American Ballet Theatre
“Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” “Symphonic Variations,” “The Brahms-Haydn Variations”
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
October 19, 2016
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
Is Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” the anti-Emeralds? Arlene Croce posited that “Emeralds” was Balanchine’s imagining of what women were like in private without men. Ratmansky’s “Serenade,” a dramatization of Bernstein’s symphony, opened American Ballet Theatre's falls season at Lincoln Center, and presented a view of men as layered as Balanchine’s women in “Emeralds,” and sometimes as contrived.
Daniil Simkin and Blaine Hoven in “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.” Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.
The work, which premiered at the spring gala, gave seven men, stars as well as up-and-comers, meaty solos and group dances, and with typical Ratmansky acuity, he brought out the best in each of them.
Most of the cast was the original opening night's, with the exception of Jeffrey Cirio in Herman Cornejo’s pensive opening solo. In it, Cirio reached down into a droop that almost collapsed. Like Ashton, Ratmansky asks his dancers to speak with their backs.
James Whiteside’s dance was at once an astute solo that used his strengths – speedy footwork and fake-out direction changes – and a sampler of ballet’s gender stereotypes. It was capricious and humorous, but the same way that Bugs Bunny would mug in lipstick and a dress, Whiteside crossed his arms at the wrist when he posed, or did finicky bourrées on high half-toe. Anyone who’s seen a ballet before could sense he was being effeminate. Was he portraying a woman or a man acting like a woman? It wasn’t clear, but it was no more mean-spirited than Bugs.
Whiteside reprised those steps later with Gabe Stone Shayer and Daniil Simkin, but Ratmansky gave everyone solo work with a signature phrase and mood. Shayer skimmed around the stage in fast jumps, Simkin led the men as they came back onstage in powerful rivoltades.
Blaine Hoven flopped like Petrushka, loose and shaking, before reclining like an odalisque. Calvin Royal III danced a languorous adagio. The men joined him on the broad strings, covering ground in arabesques and turns in attitude. In a nod to Nijinska’s “Les Noces,” Royal also lay on the stage and the men hovered over him in comfort.
Cirio reentered furiously, jumping backwards to buzzing strings as if he were pursued by insects. He got loud applause at a fake ending in the middle of the variation, but then walked off on an abrupt pause in the music – to confused silence. Towards the end of the piece, the men all recapitulated their personas: Whiteside again satiric, but this time a shimmying hepcat. Hoven flopped about again, and Simkin did (what else) barrel turns.
It was startling how derailed the ballet got by the appearance of the lone woman, Devon Teuscher. Ratmansky introduced her as an object of desire when she appeared to Marcelo Gomes framed by blinding light from a slit at the back at the back of the stage. Yet she then danced a passive duet with him where she seemed to initiate nothing. She didn’t balance or turn with his added support; she posed and he lifted her. She seemed to exist solely so he had something to partner. They finished the duet and she was forgotten until the very last notes, where she appeared at the side and Gomes reached to her as if the whole ballet had been about her all along. It was a cheap cliché, and Ratmansky hadn’t come close to earning it.
Ratmansky’s characterizations have always fallen into a tricky area. His observations are filled with warmth and humanity, but true to someone whose métier is comedy, he paints with a broad brush. As usual, he doesn’t take a stand. He has Balanchine’s aversion to admitting what’s on his mind – if anything. There’s either an entire thesis’ worth of gender studies in his “Serenade,” or nothing at all.
Ratmansky's “Serenade” led off a triple bill of big guns, but the opening night cast of Ashton's “Symphonic Variations” needed a few more shots. The sextet, led by Royal and Christine Shevchenko, didn't look as if they had gotten much past learning the steps before they were cast loose on stage. Royal didn't look at home in Michael Somes' lead part and played it safe; Shevchenko muddily sketched the complex arms that arc up and down in her solo. Alban Lendorf had the precision for Brian Shaw's role, but just made the first tricky turn where he displaced his axis and looked skywards. He punted the second. A young corps dancer, Cameron McCune, was given a shot at Henry Danton's role; he had the look, but not yet the stamina. Even so, there was so much beauty as the group linked hands to circle, and then the women skimmed forward in the men's arms, as if on a mysterious journey through a green world. They just need to do it more often.
Twyla Tharp's “The Brahms-Haydn Variations,” made in 2000, felt like Tharp making a gloss of Balanchine, but how to turn – or fake – chaos into order is a conundrum worthy of Tharp. She made a Balanchine ballet as she would have – asymmetrically. In the thick of the work, a quartet of women at the back started off in unison. Logic told you they’d stay that way but suddenly one woman right in the middle peeled off into a solo. The ballet ended with everyone flying in, whirling to halt at the last moment.
“Brahms-Haydn” made more sense to the dancers than “Symphonic Variations,” perhaps because it kept them busier. Gillian Murphy had the same freedom she finds in her work with Ratmansky. In their duet, Gomes unwound her like a top, setting her spinning. Isabella Boylston's wonkiness is made for contemporary ballet. As she entered, she threw her leg up right on Brahm's crescendo – BAM! Lendorf looked in his element dancing with her. Shevchenko is strong enough not to need a partner to stay on her leg – a good thing given Joseph Gorak's partnering. His solo dancing was, as usual, pristine.
The curtain came down - and the season began - with some surface jitters but a solid core: three ballets by masters. Even if you noticed the blemishes, you could still see the craft.
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
Bottom: Isabella Boylston and Alban Lendorf in “The Brahms-Haydn Variations.” Photo by Marty Sohl.