City Center, New York, NY; September 17, 2013

Jerry Hochman

When Alessandra Ferri danced her farewell performances for American Ballet Theatre in June, 2007, she brought a danseur to partner her in “Manon” and “Romeo and Juliet”. The focus of these performances, of course, was Ms. Ferri, but her partner impressed me with the clarity of his execution, exceptional ballon, and impeccable partnering skills, despite being a little rough around the edges. Ms. Ferri’s chosen partner was Roberto Bolle.

Following his first appearance with Ms. Ferri, in “Manon,” I also described Mr. Bolle as being disgustingly good looking, with a disarming, endearing, and self-effacing charm, and that if a ballet of ‘Superman’ were ever created it should be choreographed on him.

Years later, little has changed – except Mr. Bolle is no longer rough around the edges, and is well aware of his deserved stature as a world-class danseur. A Principal Dancer with ABT since 2009, Mr. Bolle is still a super danseur, with a commanding stage presence and a dramatic flair. And he’s still disgustingly good looking.

Last night, to a near sold-out audience that included Ms. Ferri, Mr. Bolle was the centerpiece of an evening of superb dancing. In everything but name, it was a gala to kick off City Center’s 2013-2014 season. And it was a gala as galas should be – an eclectic mix of dances and dancers titled ‘Roberto Bolle and Friends’. While clearly a celebration of and for Mr. Bolle reflecting the breadth of his talent, it also was a celebration of ballet – where it was, where it is, and where it may be going.

The evening was well-structured. One piece contrasted significantly with the prior and succeeding ones, providing visual and dramatic variety that was inherently entertaining. However, while the performances were generally superb, the ballets themselves were a mixed bag, the highlights being Twyla Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite” danced by Luciana Paris and Herman Cornejo; a pas de deux from “Jeunehomme” performed by Elisa Carrillo Cabrera and Mikhail Kaniskin; “Le Grand Pas de Deux” danced by Alicia Amatriain and Mr. Bolle; Mr. Bolle and Erika Gaudenzi in “L’Arlesienne”; and a combination live and digital celebration of Mr. Bolle titled “Prototype”.

The evening opened with a pas de deux from “Excelsior” danced by Mr. Bolle and Alina Somova, a Principal Dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet. Except as a reverential display of Mr. Bolle’s physique (his costume consisted of a garment that looked like a Stone Age Speedo and ballet slippers), it was an embarrassment. I have since learned that Mr. Bolle and Ms. Somova previously performed in the piece, choreographed by Ugo Dell’Ara after Luigi Manzotti to a score by Romualdo Marenco, with Mr. Bolle’s role identified as ‘The Slave’ and Ms. Somova’s as ’The Civilization’, and that the full-length ballet is some sort of paean to scientific progress. You couldn’t tell from the pas de deux. Both Mr. Bolle and Ms. Somova performed reasonably well, although Ms. Somova looked somewhat uncomfortable compared to the serene elegance and effortless command that have been a hallmark of her prior New York performances. Perhaps it was jetlag – she, also uncharacteristically, traveled downstage somewhat during her series of Russian fouettes. Mr. Bolle looked, well, like Superman – and in that sense, the pas de deux was a fine introduction to an evening celebrating him. But the pas de deux itself is overstuffed kitsch with passionless pyrotechnics that takes itself too seriously and never reaches the level of satire or camp.

Next was the Act I pas de deux from John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet,” performed by Ms. Amatriain and Jason Reilly, Principal Dancers with the Stuttgart Ballet. Mr. Cranko’s concept for the pas de deux is somewhat restrained, and although danced well, the piece never delivered the dramatic and cathartic level of the more familiar balcony pas de deux by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Mr. Reilly was an appropriately ardent Romeo, and Ms. Amatriain a sweet, swept-away, but relatively bland Juliet.

What the “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux lacked in energy and passion, “Sinatra Suite” provided in abundance. The duet, consisting of dances to several iconic Frank Sinatra songs, has become somewhat of a signature piece for Mr. Cornejo, an ABT Principal Dancer, and Ms. Paris, impossibly, still a member of ABT’s corps. Although I’ve seen them perform the piece more crisply, even at less than 100% their performances were fabulous.

“Sinatra Suite” is highly complex choreographically, with the bodies on stage always in dynamic or dramatic motion. On the other hand, the pas de deux from “Jeunehomme” that followed is straightforward and clear. “Jeunehomme” is a ballet created by German choreographer Uwe Scholz to Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 9,” the pas de deux being the second, andantino movement. It’s an abstract piece with progressively increasing emotional gloss, although out of context, it is difficult to determine whether it is consistent stylistically with the piece as a whole. Regardless, I found it to be a stunning piece reflecting emotional connection, separation, and return that said what it had to say with simple purity. Mr. Kaniska, and in particular Ms. Cabrera, both Principal Dancers with the Staatsballett Berlin, gave unembellished and deeply moving performances that matched the essence of the piece.

The seriousness of “Jeunehomme” was succeeded by the hilarity of “Le Grand Pas de Deux”. Comic ballets that are successful on multiple levels are rare. This piece, choreographed by Christian Spuck (resident choreographer at the Stuttgart for 11 years, and now Artistic Director of the Ballet Zurich) to music by Gioachino Rossini (the Overture from the opera, “La gazza ladra”), is one of them. It was the danseur and the ditz. Mr. Bolle was the straightman, Ms. Amatriain, in tutu and oversized eyeglasses, the nutty ballerina. Both were hilarious, displaying impeccable comic timing.

The second half of the program began with “L’Arlesienne”, Roland Petit’s 1974 work based on a short story by Alphonse Daudet about a man haunted by the memory of a woman he met in Arles and his descent into madness. It’s “La Sylphide” through the prism of Edgar Allan Poe. Although diminished by absence of the ballet’s full choreography and its Van Gogh-inspired original set, Petit’s choreographic distillation of the story, presented in the dancing of the two lead characters, is sufficiently gripping on its own, particularly given the performances by Mr. Bolle and Ms. Gaudenzi. Mr. Bolle was outstanding as the hopelessly distracted Frederi, who cannot forget the woman from Arles, and who ultimately leaps to his death through a window (an image that evokes memories of “Spectre de la Rose”, but inverted and turned from harmless fantasy to tragedy).

The drama of “L’Arlesienne” was succeeded by an abstract pas de deux excised from Mauro Bigonzetti’s 1996 work for Stuttgart Ballet, “Kazimir’s Colours”, to music by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was the only poor choice on the program. It’s not a bad piece, just inconsequential and easily forgettable – although it was excellently performed by Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Kaniskin.

“Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” is a Balanchine masterpiece. However, while Mr. Cornejo and Maria Kochetkova, a Principal Dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, displayed sparkle and pyrotechnics in abundance, but they were visibly working hard and showed none of the effortless élan and electricity that New York City Ballet’s principals routinely bring to the stage. Ms. Kochetkova also maintained a pasted-on smile throughout the piece that looked like a nervous affectation rather than a show of exuberance and technical dominance.

Balanchine’s glorious neo-classicism and the majestic Tchaikovsky score were followed by “Mono Lisa”, a contemporary pas de deux by Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili to electronic music by Thomas Hofs. With the dancers costumed in primitive-looking earth-toned garments and the nerve-twitch sounds of the score, the piece looked and sounded like a combination lunar landscape and primeval forest, with the couple representing Adam and Eve after the Fall. Although I found the repetitive scratchy sounds annoying and the choreography repetitious, the piece was almost rescued by the performances by Ms. Amatriain and Mr. Reilly. But as good as the performances were, at its core, the piece was more about athleticism and showcasing Ms. Amatriaian’s rubber bones and propeller legs than it was about artistry. Even with a ballerina as talented as she, there’s a limit to how many times you want to see her spread-eagled or punctuating movement phrases with hip-thrusting 190 degree arabesques.

“Mono Lisa” was succeeded by a classic solo: Fokine’s “Dying Swan”. Ms. Somova executed the piece perfectly. However, in order for the piece to be more than just an opportunity to watch a ballerina costumed as a swan die, an emotional quality is required to make the viewer feel the swan’s plight. I’ve seen this tragic pathos transmitted by, for example, Nina Ananiashvilli and Diana Vishneva; but Ms. Somova conveyed little beyond technique.

The evening ended, as it began, with a tribute to Mr. Bolle. “Prototype” is an ambitious, innovative, and complex work of artistic invention that brings to mind the creativity and audacity that was a routine component of Disney animated films. Conceived and choreographed by Massimiliano Volpini to original music by Piero Salvatori, the dance integrates live performance and computer-generated effects. But that description alone is insufficient. It’s not just technology. It is an invitation to see the re-imagined creation and perfection of a super dancer. The piece is somewhat incoherent choreographically, but coherence is less important here than impact. A screen is centered upstage on which we see the digital creation of a human body, a superman with computer-generated parts. That ‘man’ becomes Mr. Bolle as an image, and this image interacts with the ‘live’ Mr. Bolle on stage. Mr. Bolle dances with himself. He reprises excerpts from classic ballet roles. Figuratively, he leaps tall buildings in a single bound. He morphs into multiple on-screen clones, analogous to the computer-generated robot armies in Hollywood sci-fi epics, except these ‘Bollebots’, like an army of Gene Kellys or Fred Astaires, can dance. Then Mr. Bolle (the live one) plays with the screen, generating light responses by the movements of his arms. The result is a series of beautiful images. But here, he was not a character on screen – he was, or seemed to be, crossing the barrier between stage and screen. I have no idea whether the light images on the screen were actually prompted by his arm movements, or just clever designs on the screen timed perfectly to correspond to Mr. Bolle’s live movements, but it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter whether “Prototype” was an exercise in artistic ingenuity, or a celebration of one dancer’s narcissism. “Prototype” takes ballet in a different direction, perhaps toward performances of the future, and took the evening from the ridiculous (“Excelsior”) to the sublime.

While not entirely successful, “Roberto Bolle and Friends”, as an evening’s entertainment, was never less than interesting, and Mr. Bolle himself was never less than exceptional. The evening also brought my images of him full circle. As I described previously, on my first viewing of him I saw Mr. Bolle as looking like a danseur equivalent of Superman. In “Prototype,” Mr. Bolle was, not inappropriately, portrayed as exactly that.