American Ballet Theatre
“Les Sylphides”, “Aftereffect”, “The Dream”
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
April 15, 2014
by George Jackson
copyright 2014 by George Jackson
On opening night of American Ballet Theatre’s annual season here, the women of the corps de ballet knew precisely who they were supposed to be. As sylphs in Michel Fokine’s reverie, they seemed as calm and collected as dandelion seeds sailing in a gentle breeze. As the fairy beings in Frederick Ashton’s turbulent Shakespearian dream, it was with agitation and keen awareness that they responded to some very human situations. Not so the men’s group in Marcelo Gomes’s silly “Aftereffect”. Were those guys supposed to be funny or sympathetic?
“Les Sylphides” stems from a fashion that began over a century ago for choreographers to use concert music, to forget the particulars of storytelling, and to focus on dance for dance’s sake. Fokine’s ballet to Chopin’s music wasn’t the first work of this sort but it is the earliest one that survived. ABT has been performing it since 1940. The last time the company gave it in Washington the emphasis was on luxuriant growth, on the organic development of movement from stationary groupings through ensemble modulations and elaborations by the soloists. Resolving all the dancing is a structure that resembles the original grouping - except that it ought to summarize all the dynamics we have watched. At Tuesday’s performance that culmination wasn’t conveyed strongly.There was, though, in addition to the women’s sense of identity, their feeling for flight. Uplifts were marked and landings were pliant. The cast’s three principal women – Stella Abrera, Sarah Lane, Hee Seo - and single man – Joseph Gorak - contrasted lyric flow and seamless line with clear responses to the music’s staccato echoes, the folk rhythm that surfaces so often in the Chopin. Lane danced her waltz with verve. Seo didn’t overdo the prelude’s delicacy and sometimes gave it a sense of play. Gorak partnered well and kept his long legs tidy and supple. Abrera, as the partnered sylphide, didn’t dominate this nighttime gathering in a woodland glade sufficiently to become its central figure and pull it together.
The next ballet followed after only a pause. “Aftereffect” has an all male cast and likely the intent was to balance the preponderance of women in the Fokine (there are 19) with Gomes’s 8 bare chested men. The choreographer tries to show his cast – on this occasion Thomas Forster, Roman Zhurbin, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal, Arron Scott, Sean Stewart, Jose Sebastian, Zhiyao Zhang – both as an ensemble and, briefly, as individuals. The result is compromise. Step follows step, often for bravura’s sake but without a cohesive sense of style. Puzzling actions punctuate the proceedings, such as one dancer suddenly waving. Is he signaling someone in the audience, or waving at another dancer, or doing it to show he is a friendly guy? Conclusive is only that “Les Sylphides” remains unmatched.
Ashton’s “The Dream” of 1964 has a viable rival, George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” of 1962. I used to prefer the Ashton because it has an elegantly compact form and the humor of the original rendition by Britain’s Royal Ballet was subtle. Later, the Joffrey Ballet also dance Ashton’s version well. ABT does so in part. The choreographer undoubtedly wanted to show both the foolishness of being in love and how beautiful young love can be. The antics of the two pairs of human lovers are now a bit much. Too little of their love’s wonder shows. At fault seems to be the current staging, not the cast of Adrienne Schulte, Stella Abrera, Sascha Radetsky and Jared Matthews. Just right was Alexei Agoudine as Bottom, the yokel who is transformed into an ass and has to prance on his hooves i.e., dance on pointe. Still, the inkling he is given of another realm, a magical world, will remain with him forever. Sometimes this ballet’s starring role is that of Puck, the fairy world’s messenger. Herman Cornejo danced it brilliantly but played the prankish Puck as dour, a wise choice because the part isn’t central. Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of fairyland, are at the heart of “Dream”. Julie Kent’s urgent and excitable Titania makes this one of her best portrayals. Marcelo Gomes, with his substantial body, might not seem a natural for Oberon’s flexible linearity but he dances as if made of royal velvet. “Dream”, despite the young lovers, topped ABT’s opening.
Music contributed substantially. Ormsby Wilkins conducted a John Lanchberry arrangement of the magical music Mendelssohn composed for Shakespeare’s “Dream”. David LaMarche conducted a Benjamin Britten orchestration of Chopin piano pieces for “Les Sylphides”. LaMarche also led the Tchaikovsky score (first movement of “Souvenir de Florence”) for “Aftereffect”.