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ABT's opening night gala, or some of it.

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It was enough to put the fear of God into me, learning that ABT's opening night gala at the Met would start at, gulp, six-thirty. I had visions of endless speeches and reminiscences and not getting out until a wearying ten or eleven or twelve. Fortunately, the program wasn't quite that long, and was actually pretty successful, as these things go. Interspersed with the expected pas de deux were a few more-representative glimpses at ABT's repertory, with excerpts from their new Swan Lake, Theme and Variations and Twyla Tharp's new Variations on a Theme by Haydn (which I didn't stay for, having had a long day baking in the sun).

After some slightly self-congratulatory comments by the head of ABT's board of directors, and some strained chumminess between Caroline Kennedy and Tipper Gore, the night got underway with Julie Kent and Angel Corella dancing the White Swan pas de deux, backed by ABT's corps in their beautiful new swan-costumes by Zack Brown. I have been rather harsh on Kent in the past, but this performance was almost enough to make me eat my words. She's got all the equipment to be a gorgeous Odette -- her body fairly screams "legato," and her beautiful line has always been complemented by a sense of weightiness and strength. While Giselle is a weightless and massless apparition (in the second act, anyway), Odette is a work of architecture -- her strength rises into her from the stage, radiating upwards and outwards in this duet's many developpes and extensions. Odette's particular sadness is that, imprisoned as she is, her every flight must come back to earth, even when worshipfully and tenderly supported by Siegfried. Kent understand this perfectly, and perhaps intuitively, as it often seems she's much more comfortable expressing her charcters kinesthetically rather than dramatically, and her Odette was properly grand, monumental and doomed. I'm looking forward to seeing her dance the entire role.

Next were Amanda McKerrow and Vladimir Malakhov in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. They both did a more-than-credible job, with McKerrow showing she can be strong, fleet and musical when she's not turning in one of her too-familiar low-energy performances. She was partnered ably by Malakhov, by far the finest stylist in ABT, yet I was disturbed by exaggerated smile and mugging he affected throughout the adagio. His dancing was, as usual, beautiful and refined, with utterly silent landing and effortlessly perfect placement, but, topped off as it was with this overwrought Cheshire-cat grin, the effect, at least for the adagio, was a bit unnerving. While he danced his first solo much as Balanchine choreographed (his big sisonnes with the developpe a la seconde en l'air were a joy to see), in the coda he substituted what I took to be steps of his own invention, and I don't think Balanchine would've approved (or anyone from the Balanchine Trust who may have been in the audience). McKerrow gave good weight to her solos, weathering some horrible flubs by the trumpet player which were enhanced by absurdly slow tempi during her tricky enchainement of travelling pirouettes and pique turns. At least she managed to recover her composure in time to exit with some lightning-fast pique turns. My main quibble with her dancing is that it is not cool, in the middle of those backwards-travelling arabesques voyagees, to turn one's head from facing the corner to smiling at the audience, as if to say, "Look, isn't this neat?" Otherwise, McKerrow looked quite at home, and I have to wonder what direction her career might have taken if she'd danced more Balanchine.

I suppose it's almost unfair to pair any ballerina with Angel Corella (White Swan doesn't count), especially in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire. I was more impressed with Susan Jaffe than usual -- she was quite grand in the adagio, and even sparkled in her solo (I never thought I'd be using "sparkle" and "Susan Jaffe" in the same sentence), although she ran out of steam in the coda, bailing on the fouettes early on and substituting pique and chaine turns. Corella was ... Corella. It's not just that he's brilliant, but his joy in being onstage is quite infectuous, as are his charisma and charm. It was hard not to be delighted by his prodigious elevation and turns, particularly the ice-skater ones with his working foot travelling slowly down from retire to fifth, while he turns faster and faster and then slows to a finish in sou-sous.

After some charming commentary by Donald Saddler, and moving reminiscences by Alicial Alonso, Julie Kent and Julio Bocca led the finale from Theme and Variations. I hadn't seen Thoeni Aldrige's costumes before, but they were quite stunning, as was the dancing. That final polonaise is one of my favorite moments in all of ballet, and ABT's dancers did it justice -- it was a hard choice to see NYCB's Sleeping Beauty last night instead of Kent's entire Theme (with Corella), but one must make cruel decisions sometimes.

After the intermission, there were still more fireworks as Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreno saddled up Vaganova's old warhorse, the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and rode it for all it was worth (your mileage may vary). This was the first time I'd seen Herrera's vaunted technique at the level I'd expected from her, with effortless balances in arabesque after after letting fly with a mimed bow and arrow (she gets to do this no more than a dozen or two times), equally effortless turning and beautiful feet and line. It would be lovely if she'd cultivate a more imaginative use of music (she's very properly four-square and on the beat when she hasn't fallen behind it) and some facial expressions other than smiling sweetly or staring blankly. For his part, Carreno partnered Herrera with sensitivity and gusto -- the two look good together. His solos were not without their quota of fireworks, and it wasn't difficult to sense a bit of competition between him and Corella. Carreno is a weightier dancer than Corella, and his his tours de forces, if not as stunning, were grander. Carreno also treated us to his version of the ever-slowing-pirouette (after multiple changes of the working leg while turning). Some deride this as a cliche, but I say if you can do it, go for it. A viewer more familiar than I with this work told me the two took some liberties with the choreography of the coda, but perhaps it was just Nureyev's staging.

Nina Ananiashvili's rendering of The Dying Swan was listed as having choreography "after Michel Fokine," and the documentary on Isabel Fokine's efforts at staging her grandfather's works which was recently shown here on Ovation shows just how far after, or behind, Fokine such renditions as Ananiashvili's really are. In its own way, this short solo has become as much a vehicle for technical bravura as the other showy works on the program. Perhaps Pavlova garnered cheers and applause from her audiences for her rippling swan-wing arms or her ability to bourree while facing the audience with her head upside-down in a deep backbend, as did Ananiashvili, but I doubt it. Taken on its own merits, Ananiashvili's version showed off many of the qualities I've come to admire in her dancing -- strength, suppleness and a kind of yearning, sad musicality that informs her every step -- but I'd have preferred it if she'd kept her virtuosity in the shadow of her artistry.

Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca were delights in the bedroom pas de deux from MacMillan's Manon, and it showed me that in the right hands, MacMillan's pas de deux can be quite exhilirating (as long as there are no dancing prostitutes lurking in the wings). I hope I'll be able to see these two dance Romeo and Juliet this season.

I must confess I was bad and left before Twyla Tharp's Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Not that I disliked the work when I saw it in Washington, but it was just so beautiful out.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited May 11, 2000).]

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Re Malakhov -- Last year someone at one of the big publications, in a review, referred to him (paraphrase) as something like, "He of the noble countenance and hayseed expression."

[This message has been edited by Michael1 (edited May 11, 2000).]

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Thanks for the review, Manhattnik. I think the ear-splitting grins you spotted will become more and more noticeable. While ABT was never known for its icy restraint, I saw more flash-and-trash this season when the company was here in DC than I can remember, especially with the men. The landing to the knees with outstretched arms is everywhere now, as well as wrist-flicking. It's as though they're being coached by Michael Smuin. Land, botch it, grin, flick your wrists -- ah, the good old days. Except now they don't botch the landings, but grin and flick anyway.

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Doubtless true, Alexandra. But the most noticeable grins, Malakhov's, came when he was partnering. Perhaps they'll start dropping to the knee after helping their ballerinas through a particularly difficult promenade?

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I don't usually give Kiselgoff her due but she wrote in her review that McKerrow and Malakhov performed the Tschiak Pas as if it were Giselle. I was thinking Coppelia! At one point McKerrow put her hands behind her back, skipped into position and then simpered to Malakhov, who simpered back. I thought I was going to be sick it was so cloying.

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