a star with a huge and vociferous fandom, but it took Lacarra about five seconds to completely and utterly win me over. Although we learn in geometry that there is an infinite number of points on any line, and between any two other points, usually, in ballets, dancers tend to show us certain positions (arabesques, attitudes, whatever), and downplay the in-between bits as only transitions, however beautifully they may be traversed. Lacarra breathes life in those interstices better than anyone I've seen, except, perhaps, Makarova (another great Odette). It didn't hurt that the taped music she used was at a Makarovan slow tempo, either. It seemed that this White Swan lasted as long as all of the White Swans City Ballet performed this spring in their misguided, impatient production put together. And I wanted it to last longer.

From her first arabesques to her final, thrilling battus, Lacarra's seamless white taffy-pull of a performance kept holding my breath, and proved that a dancer can be deeply musical even when performing to canned music. I was left with no doubts that Lacarra could turn brushing her teeth into a religious experience for her audiences. Oh, what does she look like? Rather petite, it seemed from upstairs, gorgeous double-S-curved legs and feet, dark hair, regal carriage, and gorgeous high extensions and penchèes. I remember watching, entranced, at her first, supported plies in arabesque, as she slowly rolled her standing foot down off of full point into her plie. I can't remember being quite so enthralled by such an everyday, even pedestrian, ballet movement, yet Lacarra showed me an entire universe within her instep. She's the kind of dancer in whose movements one can lose one's self entirely. Pierre was a strong, committed and lyrical partner, and never once let the audience forget that Lacarra was the star of this particular show.

After such sublimity, Rotislav Zhakarov's Gopak, as danced by ABT's Gennadi Saveliev, was a marked contrast. Saveliev's bright-red pantaloons might well have been filled with helium, as he displayed formidable technique and ballon in this balleticized version of Russian folk-dancing. Barrel turns, corkscrewing steps with no names, and, of course, Russian splits, Saveliev was quite the dynamo. If the piece had more style than substance, at least it was entertaining, and brief.

The program's first half concluded with the Paris Opera Ballet's Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in the pas de deux from La Esmeralda. Again, this was quite the old Petipa/Drigo warhorse, but rescued, here, by the charm and accomplishment of these French dancers. I'm reminded of how Edwin Denby once described a French ballerina's performance as a monologue directed at the audience, and both Letestu's and Martinez' performances were spiced with little glances and gestures that appeared as witty asides to the audience, and to each other. Where many other dancers might make the simple taking of their partner's hand a matter-of-fact reaching for support, with a quick glance and smile for Martinez, Letestu turned even such a fundamental gesture into a sweet dramatic moment, as if she were discovering his supporting hand anew each time: "A hand? Pour moi? Ah, zhat is so sweet!" And in his solo, it seemed Martinez was sharing almost-conspiratorial smiles with the audience - "You liked that, eh? Well, wait till you see what's coming up next...."

And what came up next was usually quite impressive. I liked Martinez' casual, throway brilliance (he was also quite adept at disguising the occasional double tour that was more like a 1 3/4 tour), and Letestu's piquancy and rock-solid technique, particularly in her tambourine-playing solo. She'd smack it against her elbow, hand or extended foot in rapid succession, to finish or add emphasis to a phrase. Here, once again, I saw the Guillem effect - it was as if, for Letestu, a developpe doesn't begin to get interesting until the working leg's parallel to the stage - before that's just a preparation. In the right place, a dramatically high extension can be quite lovely, but, as we saw with the Kirov's athletic Auroras last summer, it can also be inappropriate and distracting. It's nice to know that dancers like Letestu are capable of giving themselves a concussion with their own ankles, but must they prove it to us every time they raise their legs?

The gala's second half started with Bussell and Zelensky in the bedroom pas de deux from Macmillan's Manon. One sure way to make Macmillan's work to appear refined and tasteful is to present it on the same program with Grigorovitch's, and here, despite the lack of a bed in which to awaken (Bussell sort of strolled onstage, dreamily), the two brought the right mix of exuberance and restraint to this dance's series of swooning clinches. I found Bussell's child-like enthusiasm to be quite compelling, and more effective than the worldly, knowing approach most ballerinas bring to this role. Again, the two made a convincing and moving couple.

Next were the Bolshoi's Antonicheva and Klevtsov in Vaganova's Diana and Acteon pas de deux. Even more than with Spartacus, this is schmaltzy choreography, yet, again, I find it hard not to view with a certain sentimental affection, especially when performed with this pair's energy and conviction. In the adagio, the couple spend a lot of time backing away from each other so that they can charge at each other, for some doubtless death-defying supported turn or lift; in many ways it's an earlier step on the evolutionary path that leads to something like Spartacus or Spring Waters. It's the sort of thing where Klevtsov, attired in a little leatherish skirt and shoulder-strap, and not much else, leaps to the center of the and dramatically extends his arm to Antonicheva. She can't just step towards him to accept this proffered support, but must herself leaps towards him in a big assemblé, springing up in a perky little sou-sous as she takes his hand and extends herself into a grand, supported developpé on pointe (with her working leg well above horizontal, of course).

While French dancers might embellish their phrases with witty asides, these Russian dancers punctuate one melodramatic phrase with another, more melodramatic one. It's hard to imagine French dancers presenting Diana and Acteon without some sort of ongoing, self-deprecating commentary ("Yes, it's silly, but we're having fun."). It's equally hard to imagine Russian dancers tackling it without the sort of unrestrained conviction that Antonicheva and Klevtsov displayed. I couldn't tell whether these dancers presenting two period pieces in an appropriate historical style, or whether they always dance that way. I suspect the latter, especially with the brawny Klevtsov. I particularly liked the fearless way that Antonicheva started a solo, by plunging into a perfectly balanced, deep piqué arabesque penchée, and holding the balance for the requisite second or two. She was unapologetically athletic, and I rather admire her for that. To the growing cheers of the audience in the coda's fireworks, Klevtsov proved he could indeed get both feet off the ground at the same time, and even, occasionally, point them.

I'm not sure if Charles Askegard has danced Balanchine's Apollo before. He and Susan Jaffe returned with a credible rendering of the pas de deux between Apollo and Terpsichore. While Askegard seemed a bit frantic and Jaffe a bit brittle, Apollo was a welcome tonic among the old chestnuts. However, even more so than with The Sleeping Beauty, this duet loses a great deal of its meaning when presented as an excerpt.

I must confess, a bit guiltily, that I immensely enjoyed POB's Letestu and Martinez in the pas de deux from William Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. While I've often found Forsythe's work to be as silly as it is incomprehensible, this duet, to a thundering percussive beat by Thom Willems, at least allowed the pair to show off their amazing quickness and sinuosity. In its own vaguely post-modern way, it was as much of a circus as the Diana and Acteon, and I ended up marveling at Letestu's phenomenal turnout (this was, after all, made originally for, that's right, Sylvie Guillem). I liked the way these two made the State Theater's stage seem small, doubtless because they're used to the Paris Opera's gargantuan dimensions. It was schlock, but it was really great schlock.

Although I wasn't terribly impressed with Gerard Bobotte's choreography in the duet from his Adagio for Strings (to the score of the same name by Samuel Barber), it mattered little, as Lucia Lacarra was, once again, riveting in this swoopy, starlit love duet that ended with her and Pierre lying entwined onstage. While not profoundly imaginative, it was at least lyrical, romantic and tasteful, and that's all Lacarra needed to sweep me away, and leave me longing for a return visit to New York from the San Francisco Ballet.

The final pas de deux on the program brought back the Paris Opera's Gillot to dance the one from Don Quixote with ABT's Marcelo Gomes. Gillot here seemed a bit more stolid than her compatriot Letestu, but I was impressed with her fan-wielding skill in her solo - I don't think I've seen that fan (here, rich scarlet to match her costume) snapped open and shut quite so musically. Or so often! I'd hoped that she might've used the fan to embellish her perfectly anchored fouttés, but doubtless sensibly, she allowed Gomes to carry it off to the wings before the coda. Gomes, for his part, was quite flashy in his own solo, particularly in a gorgeous pirouette in attitude, slowing with each revolution till he reached a standstill (yes, I know it's a cliché, but I like it anyway).

By this time I was rather shell-shocked from the successions of fireworks, but nothing I've ever seen in my life quite prepared me for the Défilé Final, staged by Nadia Veselova-Tencer, the evening's artistic director, that closed the program. All the dancers returned for a curtain call, receiving customarily enormous bouquets brought out by flower girls. So far, quite typical. But then they all laid their bouquets at the foot of the stage and ran off into the wings. Then, a tremendously grandiose waltz thundered out of the speakers, and, one by one each dancer returned for a brief mini-variation, with as much bravura as a few bars would allow. The audience was going quite wild with applause for their favorites, and I couldn't restrain myself from laughing in amazement at the spectacle. It was beyond silly, but, in its way, a perfectly appropriate conclusion for such a glitzy evening, and, I headed home from the spectacle content that I had gotten my money's worth after all.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited February 16, 2000).]

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Manhattnik, one of the reasons Zelensky left New York (among a few others) was to dance in London with Bussell. Before he left in 1997, he guested with her and danced Tschaikovsky pas de deux together in England, and he partnered her at NYCB in Swan Lake a few times that she guested. At the Royal, they've danced La Bayadare, Manon, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Ramonda, and a few other things. They were supposed to do Apollo together but the Balanchine Foundation stopped the production due to the 2nd cast. She danced with him, at his request, at the Kirov in La Bayadare. Plus in Galas. So they've danced quite a bit. But I thought his attention kept coming in and out (maybe due to jet lag because he enjoys dancing with Bussell, who he calls "the most beautiful dancer in the world").

I'm glad you miss Monique Meunier too (she was at the gala though). And great review.

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I've gotta add my thanks for that great review, Manhattnik! Even if you'd written nothing but your impression of Lacarra it would still be considered terrific.


[This message has been edited by Giannina Mooney (edited February 16, 2000).]

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I'm knocked sideways by this review. Oh, if only any of the professional reviewers were half as brilliant as this! Er....you aren't a professional reviewer, are you, Manhattnik? Your profile says you are a 'Mackintosh geek' but I don't believe it. Can you let us know, at least, if you are a professional writer?

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Ann asked "Can you let us know, at least, if you are a professional writer?"

Well, in a previous life I was....

And, thanks to Ann, Steve, Victoria, Irina, LisaY and Giannina. Glad you all liked it!

I'd like to particularly thank all of you for being too diplomatic to notice I'd misspelled Charles Askegard's name every single time I used it. Where the heck did I get the idea there are three A's in his name? At least it's easier to fix pixels than print.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited February 16, 2000).]

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