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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Shakespeare at the ABT

At ABT, the big ticket items (Giselle, Swan Lake) are over. The guest artists have come and gone. The final week of the season ends with a low-key mixed bill and some Coppelias which mark the farewell for some talented but underused soloists (Yuriko Kajiya, Jared Matthews, and Sascha Radetsky). I caught a matinee performance of their "Shakespeare" mixed bill which pairs the tried-and-true (Ashton's The Dream) with the new (Ratmansky's The Tempest).

Can I admit that I'm not crazy about Ashton's The Dream? I guess it's because I'm overfamiliar with Balanchine's A Midsummer's Night Dream, and Ashton's work (for me) doesn't have as much humor and magic as Balanchine's. The central pas de deux in Ashton's version is a reconciliation dance between Titania and Oberon. It's lovely, but not as touching or funny as Balanchine's choreography to the same music for Titania and Bottom. And I miss the great second act wedding pas de deux. Also, the Athenian lovers' angt is (IMO) much funnier with Balanchine. Still, the ABT probably can't (and shouldn't) dance Balanchine's ballet, as it requires a large corps de ballet of both adults and children, and a huge list of soloist and demi-soloist roles.

The smaller, more compact Dream is however a perfect ABT vehicle. The ABT always has had strong individual soloists who often languish in the neverending series of Swan Lakes. ABT has had this ballet in their repertoire for a long time, and (unusual for them) a rather steady roster of dancers who are experienced old hats in the roles. Gillian Murphy's bossy Titania is one of her best roles, even though she looked a bit tentative today in the final pas de deux. Cory Stearns (subbing for an injured David Hallberg) makes his usual total non-effect. Stearns is a dancer blessed with height, beautiful lines, and he has pretty solid partnering skills. However he just can't project anything across the footlights. He doesn't have a stage face -- his small eyes and compact features are inscrutable. He and Gillian also have little chemistry. In the pas de deux where their bodies are supposed to mirror each other, you notice the mismatch.

The two strongest performances came from Herman Cornejo (Puck) and Blaine Hoven (Bottom). Cornejo defies gravity -- his height in the air, his ability to twist and turn, and most of all, his soft, silent landings really do make him seem like an otherworldly sprite. He has such wonderful posture as well -- it'd be easy to go for the huge tricks and hunch your shoulders, but Herman never does that. Hoven was delightful as Bottom. His pointe dance is a reminder of how underutilized a lot of ABT dancers are -- they're wonderful and talented, but they're often in the background and never allowed to shine. It was sort of sad to see Stella Abrera and Jared Matthews as two of the Athenian lovers -- these are really short parts and can be given to corps de ballet members. Matthews and Abrera would be wonderful if given a chance to dance Oberon or Titania.

The second ballet on the bill was Ratmansky's The Tempest. I agree with a lot of criticism I've heard about the ballet -- that the incidental music by Sibelius is ill-suited for dance (it sounds like a symphonic tone poem), and Prospero's complex psychological displays (and abdication) of power are only sketched by Ratmansky. And that business with his brothers and whatevers and him torturing them before forgiving them and sailing off is very superficial and almost a nuisance to get through. Honestly if you didn't know the play you'd just think they were random guys who found an island. But if you think of this as a ballet that caters to ABT's talents and quirks, you can only praise Ratmansky. The lack of a uniform classical style is cleverly hidden by Ratmansky's almost folk-dance approach to corps de ballet work. He knows the dancers, and how to showcase their strengths. Marcelo Gomes (Prospero) has astounding partnering skills, but how many times can he lift a ballerina over his head in Swan Lake/Giselle/Romeo and Juliet? Ratmansky has him cleverly partnering a male (Ariel) for much of the ballet. Danil Simkin is an odd duck -- androgynous, almost female in shape and demeanor. Ariel is the perfect role for him -- instead of hiding his femininity, Ratmansky almost revels in it. He often has Ariel lifted and partnered like a ballerina, and Simkin with his white bodysuit costumes makes a striking silouhette in the air -- back arched, toes pointed, really like a ballerina. The charming choreography for Ferdinand and Miranda is not something an ABT prima or principal dancer would ever agree to dance -- it's too slight, too ingenue. But it gives opportunities for the delightfully sweet Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak. Only Caliban is a complete waste of a role, just a creepy half-beast. James Whiteside crawled around a lot and looked creepy.

Overall, the afternoon kind of showed ABT as it really was -- a quirky group of dancers who won't ever have the uniformity and polish of other major ballet companies, but do have boatloads of individual talent.

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