Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; June 7, 2014
When Marcelo Gomes hoisted Diana Vishneva onto his shoulder during the final curtain call yesterday afternoon, spontaneously, the audience that hadn’t stopped cheering since the performance ended went wild.
But this was the only surprise in the predictable, and deserved, reverential rapture that followed the performances by Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon” yesterday afternoon. Some five front-of-curtain curtain calls earlier, the audience (crammed from orchestra to balcony with standing and cheering balletgoers), and the company (filling the stage with dancers, company administrators, teachers and coaches), celebrated Ms. Vishneva’s tenth anniversary with American Ballet Theatre with a flower-filled series of stage bows, which in turn was preceded by thundering front-of-curtain curtain calls, which in turn was preceded by a series of cast bows, which was preceded by the house curtain reopening upon Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes in each other’s arms, trying to hold themselves upright after the conclusion of yet another towering performance, and yet another indelible audience memory.
“Manon” is not the greatest ballet in the world. Essentially, it’s somewhat of a rip-off of MacMillan by MacMillan, with “Manon,” which he created in 1974, resembling his 1965 “Romeo and Juliet”. Instead of balcony, bed and bier, we have bed, bordello, and bayou. Much of what’s in between doesn’t measure up to his “Romeo and Juliet” (and the swordplay is awful). But if you focus on the ballet’s arias – the pas de deux and Des Grieux’s solos – the dancing is gorgeous, and one can revel in “Manon’s” explorations of passion’s complexities, with movement that percolates rather than simply pulses, in which the characters’ passion ignites the stage as if gasoline had been poured on already flaming embers. And it is also undeniable that the ballet successfully presents secondary characters of intensity and depth. Yesterday afternoon, Herman Cornejo was a fabulous snake of a brother/pimp, Misty Copeland enthusiastic and vivacious (and blonde) as Lescaut’s girlfriend/courtesan, and Victor Barbee a memorably vicious Monsieur GM. But yesterday’s performance belonged to Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes, and what follows focuses on them. Admittedly, it’s just a bit rapturous.
It is difficult to overstate the significance that Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes have had for New York audiences. Extraordinary stage partnerships are rare to begin with, and in the current era, when for a variety of reasons dancing ‘partnerships’ are discouraged in favor a more pragmatic approach to partnering assignments, they’re rarer still. But the Vishneva/Gomes partnership is a throwback to an age where two dancers who perform extraordinarily on their own are able to ramp up the artistic and excitement level exponentially when dancing with each other. And when the stage pairing is between two artists who obviously have profound affection for each other, as they do, the chemistry is both magical and explosive. So it is in every performance of every ballet they dance together. And so it was yesterday afternoon.
I’ve never seen Mr. Gomes perform better than he did yesterday – but I say that after every performance he gives. Yesterday afternoon, he put on a clinic on how to act a role, dance a role, and be a superb partner. His solos were exquisite – not a wobble, not a wayward emotion, not a bone or muscle out of place. But they were also understated. They weren’t about him, they were about his expressions. And in the final image, as Ms. Vishneva’s Manon died in his arms, his scream (payback for all the times that her Juliet screamed at the realization of his Romeo’s death) was measurable on the Richter scale, awful in its tragic resonance, and proof that even a man’s scream of hopelessness, anger, and profound loss can move a viewer to tears.
My bent is to pay attention to the ballerina more than the danseur, but Mr. Gomes is impossible to ignore. If I were a ballerina (spare the guffaws) I would want him to partner me. And I don’t doubt that every ballerina with ABT and beyond wants Mr. Gomes to partner her, for good reason. He gives them security and freedom, and he’s unselfish. He calls attention to himself by not calling attention to himself – just by the purity of his execution and the poetry of his passion. His performances are gifts both for his ballerinas, and for audiences privileged to watch him.
From the beginning, Ms. Vishneva’s Manon was more fully developed than the last time I saw her assay the role seven years ago. It’s not a different quality – she danced the role superbly then, and did so yesterday as well – but a different level of emotional maturity. She can still convincingly portray the young Manon in Act I, but her Manon-as-courtesan in Act II is now even more fully developed.
But talking about Ms. Vishneva as if she were simply dancing a role with a certain level of quality is like saying that a particular vintage champagne has really great bubbles. With Ms. Vishneva, it’s the nuances of character and choreographic execution, the truthfulness of her youthful maturity, and the aura of natural and liquid radiance that gives her performances in anything she dances, and perhaps particularly her Manon, a degree of richness that’s powerful enough to visually taste, and that is unequalled by any ballerina currently with ABT, and perhaps of any ballerina anywhere.
More significantly, when Ms. Vishneva dances, it’s not just the steps and the drama that are under her control, but it’s also time. She stretches it, compresses it, and makes it her tool; movement that begins and ends in seconds feels like it lasts for minutes, and combinations that logically should take seconds to execute are over in a heartbeat. And there’s a quality of sensuality in her dancing, and to her simple presence on stage, that is irresistible – not that anyone would want to resist it. Her presence alone is intoxicating. Several years ago, in an essay celebrating Ms. Vishneva, I commented that whenever she is on stage, I hear the siren calling ‘come watch me dance; come dance with me; the best is yet to be’. And it seems, no matter how brilliant her most recent performance is, the best is yet to be.
But as remarkable as Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes are individually, together they are a magnetic force that binds them to each other and the audience to them. The final scene of “Manon” is an audience killer, every bit as powerful as the last scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Juliet, already dead (or appearing to be) being tossed around like a sack of potatoes by Romeo, Manon, on the verge of death, is tossed around like a sack of potatoes by Des Grieux. Instead of Juliet’s scream when she realizes Romeo is dead, Des Grieux screams when he realizes Manon has died in his arms. But this description makes the scene sound merely melodramatic – when Vishneva and Gomes perform it, it’s profound artistry. They dance as two forces within one body; almost mirror images. He pulls her up; she descends into death. And the more he pulls, the more her body – first the arms and legs, then the hands, then the torso – succumbs to gravity and becomes an impossible weight. He is dependent on her and she on him for physical and emotional support; they illuminate each other; and each, impossibly and miraculously, makes the other better than they could be on their own.
Yesterday’s performance was the performance of a lifetime. Yet another one. Seeing them dance together is a privilege, and anyone interested in ballet who does not take advantage of any opportunity to see Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes dance together, in anything, risks losing an indelible memory. They are scheduled to dance “Giselle” together on June 16. You miss it at your peril.