CITIZEN, World Premiere at ABT

Last night at American Ballet Theater was the world premiere of a new ballet, Citizen, by Lauri Stallings. Stallings definitely knows how to hold an audience’s attention by creating spectacle, and I’m hoping ABT sends me some photos soon, because there was a lot to see. In the meantime, I will describe.

First, big kudos to ABT for putting on something so completely contemporary, so experimental. The company has a reputation for being a bit conservative and I’m not sure you could get farther from Swan Lake or Don Quixote!

(David Hallberg, photo from ABT)

So, the curtain was raised to the sound of falling rain. The background was open — it looked like walling was removed — to reveal pipes and such. The back stage doors were fully visible to the audience, and, at points, people dressed in plainclothes walked in and out. David Hallberg was heavily made up and dressed in a bright, richly textured-looking corset, over a skin-toned mesh undershirt and skin-tight resplendent silver tights that stopped at the knees. The costumes were really brilliant (and on more than one level this dance reminded me of Jorma Elo. In terms of the movement, it reminded me of his Brake The Eyes, my favorite of his works, and in terms of the marvelous costumes, it reminded me of his Close to Chuck, his last commission for ABT.)

Blaine Hoven was dressed in hippy-style, flared-bottom silvery pants and a mesh top with a shiny white satin-looking tie. Paloma Herrera, the main ballerina, wore sequined halter top and short shorts. Of the two other ballerinas in the piece — Isabella Boylston and Nicola Curry — one wore a ratty, netted dress, and the other a ruffled white top and I think short sequined pants. Everything was in greys, silvers, and whites. The elaborate costuming (by April McCoy) — suggesting heavily made-up veneers, false masks that we all put on perhaps — made for a stark contrast with the completely open, mundane setting.

Honestly, I found the costumes so stunning, I need to see this dance again; I paid too much attention up front to the clothes and too little to the movement!

Soon, music began — stringed instruments creating an atmosphere of sad nostalgia. The dancers moved robotically, or like puppets, like they were being controlled from above, perhaps like some citizens are? Movement was intentionally awkward, arms jutted out elbow-first, legs flicked out by the knee, pelvises stuck up and out as a dancer bent over, and at points they would walk in short staccato Charlie Chaplinesque steps, with turned-out feet, like clowns. At one point, Paloma bourreed on her tip-toes toward David, resembling the doll in The Nutcracker. Not a real ballerina, a toy version. At times they’d make circular patterns above their heads with their arms, ballet-like, but the movement was anything but fluid. They were all more like dancer dolls, false replicas.

At one point, all the people working in the wings — technicians, the sound gals — came out, dressed in regular streetclothes. They just kind of stood behind the dancers, looking out at the audience. The violins stopped and the lights went on, shining out on us. But the dancers didn’t seem to be breaking “the fourth wall” — they kept going on with their thing; it was only the technicians who confronted the audience, returning our gaze. I couldn’t tell if the technicians were supposed to be participants in the actual dance, or if their presence was supposed to suggest this was a dress rehearsal — “all the world’s a stage” – like, or all the world’s a dress rehearsal, rather. Soon, the lights went down again, the techies left, people walked back out the back stage door, and the sound of raindrops resumed as before, this time with glitter falling from the sky. “The show” resumed.

Robotic as the dancers moved, they were also very human, or trying to be, struggling to seek connection. David would walk his Charlie Chaplin walks toward Paloma, but she’d dart away; he’d put his nose to her face as if trying to know her by taking in her smell, like a dog. But struggle as they did, there was never a real connection. This movement, this following one another, seeking one another out, continued to the end, when Paloma crawled away from the rest of the crowd, toward the front of the stage, and made her way practically to the edge of the orchestra pit. The curtain slowly fell, and right before it landed on her, a hand reached out and pulled her back in. So, maybe they did connect in the end.

It did make me think of the world we, as citizens, inhabit. How much our actions are controlled by others, even in a (so-called) democracy. How much of our actions and the faces we put on are false, but how we’re still fundamentally human and yearning for connection.

I’m not sure if this is what she was getting at, but I’d love to hear others’ takes! It’s showing again this weekend and next.

The program was nicely varied: in addition to the Stallings, were Tharp’s sassy, frolicking Baker’s Dozen, Tudor’s sadly beautiful Leaves are Fading, and Theme and Variations, Balanchine’s super-charged homage to Imperial Russia replete with majestic Tchaikovsky, glittery tutus and tiaras, and brilliant, high-jumping twisty turns.

If anyone sees the Stallings, let me know what you think.


  1. I think the best choreographed pieces make us think, about our society, our relationships, about ourselves. A lot of choreographed pieces seem to try to make us think, but the message isn’t always so clearly told through movement. It sounds like this one was a success. It’s amazing (and a little surprising, but in a good way!) and extremely promising that ABT put on something like this.

  2. Thanks, Jolene! I hope you can see it at some point too; I’d love to know what you think. And fortunately, they do bring the more avant garde pieces to San Francisco too.

    Here is Macaulay’s review: He focused more on her questioning of ballet; I focused more on the society-aspect. It’s interesting to read different interpretations. I sat next to Leigh Witchel, so am anxiously awaiting his Dance View Times review too. I didn’t see any other bloggers there though.

  3. Also, Macaulay’s review made me aware that I originally left out the name of the costume designer — April McCoy — especially since I liked her costumes so much!

  4. Heh, I was at the theatre that night. I was in town visiting family and decided to see ABT while I was there. The whole thing was great minus the audience around me. I’ve never heard more people snapping at each other or continually moving around seats than I did that night.

  5. Hi Rob — I’m glad you liked it too – -I mean, the ballet, not the crowd! I wasn’t sure how people felt about it because it was so different from most of what ABT puts on, but I’m glad someone’s with me 🙂 The crowd sounds pretty bad though — snapping at each other? Where were you, in orchestra or upstairs? I’ve heard fights break out (over whether Veronika Part should be promoted, evolving into whether Michele Wiles should have been promoted, evolving into whether David Hallberg should have been promoted — and I mean fights!) but during intermission, not the performance!

    When I saw the Kylian, cell phones were continually going off. And I mean continually — you’d think if one went off it would remind everyone to promptly turn theirs off, but no. There were at least four phones that went off, and this had to be the worst piece for that — either piano music or silence!

  6. Upstairs, rear mez I think, very very back row. These weren’t fights about the dancers, but rather about seating and moving, and being able to see. I think I was more in shock as I’ve seen unhappy audience members before here and there, but this was like 5 people all snipping at each other the entire night, even at points during each piece. I almost moved myself, to get better neighbors, but stuck through it on principle lol. I did bolt out of the theatre after Theme was over to a) get away from the evil people, and b) catch a cab to make my train at Penn.

  7. Oh, I forgot to add, I think my favorites were Bakers Dozen and Theme. For some reason, both Citizen and Leaves left me tired, I think cause things started off with a bang in Bakers and didnt kick back in til Theme. I need to see Citizen again, since it was so new, I didn’t have time to take in everything. Cory Stearns did a great job in Theme.

  8. Rob, I think the rear mezzanine at City Center is usually like that, at least for the ballet. Or it is whenever I’m there, anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a theater with so many reliably cranky people!

    I didn’t particularly like Citizen (I don’t think) but I did find little moments of it moving. And the costumes definitely were interesting. 🙂

  9. Yeah, sight lines are I think worse at City Center than anywhere else. I can see people in the back getting all up in arms over not being able to see very well. If I can’t sit up front, I usually try to sit in the very last row, and then put the seat up and sit on top of the seat, so you’re way over everyone below you.

    My favorite of the night was Theme and Variations too. My favorite Balanchine ballets are the homage to Imperial Russia ones like this, Ballo, Ballet Imperial, and the Diamonds part of Jewels. I always love Tharp — or almost always anyway!

    I’m glad you guys saw Citizen — I was hoping there would be other opinions. Yes, Meg, totally agreed about the costumes! I need to see it again to focus more on the first quarter since I was so enthralled with what everyone was wearing. I’m not sure how it worked overall either — I thought there were moments where it was moving as well but I’d like to see it again to think more how it all fits together.

  10. Yes, I think seeing it again would help me as well. I love the idea of the dancers as people seeking or struggling toward a human connection. After reading your review and thinking about it in those terms I think that it’s the parts where that came through that particularly spoke to me. There was one moment, which reminded me of this video, that has particularly stuck with me. I wish I’d liked the whole better than I did.

  11. That’s a really interesting video! I’d never seen it. I like the “original Brokeback Mountain” comment! Now, I feel like I missed that part of the ballet. It’s great that we all saw different things.

    Here’s Lori Ortiz’s review on Explore Dance — and finally, someone was able to get pictures! :

  12. Thanks for pointing out the Explore Dance review, Tonya. It’s interesting to read what everyone thought of it. And I’m glad to see pictures since I couldn’t see that much detail from all the way in the back. 🙂

    The moment that made me think of that video (which I think would be from the 1890s) was very small–just two of the women dancing sort of waltzing briefly while other things were going on downstage–so I’m not sure why it stuck like that.

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