"Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes", "A Month in the Country", "Symphony in C"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
May 21 and May 22 matinee, 2013
by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2013 by Mary Cargill
ABT took a brief break from its three-act warhorses to present an intriguing triple bill, sandwiching its premiere of Sir Frederick Ashton's delicate chamber ballet "A Month in the Country" between two different takes on white ballets, Mark Morris' witty romp through some piano pieces of Virgil Thompson and Balanchine's classical bouquet "Symphony in C". "A Month in the Country" is based on the Turgenev play, "free adapted" as the program note says. Ashton simplified and concentrated the action, eliminating some characters, but, like the play, the ballet explores the complexity of the human heart, showing the disasterous consequences of passion on a wealthy Russian country family.
Briefly, Natalia Petrova is married to a kind but rather obtruse older man, and involved in a half- hearted flirtation with Rakitin, a family friend. She has a 17 year-old ward, Vera, and a 10 year-old son, Kolia, whose tutor, Beliaev, inadvertently destroys the placid contentment of the household after both Vera and Natalia fall in love with him. Ashton skillfully weaves his story, using the choreography seamlessly to show both the characters and the plot. The ballet opens with the family together, Natalia lying on a chaise longe listening to Vera play Mozart as Raitkin reads to her. She is clearly used to being entertained but dances an elegant solo, full of bends and capricious changes of direction, with an hint of unease. Vera then dances a fresh, open, and joyful solo, the picture of youthfull innocense. As a joke, she steals the husband's keys, letting Kolia in on the prank ,showing in one seemingly inconsequential incident her lighthearted and close companionship with Kolia, the husband's fussy incompetence, and a hint of Natalia's irritation.
The family fun is disturbed by a pause in the music and a slightly ominous billow of a curtain, as Beliaev enters, completely unconscious of his effect. He is diffident towards Natalia, friendly with Vera, and generous to Kolia. The Russian cut of his costume indicates that he probably has lower class origins, an important class distinction, reinfored by his carefree folk dance with Katia, the maid. Clearly he is more comfortable below stairs, but his frankness and charm attract all the women on stage.
This does not end well, as Natalia finds Vera, in her first adolescent crush, with Beliaev (who is friendly but uncomprehending). Natalia's furious jealousy makes her realize that she too in in love. Vera, hurt and angry, exposes her, and the family peace is destroyed, as both Raitkin and Beliaev realized they have to leave, Vera is friendless (in the play she agrees to marry an older, silly suitor to get away from Natalia), and Kolia is left in forlorn bewilderment as all his companions ignore him. The final scene has Beliaev come in for one last glimpse of Natalia, an unseen farewell kiss of her ribbons, and a dropped flower. Natalia find the flower, and, like Albrecht, is left along on stage with this one reminder of her loss.
Lynn Seymour, the original Natalia, was a fluid, musical, and naturally sensuous dancer and an actress of unique power and subtlety. I never saw her in this role, but the curves, twists, and womanliness that Ashton built into the choreography have her indellible stamp. Neither Julie Kent nor Hee Seo (nor anyone else) have that combination, but each gave fine and thoughtful performances. Kent, understandably, was more mature, more knowing, which made her loss of control more shocking. When she discovered Vera and Beliaev, she turned to close the door with barely contained fury, a gesture she made absolutely chilling. Seo was, for me, a little too frivolous in her openeing scenes--there should be hints of unhappiness, but her dancing in the final pas de deux with Beliaev was luxurious.
Roberto Bolle was Kent's tutor, and he seemed a bit too self-assured, as if he knew very well the effect he was having on the women around him. David Hallberg, with Seo, caught more of the awkwardness and diffidence that made the original (Anthony Dowell, who set the ballet for ABT) so distinctive. The non-stop choreography with its quick changes of direction and delicately callibrated epaulment combined with absolute purity of line, must look easy, which it did, but Hallberg also gave it heart.
The smaller roles were also very well danced. Gemma Bond, Royal Ballet trained, and Sarah Lane (in a blond wig) both sparkled as Vera. Bond was more innocent, not really knowing what her infaturation could mean, while Lane gave Vera a slight flirtactious, but still decorous edge. Danil Simkin was the opening night Kolia, tossing off his bounding solo with ease. He was more impressive though, for me, in the final scenes, when he was left alone in the swirl of emotions he couldn't understand, trying to get his playmates back again, an innocent and overlooked victim of grownup passions. Arron Scott is taller and more robust than Simkin and didn't convey all the final pathos, but was more able to meld Kolia's opening solo with his carefree personality.
The ballet is so full of subtle and moving moments, but for me the most haunting is the brief scene when Kolia pretends to shoot his bow (a present from Beliaev) into the house as Natalia and Beliaev are finally alone. Cupid's arrows are such a powerful metaphor for the inexplicable and inescapable power of passion, and poor Kolia is an unwitting Cupid--if he hadn't needed a tutor, his happy life wouldn't have been destroyed.
"Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes" has none of these emotional volcanoes, but it has a rich undercurrent of feeling. It looks very good on the larger Metropolitan stage, which has enough room for the piano to be center stage. The work begins with the pianist, Barbara Bilach, playing, and it was a shame that the enthusiastic ushers seemed to be signalling to each other with their flashlights as the rambunctious latecomers were seated. The opening music, for Morris, is so important and deserves complete respect. The piece has a grand arc, as it begins with the music, the dancers assemble, merge, form patterns, explode in a gasp of virtuosity, (both Marcelo Gomes and Jospeh Gorak in the Barishnikov role were astoundingly powerful and controlled) and then ends quietly, as the light fades, and the dancers seems to bow to the pianist with a tinge of sadness, as if saying that youth and vigor will not last, but music is forever.
Music is forever in "Symphony in C", as well, as the formal patterns merge and weave. ABT's version is a little slower and more stately than NYCB's, but this approach has its own beauty. Veronika Part seems to exist on another plane in the slow second movement, though she did have trouble with the fast turns in the finale. Polina Semionova, in a debut, was stronger, and gave a scrupulous, beautifully danced performance (helped immensely by Gomes' partnering), but, for me, Part was simply magic. Natalia Opispova and Ivan Vasiliev, the Russian powerhouses, made their debuts in the third movement, dancing like lightening. Vasiliev restrained his sometimes self-indulgent jumps, and gave an honest and straightforward account. The first night couple, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, though, looked like they were having more fun. It would be even more fun if ABT could somehow manage more than four performances of this majestic triple bill.
First: Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle in "A Month in the Country" by Marty Sohl
Second: Hee Seo and David Hallberg in "A Month in the Country" by Marty Sohl
Third: Jared Matthews in "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" by Gene Schiavone
Fourth: Polina Seminova and Marcelo Gomes in "Symphony in C" by Marty Sohl
copyright © 2013 by Mary Cargill