"Seven Sonatas," "Duets," "Known by Heart ('Junk') Duet," "Black Tuesday"
American Ballet Theatre
New York City Center
New York, New York
November 8, 2011
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2011 by Michael Popkin
For its second New York program last week, American Ballet Theatre tackled four works in divergent styles ranging from Ratmansky to Cunningham and managed to dance them all with sensitivity. The revival of Merce Cunningham's "Duets," not danced at ABT since 1990, was a feature, but the other ballets on the program were just as strong and the level of performance was high. The company has a rich repertory of smaller works like these that it can't afford to dance at the Met, and it was a treat to see them so well performed in the intimate setting of the remodeled City Center.
Mark Lancaster's design has the dancers in spotlights at the front of a darkened stage, with a space left open in the rear so that a second set of performers can appear. In the color scheme of ABT's version of the ballet (there were older, different costumes for earlier Cunningham productions), each dancer wears a different, strongly colored costume in harmonious shades: bold yellow against blue, rose against grey and other such contrasts. The palette reminds one of Miro. Each costume is also slightly different in composition: some men and women wear unitards of a single shade; two or three women have skirts to mid-thigh over tights; and a few of the men dance in leotards and sport shirts.
The dance runs for fifteen minutes as each couple enters for a brief pas while at times a second couple briefly passes in the rear. Things are kept very simple. The score's wall of undulating recorded sound (like tabla drums with sharper noises like beaten sticks mixed in) makes the choreography look deliberately slow, weighty, meditative and dramatic. As is typical in Cunningham, dancers seem to waver experimentally - as if they are exploring at what point their balance will tip, or just how much contrary force they have to exert to keep the body from tipping, looking for that exact equilibrium where they are neither overtly in motion nor completely at rest.
Gillian Murphy, partnered by Cory Stearns, stretched her working leg in a developée to the side, her foot trembling at the apex. But contrary to ballet aesthetics, she didn't seek repose, nor did Paloma Herrera
(with Eric Tamm) when she froze cleanly at a right angle to the audience, her muscular tension visible. The cast was a strong one that also included Veronika Part with Vitali Krauchenka; Adrienne Schulte and Sean Stewart; Julie Kent with Jared Matthews and Devon Teuscher with Luis Ribagorda. Had this been Cunningham's company, you'd have said they were all way too balletic. But the work succeeded because of the frank honesty that each of them brought to exploring the choreography and style.
With Cunningham's company disbanding at the end of the year, we need to get used to seeing his dances performed this way. Going forward his raison d'être will be watching dancers often trained in other styles encounter his choreography as an unanswered question he's left for them. The only wrong answers will be dishonest ones.
Taylor's "Black Tuesday" was made in 2001 as a commission from ABT and for this reason raises fewer issues of translation. The music is eight popular songs (by Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg and others) that evoke depression era America in a tinny Great Gatsby sound like an old Victrola. The choreography mixes period-based steps (for example, Charleston or Turkey Trot) for the social dance numbers with weightier movement at the end of the piece in an expressive, modern dance technique that shows Taylor's roots in Martha Graham's company.
ABT's dancers looked great in it and tore into the material with gusto. Kristi Boone and Gray Davis were charming in "There's No Depression in Love;" Craig Salstein was hilarious in "Are You Making Any Money," chomping on a cigar and throwing himself about in vaudeville style amongst Misty Copeland, Zhong-Jing Fang and Kelley Potter; and Gemma Bond brought down the house as a gamine street urchin in her rollicking "(I Went Hunting) and the Big Bad Wolf was Dead." The ballet's mood then turned on a dime as Copeland danced "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" very physically, before Daniil Simkin ended the evening with an anguishing "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" Taylor, more than any other choreographer today, crafts dances that work on two levels. After the beginning of "Black Tuesday" has charmed you with the buoyant surface of depression era popular culture, the end of the ballet has to expose that charm as also pathological - like a juke box playing as the Titanic goes down. Copeland and Simkin were strong enough to express the transition.
Ratmansky's "Seven Sonatas" continues to impress; it bears repeated viewing because you discover more lyricism and rich detail every time you see it. The musical choices for the score are perfect and Barbara Billach's piano rendition of Scarlatti's works gave them the romantic force and dreaminess of Chopin. The three pairs of dancers employed here - Yuriko Kajiya and Gennadi Saveliev, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, Julie Kent and Alexandre Hammoudi - managed the subtleties of mood, tone and relationship between the dancers in the piece with great sensitivity, and Kajiya gave a breakthrough performance of unprecedented genuineness and lyricism, her technique completely in service of her expression without artificiality.
Cornejo was stellar all week and not just in this. Out with an injury during ABT's entire spring at the Met, everything he danced this fall was complete and finished: big, elevated jumps and air turns that were cleanly accomplished well before he landed and all done with modesty and not the slightest trace of effort. Meanwhile in "Junk Duet" Marcelo Gomes (with Maria Riccetto) outdid himself, perfectly rendering Tharp's idiomatic mixture of ballet and character steps with slouching postures, boxing moves, vernacular gestures from the street, everything else and her kitchen sink.
Photographs: Top and mIddle - Julie Kent and Jared Matthews; Paloma Herrera and Eric Tamm in "Duets" - by Gene Schiavone
Bottom: Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in "Seven Sonatas" by Rosalie O'Connor