The truism is that you go to the ABT for the dancers, and the NYCB for the choreography. That's not exactly true nowadays -- the NYCB has the Balanchine masterpieces, but it also has a lot of junk choreography, and I suffered through two pieces on both Friday and Saturday. The ABT also has its fill of bad dancing. I was unfortunate enough to see their Symphony in C.
On Friday Peter Martins decided to revive Red Angels, a piece by Ulysses Dove that used a rather catchy, tuneful electric violin score by Richard Einhorn. Paul Taylor or Alexei Ratmansky could do something interesting with this propulsive, electronica-influenced music. Ulysses Dove had four dancers (Maria Kowroski, Jennie Somogyi, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Chase Finlay) stand on a darkened stage with spotlights on their bodies. And then ... they did turns a la seconde. They crouched. They made those clawing motions with their arms. It was over in 10 minutes, but it was a waste of time and the talents of these dancers.
Saturday night there was a last minute substitution: instead of Peter Martins' Purple we got Martins' The Infernal Machine instead. No idea why there was a last minute switchout. But Infernal Machine is modern neo-classical choreography at its most unbearable: screechy ugly score, check. Cold, clinical pas de deux in which man drags around woman like a sack of potatoes, check. Ugly dark unitards, check. Thankfully, it was short. It was good to see Ashley Laracey get a solo ballet, I guess. (Her partner was Amar Ramansar). But again, total waste of time.
Both evenings also had Barber Violin Concerto, a Martins piece that actually got better in the second viewing. The piece was originally made on two classical dancers and two dancers from the Paul Taylor Company. The ballet-meets-modern concept is cute and adds some much needed quirkiness to this rather overwrought piece of music. Megan Fairchild and Jared Angle were the "modern dance" couple, Teresa Reichlen and Jonathan Stafford the "classical" couple. Going barefoot and being asked to do some "modern dance" moves like somersaults and backbends brought out some humor and spontaneity in Megan Fairchild's dancing that I've never seen before -- often she reminds me of a tightly wound up dancing doll. Reichlen's sculptural beauty served her well as the "classical" dancer.
But, but, but. The real reason I return to NYCB again and again is their dancing of the Balanchine masterpieces. Both evenings had some Grade-A Balanchine that I just couldn't miss. Allegro Brillante was programmed both evenings -- Andrew Veyette danced the male lead both nights, while Tiler Peck danced on Friday and Sara Mearns on Saturday. This is a 13 minute gem that is an absolutely stunning tribute to classical ballet. I have to give credit to the 8 demi-soloists who accompanied the lead dancers both nights -- they were impeccable. Lauren King, Ashley Laracey, Megan LeCrone, Brittany Pollack, Austin Laurent, Allen Pfeiffer, Andrew Scordato, and Christian Tworyanski were tireless in following the allegro steps on the beat of the music. They never slowed down, never became sloppy.
Andrew Veyette was clean, precise, an excellent partner. Nice cabrioles. He's not that dynamic of a dancer, but this isn't a role that requires a super dynamo male dancer. Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns are as different as chalk and cheese, but both illuminated the choreography in a memorable way. Tiler Peck is a technical whiz-bang with an almost scary sense of musical timing. For instance, in her upstage-traveling pirouettes she actually accelerated as the piano chords swelled, and then made a sudden stop just as the piano went BOOM! She can seem light as a feather one minute, and project total authority the next. Technically there's nothing she can't do but more importantly she seems so connected to the music, whirling herself into a frenzy when the music accelerates in a crescendo, and then dancing with an eery stillness as the music slows. She will lift one leg to the upwards arc of a melody, and drop the leg as the music makes a downward arc. This is amazing dancing.
Sara Mearns is a very different dancer -- she's often the opposite of precise. She will be behind or ahead of the musical beat, and her unusual body and style make her more suited for adagio dancing. (She's a remarkable Odette/Odile). Her Allegro Brillante didn't have the dazzling whiz-bang quality of Tiler Peck, but all of a sudden with her swoons and lunges and expansively slow pirouettes the piece became an intense 13-minute romantic encounter. Mearns didn't really try to keep up with all the fast tricky footwork of the ballet -- she instead made the steps look slower, more lush and grand. She's a master of the off-balance lunging.
Ana Sophia Scheller ("Embraceable You") has learned to relax her neck and shoulders and now looks more natural with the jazzy poses of the ballet. She still sometimes looks like she's doing a Petipa variation but her stiffness is definitely disappearing. Her fouettes in "My One and Only" were stunning. Even Abi Stafford ("Who Cares?") was less dull than usual. In the finale one of the male corps members slipped but the ending was exhilarating as ever.
Saturday evening ended with Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3. Sara Mearns was at her extravagant, hair-flipping, dramatic best in the Elegie movement. The waltz and scherzo contain maybe some of Balanchine's most forgettable choreography. Of course the reason to stay is to watch the finale Theme and Variations. This was originally a stand-alone ballet, and it easily is a Balanchine Top 10 ballet. Tiler Peck was again, glorious. Technically there's nothing she can't do -- she tossed off that variation of pas de chat/pirouette as if it were child's play. During that wonderful moment when she stands center stage, balanced in attitude, then developpe, then arabesque, then arabesque penchee, and so forth, as the corps weaved around her, she looked like she could have held the different positions forever. Her balancing leg and foot never moved or showed a sign of tiring. She can whip herself into a dancing frenzy yet exude such secure serenity. Brava! Joaquin de Luz was not at her level. He looked sloppy and tired. He got through the difficult double tours/double pirouette variation but just barely. Still, nothing could spoil the beautiful grandeur of this masterpiece, and I think Peck will only grow stronger in this role.
Over at the ABT, there was a "new production" (meaning new sets and costumes) of Anna Marie-Holmes' staging of Le Corsaire. The hodgepodge of composers and choreographers and the paper-thin storyline make it impossible to take this ballet seriously. I won't even try to explain the plot. Something about pirates and slave traders and harems and they all die in a ship wreck. Add on the overly sequined bikini tutu costumes by Anibal Lapiz and we are officially in "ballet meets Vegas" territory. Yet on its own terms, with spectacular dancers, this can be very fun. (When the Bolshoi decided to "reconstruct" Le Corsaire one found out that four hours of Corsaire is really too much.) In a way playing the ballet for camp is the only way to play it because otherwise it's a rather racist story with a Jewish slave trader and Muslim pashas and ... well, let's just not go there. I was disappointed with the ABT's Jardin de Anime scene -- compared to the complex corps formations of the Bolshoi or Kirov, the ABT corps kind of stood around and waved flower wreaths. But the individual dancers yesterday afternoon were all great for this kind of ballet. They are all short, dynamic dancers with springs in their legs. It was fun.
Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev looked a lot happier and more relaxed dancing Corsaire than they did in Don Quixote. I have a feeling they didn't much follow the "choreography" and mostly just did their own thing -- huge jumps that hang in the air and lots of multiple revolutions for her, an endless series of tour jetes and split leaps for him. The lithe, slender Daniil Simkin seemed to be determined to prove that for every split leap Vasiliev made, he could better his colleague with a split leap with an even more arched back. Osipova's gyroscopic abilities, and Vasiliev and Simkin's love of barrel turns and split leaps of course made the slave pas de trois fun to watch in a campy "anything he can do she can do better" way.
Herman Cornejo as Lankedem stole the show -- the shortest person onstage (including the females), he nevertheless oozed charisma. He played off his short stature for laughs -- this slave trader clearly had a Napoleonic syndrome as he just walked onstage and seemed to proclaim "and here comes the king." HIS barrage of jumps was just as impressive as the youngsters, except he didn't distort the classical line. Isabella Boylston (Gulnare) showed why she's on the fast track -- beautiful jumps, fast turns, lovely extension and feet, charm for days. Craig Salstein was also very funny and campy as Birbanto. I loved the apparently ad-libbed bit where he shoots two pistols. One fires, and the other doesn't. I wish ABT would give her more than these comic supporting roles. The three odalisques were Skylar Brandt, Zhong-Jing Fang, and Yuriko Kajiya and they were all capable without really standing out. An old ABT video shows a young Gillian Murphy embellishing the third odalisque variation with triple pirouettes in diagonal. Kajiya wasn't as ambitious but she was clean and charming.
The best part of the show was going afterwards to meet the dancers at the stage door. I got my programmed signed by all of them, and got a picture with them too. They were all very sweet and friendly to the hoardes of fans. A nice moment was when the security guard at the stage door said about Danil Simkin: "Ladies and gentleman you're not looking at just a great dancer. You're looking at the nicest, kindest person to ever walk through the Met."