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American Ballet Theater: New Choreography at Kennedy Center

Blain Hoven and Daniil Simkin, Serenade after Plato's Symposium, American Ballet Theater (photo by Rosalie Connor)

American Ballet Theater has taken over the Kennedy Center Opera House this week, offering a smorgasbord of new ballets. The first program, seen on Wednesday night, was a combination of three choreographies from the last decade, plus a Jerome Robbins classic from 1976. The second night cast included some of the company's best dancers -- meaning that the usual vocal group of Misty Copeland followers was in the audience -- and some new discoveries.

The best part of the Leonard Bernstein anniversary celebrations, otherwise a seemingly endless sequence of celebrated mediocrities, arrived unexpectedly with Serenade after Plato's Symposium, perhaps Alexei Ratmansky's most important work to date, premiered by ABT in 2016. The music is Bernstein's, a rather gorgeous five-movement violin concerto premiered in Venice in 1954, setting to music the seven speakers of Plato's Symposium, invited to extol the virtues of love. Seven men, mostly from the group of rising soloists, brought this evening of conversation and intense philosophical argument to life, with Hee Seo taking the startling single female role, entering in a starkly lit rectangular opening in the rear curtain. Violin soloist Kobi Malkin struggled with intonation on the numerous double-stops of the solo part, but the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra supported him ably.

The Robbins piece, Other Dances, was originally a vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov, but it was the woman of the pairing, Sarah Lane, who most stood out for the grace and buoyancy of her movements. Emily Wong played the selection of Chopin pieces, four mazurkas and a concluding, spirited waltz, at a piano on stage.

Other Reviews:

Alastair Macaulay, Review: In Gala, American Ballet Theater Is Open to Debate (New York Times, May 17, 2016)

---, A Big House, Big Names, New Twists (New York Times, May 25, 2011)

Gia Kourlas, Review: At American Ballet Theater, Mostly Millepied (New York Times, October 26, 2017)
The most recent piece, premiered just last fall, was the spirited I Feel the Earth Move, with choreography by Benjamin Millepied set to music by Philip Glass. Stage hands cleared away all of the curtains and scrims from the stage, revealing the catwalks and bare walls, as well as the lighting instruments above. Danced to a rather loud recording, this ballet was hyperactive, seemingly in constant motion, perhaps an expression of individual freedom against repression, represented by the female corps, which appeared marching in step, bandannas over some of their faces.

Christopher Wheeldon's story ballets have not been my cup of tea for the most part, but this more abstract short choreography had greater appeal. Barbara Bilach took the solo part of Benjamin Britten's Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra, again conducted with abundant energy by Ormsby Wilkins. It was another beautiful score to discover, brought to life by dance, made better by it as the Bernstein had been earlier. The variations form worked elegantly for dance, as Wheeldon has crafted pairs, solos, and group numbers for each brief movement. Misty Copeland finally appeared on stage, for a time-stopping solo in the fourth variation ("Rubato"). Her pairing in the exquisite pas de deux for the tenth variation ("Adagio"), with Cory Stearns stepping in for Gray Davis, was the highlight of the evening, muscularity merged with poetry.

American Ballet Theater performs Whipped Cream, with a forgotten ballet score by Richard Strauss, tonight through February 4.

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