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American Ballet Theater at the Kennedy Center

Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent in The Moor's Pavane, American Ballet Theater (photo by Gene Schiavone)
American Ballet Theater is back in town for a week-long visit to the Kennedy Center Opera House, a company we last reviewed in their charming Nutcracker a couple years ago. The distinguished touring company, established to bring the best ballet to the citizens of the Unites States and once led by Mikhail Baryshnikov, is now under the artistic direction of Kevin McKenzie, with the talented, envelope-pushing choreographer Alexei Ratmansky serving as Artist in Residence. Its first program, a triple-bill of shorter, more abstract ballets, opened last night, with Anna-Marie Holmes's revision of the classic Marius Petipa choreography of Adolphe Adam's Le Corsaire to open tonight.

George Balanchine's choreography to the music of Georges Bizet's Symphony in C goes back to a 1947 production for the Paris Opera Ballet called Le Palais de Cristal. The more abstract version danced by ABT, premiered in 2001, has no set (staging by Merrill Ashley and Stacy Caddell, lighting by Mark Stanley), just a neutral gray screen as backdrop. The women, who open the work in a group of ten, are costumed in shiny white tutus, with the men in black, further enhancing the sense of a sort of abstract painting set in motion. Balanchine hewed closely to the music, bringing in his soloist in the first movement, here the lively Paloma Herrera, with the theme presented by the solo oboe, for example. She was paired with James Whiteside, who made her glide about elegantly in many lifts. The prettiest dancing was in the second movement, which begins with six women floating in en pointe, with Balanchine again delaying the entrance of his soloist (here Hee Seo) until the oboe solo. The six dancers stood motionless until the fugue, when the music activated them to follow the entrances of Bizet's contrapuntal subject. (For a student work, composed when the 17-year-old Bizet was studying with Gounod at the Conservatoire de Paris, it is a remarkably put-together piece.) Among the dancers Daniil Simkin, male soloist in the third movement, stood out for the height and ease of his leaps and turns and the overall litheness of his movement. The fluttery choreography of the fourth movement matches the agitation of the fourth movement's music, with a group of dancers appearing with each return of the rondo theme, ending up with a large corps at the conclusion.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, American Ballet Theatre works at Kennedy Center attest to a company in fine fettle (Washington Post, April 11)

Alastair Macauley, Swirls and Shifts in a Kaleidoscope (New York Times, October 20, 2012)

Brian Seibert, For the Love of Shostakovich, the Destroyer (New York Times, October 12, 2012)
José Limón's ballet The Moor's Pavane was next, loosely based on the story of Othello and using appropriately courtly music by Henry Purcell (including Abdelazer, The Gordion Knot Untied, plus a pavane). It is not exactly Shakespeare's Othello but quite similar, a story of a jealous moor like that in the play The Moor's Revenge, for which Purcell wrote the Abdelazer music. Again there is no set, and the overall atmosphere is dark, a black background against which the tall, brutal Moor of Marcelo Gomes, in a rich burgundy robe, is turned against his wife (the white-clad, innocent Julie Kent) by the poisonous friend (danced by Cory Stearns with an almost predatory, homoerotic twist), in a trick that does involve a stolen handkerchief. Ballet's roots in courtly dance, which was the origin of Purcell's music, is continuously evoked by Limón as the four characters more often face one another, in approximations of court dances, than the audience.

While the playing of the small ensemble, with harpsichord, for the Purcell selections was quite beautiful, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sounded off-kilter in the Bizet symphony, with far too many splatted notes in the trumpets and horns especially. Perhaps more of the rehearsal time went to the closing work, Shostakovich's peppy ninth symphony, in a new choreography created for ABT by Alexei Ratmansky, which sounded forceful and fun. Shostakovich originally planned to write his ninth symphony as a celebration of Soviet victory in World War II, a work "about the greatness of the Russian people, about our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy," as scholar Laurel Fay has quoted him. The struggle had been, he wrote, "a war of culture and light against darkness and obscurantism, a war of truth and humanism against the savage morality of murderers," but his plans for a massive work with chorus and solo singers were never realized. After the dreamed-of victory had actually been achieved, with official celebrations in Red Square in May 1945, Shostakovich abandoned what he had completed up to that point and produced a small-scale symphony -- five movements in 25 minutes -- "lacking all pretensions to gravity and majesty, [...] almost the antithesis of expectations," as Fay put it.

The very lightness of the work, its occasional grotesque turns, brought the composer all sorts of trouble from Soviet cultural authorities in the years after its premiere, but it is precisely that giddy wit that Ratmansky seized on in his striking choreography. He plans to integrate this choreography into a trilogy of Shostakovich ballets, to be premiered this spring in New York. Ratmansky told an interviewer that what draws him to Shostakovich is that "You can learn the history of the country from his music." This vigorous, often mysterious choreography, with its stark blacks and whites, its curious gestures -- dancers lying down and falling asleep mechanically, leaping and twisting, large groups in conflict -- holds great promise for the entire project.

The visit by American Ballet Theater continues this evening, with performances of Le Corsaire in the Kennedy Center Opera House, through April 14.

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