"Theme and Variations", "Aftereffect", "The Tempest"
American Ballet Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
October 30, 2013
by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2013 by Mary Cargill
The ABT gala was a feast featuring new costumes for Balanchine's "Theme and Variations", a pièce d'occasion for eight men by Marcelo Gomes, and a new Ratmansky ballet based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest". New costumes and eight bare-chested men are fine, but the focus was on the Ratmansky. How could Shakespeare's cerebral, poetic vision, with its complicated back-story translate into dance? Not seamlessly it turns out, but with enough magical moments to give us, as Prospero says in the epilogue "art to enchant".
Ratmansky used the episodic incidental music Jean Sibelius wrote for the play and brought in the theater director Mark Lamos as the dramaturge, and Lamos may be responsible for the more literal (and less successful) episodes. The ballet, like the play, opened with a storm, as Alsonso, the King of Naples and his retinue (identified in the program, but muddled on stage) washed up on the enchanted island. The opening was stunning, as the island's spirits floated around the wreck, catching the waves of the music. But trying to explain how Prospero and Miranda arrived at the island by Prospero and Antonio (his usurping brother) passing a crown back and forth and pointing at each other, made, I suspect, little sense to someone not somewhat familiar with the play. Both Ariel and Caliban were described in the synopsis as being servants, completely sidestepping the heart of their relationships with Prospero--they were both his slaves and both yearned in their own way for freedom.
Despite the delicacy of the plot summary, Ratmansky's choreography for Ariel (Daniil Simkin) and Caliban (Herman Cornejo) was magical. Simkin flew through his variations with applause-generating leaps, but was no mere virtuoso. There was feeling, purpose, and depth in his dancing, and his fluttering little movements as be begged Prospero for freedom in his opening solo were haunting. His second solo, after Prospero had released him, was equally virtuosic, as he did jumps and spins never seen before, but he danced as if his soul were pushing him forward.
Cornejo's Caliban was an equally impressive and individual interpretation, as this elegant and precise dancer grovelled, crawled, and crouched, grabbing ferociously at Miranda, guzzling wine like an animal drinking blood, yet showing a glimpse of an inarticulate spirit trying to break free. The final image of the ballet showed Caliban, left behind as the others returned to civilization, trying to read Prospero's book of magic, and tearing it up in complete frustration, a haunting image of abject frustration and hopelessness.
The choreography for the humans on the island was not as individual or as rich. Prospero (Marcelo Gomes) was younger and friskier than the traditional wise old man, and his wig and beard made him look like a Sunday school Jesus. Sarah Lane was fresh and dewey as Miranda, but her choreography involved a lot of generic swooning backbends. Their dances together, with a number of lifts, didn't not look very fatherly/daughterly, and Prospero's anger when Ferdinand (Joseph Gorak, who looked very appealing) appeared on the scene appeared prompted by a lover's jealousy. Ratmansky had the noble Prospero writhe in torment as he gave Miranda to Ferdinand, which made no sense as he had, according to the play, planned this all along. Despite the somewhat muddy scenario, the dancing was absolutely superb. Gomes used his magnificent line and powerful presence to create as gracious a character as the choreography allowed though his long hair, unbuttoned shirt and tight pants made it look as if he were sailing back to Haight-Ashbury instead of Milan; Lane and Gorak were a beautiful couple, while Sascha Radetsky glowered unmelodramatically as the evil Antonio; and the comedic relief offered by Craig Salstein and Julio Bragado-Young as the drunken servants was musical and finely calibrated. It was an honorable and sometimes inspired attempt to tackle complex ideas.
"Theme and Variations" is not about complex ideas, and its eternal beauty is always welcome. The new costumes are much better than the rather tacky previous ones, though this glorious explosion is still danced against a black background. The darkness does make the new red and gold tutus look like a diadem of rubies and topazes set against black velvet, beautiful in its own way, but I think this meditation on "The Sleeping Beauty" really needs sunlight.
Gillian Murphy, in radiant gold, was sun enough. Her dancing, always a technical marvel, has become more confident and nuanced, as she phrases her upper body so beautifully. There was a seamless flow and a serenity to her performance that just glowed. New principal James Whiteside was her partner, and, though his dancing was generally clear and smooth, there seemed to be something slightly calculated about his presentation; he was doing beautiful steps very well, rather than allowing the audience to overhear a private conversation between the most perfect couple in the world.
"Aftereffect", set to the first movement of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence", was a pleasant exercise for eight bare-chested men, led by Sascha Radetsky. His opening solo, full of curling movements suggesting at times a faun or a bird, was augmented by the other cast, entering sequentially, and dancing the same energetic steps. Radetsky disappeared in the jumping mass, until the final moments, when he seemed to decide this was really the "Rite of Spring", and was carried off by the others. The dancers seemed to enjoy themselves and were certainly fun to look at; Jose Sebastian, especially, stood out for his forceful commitment, but the piece seemed to ramble.
Photos by Marty Sohl:
Top: scene from "The Tempest"
Bottom: Sarah Lane and Marcelo Gomes in "The Tempest"
copyright © 2013 by Mary Cargill