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ABT Review

ABT: Mixed bag of performances

Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 10:16pm

Last night’s mixed repertory program at the Kennedy Center by American Ballet Theater was uneven but thankfully saved by the genius of Tudor’s work. The program featured Allegro Brillante by Balanchine, Flames of Paris by Vainonen, Pillar of Fire by Tudor and Brief Fling by Tharp (which was anything but brief). The company dancers possess technique in buckets but somehow it doesn’t quite add up to artistry in the non-Tudor works. And the problem lies largely with the works rather than the dancing.

The evening opened with Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, and it had his trademark exploration of the physicality, musicality, and powerful dancing. There is a clarity to the lines, the pathways are uncluttered and he tries to let the wisdom of ballet’s beauty speak for itself. However, unlike Jerome Robbins or Anthony Tudor, Balanchine relied heavily on his muses (prima ballerinas) to fill out the gaps that his choreography doesn’t quite address. And when danced by mere (I use the word very carefully) technicians, it looks more like a study rather than a completed work of art. The form doesn’t quite add up to any meaningful content. We miss perhaps what a Gelsey Kirkland or Suzanne Farrell may have contributed to the formulaic pieces. The women in the corps had stiff upper bodies and the petit allegro sections pointed out the effort rather than the polish of their dancing. The orchestra seemed to performing to a completely different tempo than the dancers, with moments when the dancers and the musicians were quite out of sync. But watching Brief Fling a bit later in the program made me thankful for the simplicity of Balanchine’s work

Allegro Brillante was followed by an excerpt from Vainonen’s Flames of Paris, which was unabashedly going for the wow factor. The choreography was a display of almost superhuman strength by both Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin. Simkin has a powerful, easy command of his body and uses it to carve out the space in delicious curlicues, taut diagonals, and vertical jumps like exclamation points. Lane was seriously handicapped by the orchestra yet again which kept to a metronome-like rhythm that didn’t let her linger on her strong balances or breathe through the phrases. The whole point of having a live orchestra is that it allows a dancer to play with the phrasing, but unfortunately that was not the case for the first two pieces in the evening’s program. I found myself enjoying this piece kind of like the third piece of cake, you know it will be too much soon, but you can’t help reaching for it anyway.

The highlight of the evening was Tudor’s Pillar of fire, a deeply moving, carefully constructed, poignant piece of choreography. Tudor is known for his “psychological ballets” and this piece is one of his best examples. The principal role of Hagar was danced brilliantly by Michele Wiles. David Hallberg plays a restrained and warmly supportive Friend who rescues Hagar from the shame of becoming a fallen woman. Pillar of Fire has all the elements of a classical story ballet. There is unrequited love, there is the flirt, there is the loyal gentleman, and there is a villain who breaks hearts and moves on, the last minute rescue, and even a corps de ballet of sorts come through as Lovers-in-Innocence and Lovers-in-Experience. But oh what a different story this is! Tudor puts his own signature touch on the familiar theme of yearning and redemption and makes it relevant and meaningful almost 60 years after its first performance.

In Pillar of Fire, each gesture has layers of meaning, the focus plays a significant and powerful role, the costumes, the set, the lighting and every minute detail is constructed with deep care. There is nothing extraneous in the piece, each gesture is carefully and minimally used, and each lift unspools like a caress or sinks like a sigh. In another instance, the two groups of female dancers who portray the ladies of a whore house (euphemized as the House Opposite) and Lovers-in-Innocence have their hair down, but there is a difference in how their hair is down. The Lovers-in-Innocence have a wisp of a ribbon that still holds back the hair and alludes to a restraint and innocence, whereas the ladies of the whore house have their hair down with no restrictions. Another example is where the gesture of a low arabesque is used by each one of the three sisters differently even though physically it is at the exact same height. It is playful and coquettish for the youngest who seems to entice Hagar’s love interest away from her. It is wistful and heavy for the older sister who is a spinster (obviously not by choice). And it is desperate and tortured for Hagar, the heroine and middle sister who is terrified of ending up in her older sister’s position, yet not able to match her younger sister’s ebullience. Another delicious detail is Tudor’s use of the focus. The only time Wiles looks at Hallberg is when she is kneeling and she has to look up at him or when she is picked up and she has to look down at him. She never dares to look him eye-to-eye, until at long last when the dance reaches its resolution.

Wiles’ spine deserves its own paragraph. Her spine begins like a question mark, bent and afraid, becomes a dagger stuck in the ground when she raises her arms to heaven as a supplicant, crumbles when she gives in to the villain in the House Opposite, and finally becomes human with breath when Hallberg proposes to her. While there is much discussion in ballet about the expressive use of arms or quick feet, this particular Tudor ballet is all about the life-sustaining spine. And it serves as a spine to the evening’s unwieldy program giving is support and some much needed depth.

After this exquisite experience, Twyla Tharp’s Brief Fling is like a visit to the carnival, where you keep hoping the next booth will have something worth your ticket price, but it never quite happens. There is a dolls-on-crack kind of quality to the dancing, the costumes are a mish-mash of plaid and pajamas (by Isaac Mizrahi), and other than an artificial attempt at novelty with a flexed foot or shoulder/hip roll, it is simply a phoned-in attempt at choreography by Tharp. Whereas Balanchine doesn’t make any attempts to hide the fact that Allegro Brillante is simply an exercise in beauty, Tharp tries to hit us over the head with her attempt at novelty and she ends up coming up short–quite short. Which made me realize that Balanchine’s work was more interesting simply because he didn’t come across as indulgent. Ultimately Brief Fling drowns under its own self-important weight.

Ironically, during his life-time Tudor was the least recognized among the choreographers in the program, though his work is brilliant in comparison to the middling work showcased beside his. He left us a meager body of works to enjoy today–but each one is a gem showcasing a keen understanding of the human psyche and a study in understated elegance. Tudor is quoted as having said that he stopped choreographing ballets when he had nothing left to say. Unfortunately, the others continue to hold forth long after they have nothing left to say. The evening begs the question who is doing mindful work in ballet these days? I’d love to hear of contemporary ballet choreographers who use technique to develop the art form, not as an end in itself.

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