“The Dream,” “The Tempest”
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
July 2, 2014 matinee
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2014 by Leigh Witchel
An unexpected casting change provided some of the most interesting dancing in American Ballet Theatre’s Shakespeare double bill. Cory Stearns went on as Oberon after David Hallberg withdrew because of a minor foot injury. Stearns honed in on the fairy king’s entitlement and demands to create a character sketch that was at once unlikable and fascinating.
Stearn’s Oberon has the privilege that comes with authority with few of the checks on it. He was kind or cruel depending on how he felt at that very moment. He wanted the changeling boy and he wasn’t going to stop until he got him; he assisted the lovers seemingly from a dislike of messiness on his turf. Every movement he made was sharp and angry like a direct command, or internal dialogue all in monosyllables and capital letters. GIVE ME. MINE.
When Puck, danced by Herman Cornejo, blundered his assignment with the couples, Stearns’ face clouded like a gathering storm. IDIOT. WHAT DID YOU DO? He was intimidating in the way only those accustomed to being obeyed can be. He rose to the fiendish technical challenges of the part as well. The first set of turns from attitude into arabesque were fidgety, but by the Scherzo Stearns was blasting through diagonals, sticking the turns into penchée.
When Titania, (Gillian Murphy) agreed to give him the changeling boy, Stearns gave her a look of pure avarice. WANT. And he didn’t turn his attention to her until he made sure the boy was his. Once that was taken care of, their great final duet was all about possession. She was another thing from him to have. WANT. He grabbed Murphy, pulled her back, then folded her over and reached his hand high to claim her by slowly wrapping her waist. When she moved away on pointe he stopped her twice to yank her back into his reach. MINE. And yet, she didn’t seem to mind. Murphy was in rapture as she squiggled and leapt into his arms. His Oberon may not have been lovable, but it was logical and very watchable. He may never have had as good a role.
Murphy reacts similarly to both Ratmansky and Ashton: both of them free up her upper body carriage. Titania used her best qualities including her surefooted accuracy in turns. She wasn’t daunted by the complexities of the role. Puck is a natural role for Cornejo’s whizzing multiple turns and superball jumps. His approach was turbocharged, but Ashton meant for the role to be showy.
Murphy’s easy attitude towards her indiscretions and Stearns’ domineering nature pointed up a big difference between Ashton and Balanchine’s two great dances based on the play: sex. Anchored by formal court dances, Balanchine concentrates on alliances – the matches made and mis-made. Balanchine’s duet for Titania and Bottom gets its humor from the tenderness with which she offers him handfuls of grass. Ashton’s dance is more of a seduction: Titania pulls Bottom along and plays footsie with him; she ends by jumping on his back and riding him. And when they go together to lie down in a tree hollow, everyone knows what they’re doing.
It’s a contrast to the No Sex, Please, We’re British prudishness of the humans. As Hermia, Stella Abrera allows Jared Matthews’ Lysander only a peck on the cheek before she points across the stage for him to sleep way . . . over . . . there. Ashton also sees royalty in a very British way with its mad and indiscreet ruling class. The four fairies watch Titania in shock as she makes love to a donkey. Then they bring out garlands for him.
Apart from accidentally backing into a stage leg (if you were wearing a donkey’s head, you might too) Blaine Hoven’s dancing as Bottom showed his sinuous coordination. He rolled his steps into one continuous phrase, but didn’t try and upstage the ballerinas by overdoing his pointe work. Despite his talent he didn’t move ahead when the last round of promotions were announced, but his gift seems to be the contemporary repertory. Will this be as far as he will go in a classically-oriented company?
The whole company did well in a work it’s danced for over a decade. Everyone stayed on top of the fast footwork in the Scherzo. And for the fairies the opening of the ballet, with its skittering runs on pointe, is a feat in itself – albeit a noisy one at this performance. After all the women have entered, they scurried into lines for one of the most beautiful pastiches. Ashton’s homage to Romantic ballet had them crossing, re-crossing and listening for the sounds of the woods with unison arms that left afterimages like time-lapse photography: trails of movement in your eye as they circled.
Ashton’s adaption recently celebrated its 50th birthday. Ratmansky’s version of the Tempest is less than a year old, and still settling in. Some things have been removed since the premiere last October, such as the pillars indicating the mirage of a banquet. But it’s still not clear what Ratmansky is trying to do with the story. A program note that the work is a meditation or a fragmented narrative is a cop-out. There’s way too much of an attempt to tell the story to suddenly say that isn’t the goal.
There’s a reason beyond the Mendelssohn score that choreographers gravitate to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and avoid “The Tempest.” “Loves me, loves me not” is easier to indicate in ballet than “usurped his crown.” Ratmansky tries to jam in most of the plot but it’s too telegraphed to be clear. Take the liberation of the sprite Ariel. For him to beg and Prospero to release his hands isn’t enough. Unless we’ve read the play, we didn’t know he was in captivity to start with.
Ratmansky has left in several minor characters, but he hasn’t characterized them. One nobleman looks like another; the two rustics who fall in with Caliban have no purpose. Though with repeated viewing, much becomes less obscure.
The role of Prospero is a huge, but still thankless for Marcelo Gomes. It saddled him with robes and a bad wig; his greatest virtue – his passion – wasn’t on display. He’s a lover, not an alchemist. Prospero had no love interest, but Gomes tenderly partnered Sarah Lane as Prospero’s daughter Miranda, touching her face and cradling her in his arms. His relationship with Ariel seemed as protective as he hugged him affectionately.
Ratmansky gave the best dancing to Miranda and her swain Ferdinand, and Lane and Joseph Gorak looked as good as they did when the ballet made its debut. Lane’s lightness was perfectly used and Ratmansky showed off Gorak’s line in one sustained pose twisting into another. The better to see all of you with, my dears.
Simkin, wearing a headdress that looked like a coral branch, was given several complex solos that he threw himself into. James Whiteside needs the role of Caliban like Stearns needs Oberon – Whiteside is a lovely, direct dancer. He’s missing are shadows and shading, and Ratmansky helps him find them. In a departure from Shakespeare, Ratmansky reimagines Caliban’s fate: crouching and crawling in his final solo, unable to read Prospero’s book of spells, Whiteside rips it up the book he can’t read. Abandoned on his island, ignorance forms his kingdom.
Ratmansky’s style, the bending torso and sea anemone arms, bears some resemblance to Ashton’s, but not his impulses. Ratmansky isn’t as interested in the classical set piece – he sees choreography as speech, not as design, even though the storm to open has the sea creatures some of the same peeling lines and layers as Ashton’s fairies. But will Ratmansky create a company style for ABT? That would be a crowning achievement.
copyright © 2014 by Leigh Witchel