American Ballet Theatre: Theme and Variations, Pillar of Fire, Rodeo
The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC; March 24, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Daniil Simkin in 'Theme and Variations'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Daniil Simkin in ‘Theme and Variations’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

The diverse mixed repertoire program for the spring visit of the American Ballet Theatre to DC’s Kennedy Center was a mixed bag. “Pillar of Fire” roused strong emotions; “Rodeo” did as well, although the emotions experienced were on fairly opposite ends of the spectrum. While “Pillar of Fire” provided intensity and depth, and “Rodeo” delivered laughter and joy, “Theme and Variations” left me puzzled.

“Theme and Variations” is a happy, celebratory ballet. The geometry of the movement and the lines of the dancers’ bodies are harmonious with Tchaikovsky’s music (“Theme and Variations” from “Suite No.3 for Orchestra”). Unfortunately, amidst Balanchine’s stately choreography, with glittering tiaras and chandeliers, something seemed amiss between the two leads, Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin. I sensed that Boylston was not entirely comfortable with her partner, and Simkin showed some unsteadiness. They sometimes looked out of place. As they should, the corps pulsed with energy and most of the dancers wore pleasant smiles, but Boylston did not look very pleased, and the energy from her and Simkin flickered disappointingly.

Gillian Murphy in 'Pillar of Fire'.  Photo © Marty Sohl

Gillian Murphy in ‘Pillar of Fire’.
Photo © Marty Sohl

The other ballets far from disappointed, however. Is Gillian Murphy not the ideal dancer for the part of Hagar in Anthony Tudor’s 1942 “Pillar of Fire”? As Hagar she showed an incredible range of inner conflict, and her flame red hair seemed to symbolize her burning angst. That her emotional turmoil was so easily readable is a tribute to Tudor’s choreography (adeptly staged by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, with assistance from Susan Jones), but also to Murphy’s talent.

The scenery and costumes (by Robert Perdziola), lighting design (by Duane Schuler), and music (“Verklarte Nacht” by Arnold Schoenberg) added to the somber mood. I particularly loved spying a tilted shutter, as unhinged as Hagar’s heart. Although watching dancers actually dance the part of feelings, as the lovers-in-innocence and lovers-in-experience do, is a little strange, I could absolutely connect with those emotions, which is why “Pillar” rattled me to the core.

Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo” shook me, too, but with laughter. Again, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect dancer for the lead role of the cowgirl than Xiomara Reyes, who, as Murphy did in “Pillar,” grabbed the audience’s sympathy and had everyone cheering for her chance at true love. Although she’s petite, her presence on stage is huge. No one can ride an invisible horse the way Reyes does!

Xiomara Reyes in 'Rodeo'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Xiomara Reyes in ‘Rodeo’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

“Rodeo” is pure rollicking fun, and Santo Loquasto’s colorful costumes contribute to the brightness and color, as does Aaron Copeland’s soaring score. Sure, some of the ballet is silly, but it’s enjoyably silly. Square dance calls (caller Kenneth Easter) and a handsome cowboy who taps in boots (James Whiteside as the champion roper)? Bring it on! Never has flapping with arms bent like chicken wings looked more graceful. A child in the audience was perpetually squealing with delight at the various onstage antics, and it was somehow refreshing to hear this sound, as it’s not one that’s all that common during an evening out at the ballet.