Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; May 12 & 14, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Isabella Boylston in 'La Bayadère'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone.

Isabella Boylston in ‘La Bayadère’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone.

It was wall to wall conspicuous affluence at American Ballet Theatre’s Gala on May 12 to celebrate the beginning of its 2014 season at the Metropolitan Opera House. From the suited and gowned patrons to the elegantly dressed former, present and future dancers who filled the house to near capacity, the only sights more prevalent than the designer outfits were the air kisses. Once the company got to its regular performing season, with eight performances of “Don Quixote,” things got back to normal – at the performance I saw, a cast change, a guest artist, and an overall fine performance by both.

The Gala contained the usual assortment of previews from the upcoming season and the usual quota of soloists with little to do. The second half was generally more successful than the first, but there were two events of particular note, including one terrific company premiere.

Diana Vishneva is an extraordinary ballerina. To those who evaluate dancers in terms of ‘the best’ and ‘the rest’, she’s certainly one of the best in the world. Marcelo Gomes is also one of the best danseurs in the world, and certainly one of the best partners. As I wrote years ago, in my opinion he’s the most valuable dancer on ABT’s roster – and the two of them have an extraordinary stage relationship. When they dance together, magic happens. It happened at Monday’s gala in the company premiere of “Nuages”, a duet by Jiří Kylián to one of Claude Debussy’s “Nocturnes”. “Nuages” is a piece of unusual choreographic and emotional depth, and the performances brought out every ounce of passion inherent in the music and the dance with a degree of muted non-melodramatic intensity that could have registered on the Richter scale.

When Mr. Kylián’s work first appeared in New York in 1979 during a visit by Nederlands Dans Theater, I recall being swept away by the dynamic, inventive choreography in such pieces as “Sinfonietta”, “Symphony of Psalms”, and “Symphony in D”, as if by a gust of invigorating, fresh air. New York was quickly abuzz with his electrifying choreography and the company of youthful and engaging dancers. The company returned a few years later with new Kylián pieces, and a few years thereafter, ABT mounted “Sinfonietta” itself to considerable acclaim. But it had been a long time since I’d seen any new piece by him, or any piece that I’d seen previously, for that matter – a revival of “Sinfonietta” by ABT is long overdue.

At the Gala, the piece appeared to have been choreographed for Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Gomes – it fitted them like a second skin (I learned later that Mr. Kylián had worked with the two of them on this piece prior to the evening). The interaction between the two is exquisitely portrayed. There’s a relationship – at times it seems that the dancers are holding onto each other for dear life. But although what’s specifically happening isn’t clear, it doesn’t matter. ‘Nuages’ means ‘cloud’, which has a double-meaning – a meteorological event and something that conceals a clear view – appropriate for this piece.

Daniil Simkin in The Dream.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Daniil Simkin in The Dream.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

“Nuages” is wonderful choreography, contemporary but not dogmatic, lyricism combined with angularity, and with extraordinary images of mutual dependence, the most stunning of which are repeated images of Ms. Vishneva being lifted, turned upside down, and held solely (it appeared) by the back of her knees. Ms. Vishneva still dances with the delicacy and strength and emotional command that she’s demonstrated since I first saw her dance, and still, remarkably, has a back that’s so flexible she looks like liquid silver as she slides down her partner’s body. Mr. Gomes, shirtless, was in total control, without being in any way dominating. They were the only two on stage, and there are no set, but their dancing and emotional connection, with themselves and with the audience, filled the stage and the theater as a whole.

The other notable event at the Gala was the appearance of students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (14 from the ABT Studio Company and 15 from the ‘level 7’ cohort) in “La Vie Petillante”, choreographed by Raymond Lukens, Artistic Director of ABT’s National Training Curriculum and a member of faculty at the School. The ballet is a ‘standard’ showcase for students that realized exactly that. The whole cast were accomplished, with one unidentified male in particular excelling in jumps and entrechats. Seeing a bit of what may be ABT’s future dancers was a little treat.

Other highlights of the evening were Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle’s Act I Pas de Deux from “Manon”, and the ‘Scherzo’ excerpt from “The Dream”. “Manon” is still a perfect vehicle for Ms. Kent, and she danced and acted to the hilt, aided by Mr. Bolle’s ardent partnering. In the excerpt from “The Dream”, James Whiteside and Daniil Simkin were super as Oberon and Puck respectively. Their ‘back up’ quartet of fairies who move like lightning while the main action is going on elsewhere were the also excellent Sarah Lane, Nicole Graniero, Cassandra Trenary, and Gemma Bond. Hee Seo and Mr. Gomes also provided a finely danced Act II pas de deux from “Cinderella”.Of the remainder of the program, the excerpts from Act II of “Manon”, danced by Polina Semionova and Mr. Bolle (replacing Cory Stearns) was disappointing. Ms. Semionova executed the steps perfectly, but was a dry, empty vessel, more object than object of desire.

Isabella Boylston (replacing Gillian Murphy, who was injured), and Ivan Vasiliev, did fine with the ‘Pas D’Action’ from “La Bayadere,” although there was no interaction between them. Ms. Boylston has assayed the role previously, and has grown into the dance well, and Mr. Vasiliev’s acrobatic tricks were well received.

American Ballet Theatre in Gaîté Parisienne. Photo © Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre in Gaîté Parisienne.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

The gala had opened with a somewhat forced execution of an Act I excerpt from “Don Quixote” with Paloma Herrera as Kitri; while an Act II excerpt from “Coppélia”, in which Xiomara Reyes danced Swanilda, seemed a poor example from the ballet. The evening closed with an extended set of excerpts from “Gaite Parisienne”, led by Veronika Part, Herman Cornejo, and Jared Matthews, with soloist Misty Copeland heading the Can-Can Dancers. They were all well done, had terrific sets (by Zach Brown), and sent the audience home, or to the adjacent tent where the post-performance festivities took place, happy.

During the 2013 Met Season, Alban Lendorf, a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, appeared with ABT as an ‘exchange artist’, accompanying Xiomara Reyes in “The Sleeping Beauty”. At the time, I observed that he is a compact dancer, but not hyper-developed, and one who relies on clean execution more than tricks. That is, he was more remindful of a Mikhail Baryshnikov, for example, than an Ivan Vasiliev. That observation still holds with respect to his Basil in “Don Quixote”, which he danced at Wednesday’s performance as a guest artist, in place of another guest who withdrew.

The qualities Mr. Lendorf displayed as Prince Desire were equally apparent in his Basilio. His clean-as-a whistle technique, with more limited and subtle use of tricks, is a welcome change. And he has a nobility about him – even as Basilio – which brings to the character a different dimension from the frequent street-smart, likable rogue portrayal. Even though his characterization lacked a degree of energy I’ve seen in other Basilios, I found his performance endearing. As I wrote last year, if ABT is going to recruit guest artists to fill lead roles, Mr. Lendorf is an excellent choice.

Xiomara Reyes in Don Quixote.  Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Xiomara Reyes in Don Quixote.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

Coincidentally, Mr. Lendorf’s partner was, again, Ms. Reyes, who replaced the injured Ms. Murphy. The substitution was only announced the previous day, so the couple presumably had little time to rehearse together – but it didn’t show. And the progression of Ms. Reyes’s performance matched what I saw in her Aurora last year – a lackluster Act I, where the only time she attained any measurable height off the ground was when Mr. Lendorf lifted her; but a very good Act II (the ‘Dream’ scene), and an excellently-danced Act III (including the pas de deux). Her Kitri was more mature and somewhat less colorful than others I’ve seen, but overall it was an enjoyable performance.

The dominant portrayal on Wednesday was by Jared Matthews as Espada. Mr. Matthews is a perfect example of the necessity for a dancer to assay roles repeatedly, until he or she grows into it. The first time I saw him in this role, in 2010, I felt he was miscast. He exhibited none of the swagger required, and was overshadowed by his Mercedes, and even by some of the other ‘matadors’ in the cast. Not any more. Here, he was dominant whenever he appeared on stage, capturing the nuances in the character and partnering securely. His portrayal now is every bit as good as that of Patrick Bissell in the original ABT version choreographed by Mr. Baryshnikov.

This was my first opportunity to see Misty Copeland as Mercedes. In a commentary several years ago, I suggested (as part of a ‘wish-list’) that ABT revive “Carmen”, and give her the role. Her vibrant, sensual demeanor would be perfect, and for the same reason her portrayal of Mercedes in Act I was on the mark in every respect. She had more difficulty with her performance as the Dryad Queen in Act II (in other versions, ‘Mercedes-in-the-dream’). Here, she lacked the style, and the lightness, that is required. As I watched, I thought that it might be a good idea to return to bifurcating the two roles (one dancer as Mercedes, another as the Dryad Queen), but that would contradict my observation above that, given sufficient opportunities, dancers can grow into roles that they may not at first seem suited for. I suspect that with continuing opportunities Ms. Copeland will grow into her Dryad Queen as well.

In other featured roles, Gemma Bond repeated her portrayal of Amour, less gamin-like than others but with the requisite sparkle. Melanie Hamrick and Devon Teuscher were a vibrant pair of Flower Girls, and Isabelle Loyola (replacing Adrienne Schulte) and Arron Scott were the fine lead Gypsies. And a particular nod to Craig Salstein’s performance as Kitri’s suitor and her father’s favorite, Gamache. Gamache is usually portrayed as a fop or an idiot, or both. Mr. Salstein gave his characterization a measure of intelligence and dignity (although, clearly, still an idiot), and I appreciated the slightly different take. And a final observation – in the background among the corps dancers was one who draws eyes immediately, even if she’s just standing still: Catherine Hurlin, ABT’s first Clara in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker”.

This is the second year in a row that ABT has presented “Don Quixote”. Under usual scheduling principles, it will now be on hiatus for a while. Perhaps during the interim, it can get a facelift. To me, it never reaches the level of the initial but no longer available ABT production. While this one is still serviceable, it could stand a dose of adrenalin.