“The Leaves are Fading,” “Symphony # 9,” “Rodeo”
American Ballet Theatre
New York City Center
New York, New York
October 18, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
Alexei Ratmansky’s latest work for American Ballet Theatre (“Symphony #9”) is jammed with dance excitement but keeps its distance emotionally. Full of surface motion, like much of Ratmansky’s work it’s strongly inflected with his favorite genre of character dance. Yet the ballet’s dramatis personae evade personal contact by engaging in bluff gestures of humor whenever the viewer gets close to them. The Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille works that opened and closed the evening demonstrated the human feelings missing from Ratmansky’s work.
Named for its score (Dmitri Shastakovich’s E-flat Major symphony Op. 70) “Symphony #9” employs a principal couple along with a demi-caractère trickster who’s the odd man out, and then supports these leading dancers with a pair of soloists and corps de ballet of eight couples. In the first night cast, Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes were the leading couple and the extraordinary Herman Cornejo was the virtuoso. Simone Messmer and Craig Salstein led the corps de ballet.
Shostakovich’s score starts and ends with brisk, circus-like music that recalls parts of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.” The middle sections are dominated by a progression from a mysterious, foggy atmosphere dominated by woodwinds to a funereal dirge driven by intermittently blasting horns. Closely paralleling the musical divisions (and employing a formula that Ratmansky has already used in “Concerto DSCH,” a work to Shostakovich’s music for New York City Ballet), Ratmansky had the soloists and corps de ballet mostly dance the brisk sections, reserving the adagios for Gomes and Semionova and then letting Cornejo mediate between and participate in both groups.
Entrances and exits followed each other furiously; the work was never still. The choreography throughout was highly physical and intricately detailed. Even the corps de ballet’s entrances involved the most challenging step sequences. During their several pas de deux, the leading couple continually seasoned their dancing with curious twists of personal interaction. At one point, to mysterious music, Gomes and Semionova looked anxiously this way and that, as if they were being hunted. At another, the couple lay on the floor, as if chastely sleeping side by side, until Gomes suddenly raised a finger, as if saying “wait a moment,” before sitting up and peering at the audience over his partner’s prone figure. Lifting Semionova, he then carried her off the stage while she performed robot-like entrechats.
The difficult steps and furious enchaînements that Ratmansky revels in were perfectly done yet the interaction between Gomes and Semionova remained cardboard and without depth. Unlike the vulnerability exhibited by Wendy Whelan and her partners in the adagios of “Concerto DSCH,” these two dancers somehow never became more than themselves. Nothing dramatic happened between them, which was odd for Gomes, who is usually intensely personal on stage.
Yet Cornejo, rose above such limitations. Whether launching into hugely elevated entrechat jumps or ending the ballet with a series of barrel turns that brought down the house, Ratmansky had done his usual trick of pulling transcendent pyrotechnics out of a dancer whom you already thought you knew. The marriage between dance maker and dancer here was perfect.
Keso Dekker’s costumes dressed the women in loose shifts of predominately black and white patterning to just below the knee. The men wore sleeveless T shirts of the same material, with blackish purple tights below and a belt in the middle. The leading woman’s costume had a hint of purple and gold color. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting projected flat light on a blue drop at the start, but then engaged in transformations. The background turned green at points before strong, dark shadow-play took over for the dirge, with the work then ending in purple black light, matching the men’s tights.
Destined to be hugely popular with a contemporary ballet audience used to accepting dance excitement in the place of human drama, the new work still appeared lacking in heart. As it's just the first installment of what will be a three part, evening length work by Ratmansky to Shostakovich that will debut at ABT in the spring, it’s entirely possible that – when seen in that context - meanings will emerge to remedy this impression. It’s also possible that different principals will supply some of the missing resonance.
ABT’s strong tradition of staging ballets that satisfy the heart as well as the eyes was well represented by the other two works on the program. Starting the evening with a Proustian statement, Hee Seo (ABT's newest principal) cleanly danced “The Leaves are Fading” with Roberto Bolle. The ballet opened and closed with Karen Uphoff wandering the stage in a reverie, literally “Remembering Things Past,” as if the rest of the action were merely her recollections.
After the cheering for Ratmansky had stopped, an emotionally sensitive and at the same time physically compelling performance of “Rodeo” then underscored the complete contrast in aesthetics between these works and “Symphony #9.” Seeing Marian Butler do nothing but stand still, downstage left, with a forlorn expression as the cowgirl heroine of this ballet, while a sentimental Copland melody played, your heart engaged with her more than it had with Semionova and Gomes over the length of an entire ballet.
Yet the work didn’t lack sustained dance excitement in its group numbers for cowboys and cowgirls, or in the character dance with square dance calling in its central scene. Craig Salstein delighted with the facility and wit of his tap dance. Among the supporting cast, young Skylar Brandt, as the eastern friend from Kansas City who gets kissed at the hoedown, alternated a precocious aptitude for comedy with her sheer dance energy in the ensembles. Roman Zhurbin was delightfully fatuous as the conceited head wrangler. Want to know what was missing in “Symphony #9?” Ask yourself why “Rodeo” has lasted seventy years.
Photos by Gene Schiavone: Top – Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Symphony #9;” Bottom – Marian Butler as the Cowgirl in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.”