ABT OPENING NIGHT GALA FALL 2009: THREE PREMIERES IN BLACK AND WHITE, AND WOOD

Photo of Veronika Part in The Dying Swan, taken from Vogue; photos of the three premieres coming as soon as I receive them.

After ABT‘s fall season opening night gala performance last night, the really wonderful James Wolcott and Laura Jacobs took friend Siobhan and me out for dinner at Shun Lee (I’d never been there — but wow, excellent excellent food!) and when Laura asked me if I was going to write about the performance, I kind of rolled my eyes and said, “I’ll try!” We all agreed that dance is absolutely the hardest art form to review, especially on seeing a dance for the first time. Let alone THREE dances seen for the first time. With visual art you can stand there all day and examine at it, with music you have recordings and scores, film critics generally see a movie several times before writing a review. With dance you have one chance — often one split mili-second — to remember a half an hour or so of movement, images, patterns, structure, costumes, music, lighting — everything. It’s impossible. Since starting this blog I have so much more respect for dance critics.

Anyway, there were three premieres last night: Seven Sonatas by Alexei Ratmansky, One of Three by Aszure Barton, and Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once by Benjamin Millepied. Also on the bill was a performance by Veronika Part of Fokine’s The Dying Swan. ABT performed, for the first time, in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, a concert hall not accustomed to housing dance performances. (ABT usually holds its fall season in City Center, but changed venues because of City Center’s renovation plans.)

I’m going to be seeing each premiere a couple more times this season and prefer to write after I’ve seen each more than once. But since the season is so short (it ends October 10, this Saturday), I’ll write something up front. These are only first impressions though, and I’ve found I see so many more things with repeated viewings.

Honestly, everything kind of blended together for me. Part of this was because of the sparseness of the Avery Fisher stage — there were no sets, no wings, no curtains — so dancers warmed up onstage before us, giving each piece a kind of Cabaret-like feel; and part of it was because costumes for each piece were all black and white. I remember lots of black, lots of white and the hardwood of that stage.

1) Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was performed to Domenico Scarlatti music by three male-female couples: David Hallberg and Julie Kent, Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes, and Gennadi Saveliev and Stella Abrera. Costumes were all white — flowing dresses for the women, classical tights and 18th-Century tops for the men. The movement was a combination of classical and modern and, though the ballet was generally story-less, each couple seemed to have a little narrative: Cornejo and Reyes were the young, playful couple, Herman full of high jumps with many beats of the feet that really wowed the crowd and Xiomara dizzying rapid multiple turns. At one point Herman did this crazy turn in the air, landed on his back, and caught her. Crowd went wild.

Abrera and Saveliev seemed to be a more mature couple, perhaps in mourning. It seemed Abrera was a woman, possibly a mother, who’d lost a child or something — Saveliev seemed to be trying to console her and keep her from self-destructing. It seemed like she kept trying to break free of him and reach out to some invisible thing.

I’m not sure what Hallberg and Kent were meant to represent except maybe a modern couple — they seemed to have the most modern movement. David appeared to be trapped in a box and he kept pushing out; he had a lot of quick movement with fast stops in different directions and a lot of it in parallel — not turned-out — position. Julie had a lot of sharp, staccato movement. They could’ve also been a courting couple: at one point, David was on one knee and he invited Julie to run at him and jump on him. When she did, he took her into this lovely lift. It’s sweet and many in the audience lightly laughed.

The ballet was broken into duets and solos and bookended by two ensemble movements, the first pretty and lyrical, the latter more chaotic as they all perform their very different movement motifs at once, some trying on others’ movement styles — everyone does the staccato arm patterns for a while, etc. At the end, the women lay on the floor and the men wrapped their bodies over them.

One other thing: our David Hallberg is sporting longish hair these days :) I think it looks good, and fun for a change! Funny thing is, he’s so beautiful and glamorous, I tend to get jealous if him, even though he’s a man… which I guess should be kind of odd…

2) Barton’s One of Three was set to Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G and danced by a whole slew of tuxedoed men, and three women — Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, and Paloma Herrera. Why is it that women choreographers tend to use men so much more! (And female dance-writers tend to focus on male dancers :) — is this feminist?)

Anyway, the piece begins with Cory Stearns walking out dressed in a tux and black jazz shoes. He does a little solo and his movements are all modern, angular, which contrasted in an intriguing way with the tux. I don’t know if it was his being a bit weirded out by the curtainless stage (which forced him to walk out in the dark with all of us watching) or whether it was part of the character, but he seemed to have this loopy smile in the beginning, that was really rather endearing. I chatted with a friend during intermission and she felt just the same.

Anyway, soon Cory was joined by more tuxedoed men, and then by Gillian, who came prancing out in a long white cocktail gown with her radiant red hair tied back into a sleek twist. The men would kind of veer toward her, sideways, their bodies leading their heads in, to me, a rather amusing way. Gillian’s character was very haughty, very glam and posh and she acted like she was ordering the men around with her little finger. The men often seemed led by their bodies, moving first with the back, or at times one leg would take a step, the rest of the body reluctant to follow (I noticed that most with Jared Matthews, who I thought was dancing at his best last night). I found this a very interesting movement motif.

Misty Copeland was the lead character in the second movement. She wore a short black and white dress, her costume and character more flirty and wild. But same thing — she seemed to kind of taunt her tuxedoed men.

And third movement was led by Paloma, wearing a black lacey top and black pants. She smiled a lot more than Misty and Gillian, but she seemed to move in a slinky, sexually-empowered way, like a tanguera.

Now that I think about it, though there were many more men here, the women seemed to have all the power. Fun!

3) Next on was Part’s Dying Swan, which was really poignant, as I knew it would be. It’s a very short piece, but it’s funny how the ballerina can really do it however she wants to; I just saw Diana Vishneva perform this in the Fall For Dance Festival and her Dying Swan was very different. Whereas Diana spent most of the time on her toes, bourreeing, Veronika spent more time on the floor, one leg stretched out before her (like in above picture), then rising again to her toes for one more breath. Diana’s swan seemed to flutter about more, like she was fighting death, she lay down only at the very end. Veronika kept holding her arms up in front of her, her wrists bent and her hands cupped over, as if to foreshadow what would happen to her body. In general, Veronika’s swan accepted and approached death more gracefully or willingly, but Diana’s, with that broad wingspan, at times really looked strikingly birdlike. I don’t know if I can say I liked one interpretation better than the other — both were breathtaking and both very poignant.

Did anyone else see both swans?

4) And the program ended with Millepied’s Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once, set to David Lang music that was at times mellifluous and at times cacophonous or eerie. He used a large group of dancers but Marcelo Gomes, Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin had the main parts and so stood out the most (and Kristi Boone shone in a smaller role).

There was a lot going on here — both in the music and in the dance, and I felt that, unlike with Millepied’s earlier piece for ABT — From Here on Out — composed to music by Nico Muhly (who was in the audience) — in this one the movement kept up, didn’t let the music outshine it. The stage is set up to resemble — at least to me — a pool. Dancers would gather around it and watch the people dancing in the lit-up center. At the beginning there seemed to be a swimming motif, with large, rounded arm movements resembling breaststrokes. Movement is also evocative of birds as well though, and some of the same lifts were present as in Millepied’s recent work for NYCB, where the women are perched on the men’s shoulders, their arms outstretched sideways.

In the middle part, Marcelo and Isabella have a rather haunting solo. The ballet is generally story-less but as far as I could make out any narrative, it appeared she was sort of struggling against him. He seemed very careful and gentle with her (in sharp contrast to a later, more hostile duet he has with the super-strong Kristi Boone, who seemed to be either Isabella’s competitor or her double), but she — Isabella — nevertheless kept trying to push away from Marcelo as he held her. The duet ends with them walking toward the back of the stage holding hands, connected, but her body is lunging as far as possible away from his. A rather warped relationship.

Then there’s a rather amusing section where bravura dancer Daniil Simkin is struggling with a bunch of women. He tries to break free of them but then he keeps throwing himself into their arms, making them catch him in these rather breathtaking group lifts — one of them ending in a perfect split in the air. And he has a bunch of crazy multiple pirouettes that had the audience audibly gasping. It all went with his character though, who seemed rather crazed, like he may have just escaped from an asylum or something. I kept wondering who else was ever going to be able to perform that role…

I didn’t go to the gala party but in addition to Muhly, I saw Alessandra Ferri in the audience, one of the Billy Elliots, and apparently Natalie Portman was there.

Anyway, I’ll write more at the end of the season, when I’ve seen these new dances a few more times. Here is Haglund’s review.

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review; I had been trolling for one in the Times and did not see any. I wish like crazy I could see the company perform in that venue. I appreciate your impressions; so much up-and-coming talent at ABT these days.–Deb Young

  2. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks for commenting Deb. I saw one of the NY times critics there so they should have a review up, probably by tomorrow. Yeah, I thought this venue wasn't perfect for dance, but they did the best they could with it and it ended up working out. It was an interesting change anyway — very different from the Met and City Center! There's a Guggenheim program this weekend dealing with this issue — putting dance in Avery Fisher — and several members of ABT will be speaking there. I'll post on that after I attend. Yes, there is a lot of up and coming talent at ABT!

  3. Hi Tonya,

    Dance is about using one's senses so it makes sense that if you're more physically attracted to a certain sex that one might focus more attention on that sex. I'm around women all day, and women are exploited and sexualized ad nauseum in the real world. In the dance world men get to show off their humaness, strength and beauty in a way that typically isn't offensive. Men in dance are safe because in a way they are allowed to tap into their own femininity.

  4. I saw both Swans and I felt Diana's to be the swan who has no idea what is happening to her (as humans we are the only creatures who are aware of out own mortality) and is confused as to why her body is no longer responding the way normally does. Part's was more the “if I have to go out of this life, I'm going out pretty” swan. She did the lift from the floor to full arabesque en pointe that I love but I cannot say that one was better than the other. It was a thrill to see two bravura performances of this piece in the space of less than a week.

  5. I didn't attend the Gala, but the rehearsal in the afternoon. What struck me about Tonya's comments is how we project stories on to dance / ballet when there is no story. Well there might be something going on in the mind of the choreographer and he/she uses dance to tell the story. Not having been present when dancers are preparing for these parts I would not be surprised that the choreographers says things like, “this piece is about sorrow, you've lost your lover from a long painful illness.” We can't help but see human interaction and emotion in PDDs. We can't see it as abstract movement, we pull toward meaning, interpretation and so forth.

    This notion is a bit trivial and base on one level. Let's dance our emotions. We jump for joy, we crouch in fear, we lay down in desperation. I don't know the way around this and I don't know that the triviality of this makes it bad. I certainly love how these choreographers and dancers can tell a story with movement, how easily they can manipulate our own emotions. People cry from seeing dance! That's powerful stuff.

    Ballet fascinates me. The more of see of it the more I am confused by how they do what they do – that is be so damn beautiful doing it. Amazing what humans can do with their own bodies. Ain't it?

    I didn't care the AFH as a ballet venue. Much prefer the CC.

    The company looked great and I was thrilled to see Stella Abrerra who I thought needs to be graduated to principal. What incredible lyricism she posses. Love to see more Ms Abrerra in featured roles.

    I didn't find anything terrible new about the choreography. it seems like it was a derivative of ballet, modern. Some gimmicks, some gorgeous, lots of thrilling ensemble work in the Millpied piece reminding me of Thwarp for some reason. Interesting stuff, but I miss ballet.

    Spring can't come soon enough.

  6. tonya– enjoyed your review. i wish i had seen daniil. i saw the program up at bard and that role was danced by a dancer i'm not familiar with– even after poring over ABT headshots i can't figure out who it was! anyway, while he kept nailing turns during the warmup he didn't quite nail them during the performance, which was somewhat disappointing. was still awesome when the men caught him in the air tho!
    thanks again for your review, keep them coming :)

  7. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Type your reply…thanks Robin! I think the dancer you saw was Arron Scott. He's dancing that part here alternating with Daniil.

  8. oh okay, thanks! was really bugging me that i couldn't figure that out!

  9. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Type your reply…thanks Robin! I think the dancer you saw was Arron Scott. He's dancing that part here alternating with Daniil.

  10. oh okay, thanks! was really bugging me that i couldn't figure that out!

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