David Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 30, November 1, November 2 (M & E), 2013

Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre celebrated the first week of its twelve-performance 2013 Fall Season with two world premieres, revivals of four ballets that have not been in the repertory for many years, and the freshly-costumed return of a Balanchine classic. Based on pre-season hype, the most eagerly awaited ballet was Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Tempest,” but the revival of Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Partita,” which premiered in 1983 and hasn’t been seen since 1985, proved to be the more significant event. Also particularly noteworthy have been the performances of Marcelo Gomes, who danced in four of the seven ballets in the course of the season’s initial four performances. This season, Mr. Gomes is putting on a dance-as-a-performing-art clinic, and in these performances alone is demonstrating why he is the most valuable dancer on ABT’s roster.

“Bach Partita” requires little in the way of description other than that it choreographed by Ms. Tharp to music by Bach (“Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin”). That says it all. The piece isn’t the Tharp one has come to know through dances such as “In the Upper Room,” “The Golden Section ,” “Deuce Coupe,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove.” It’s serious, without a hint of Ms. Tharp’s usual wit. It’s a bit difficult to watch because it is so dry, but its precise complexity is impossible to ignore. That it has been rescued, and performed as brilliantly as it was by the ABT dancers (many of whom excelled in “In the Upper Room”), is cause for celebration.

The piece has three lead couples, and is divided into five segments. In some segments, the lead couple is supported by four couples, in another by three couples, and all are complemented in the final section by sixteen corps dancers. Of the lead couples, Gillian Murphy and Mr. Gomes, and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal, were sensational. Mr. Royal, who joined the company last year and is a member of the corps, is being pushed quickly. Although he’s still rough around the edges, his obvious enthusiasm and natural partnering ability have already made him an audience favorite. The other lead couple, Polina Semionova and James Whiteside, were very good as well, but didn’t look quite as comfortable with the choreography. Dancing the supporting quartet of couples were Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko, Yuriko Kajiya, Luciana Paris, Blaine Hoven, Sterling Baca, Mr. Gorak, and Luis Ribagorda. All were excellent, but Ms. Teuscher, Ms. Shevchenko, and Mr. Ribagorda were stand-outs. The trio of couples consisted of Misty Copeland, Skylar Brandt, Nicole Graniero, Craig Salstein, Arron Scott, and Gabe Stone Shayer, each of whom performed superbly.

Particularly noteworthy as well was the performance of the Partita by violin soloist Charles Yang. Mr. Yang provided a concert every bit as glorious as the choreography on stage, and he received an enthusiastic ovation from the audience – and the cast.

Opening night was the setting for another world premiere. “Aftereffect,” a piece d’occasion choreographed by Mr. Gomes to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” is a contemporary dance for eight men. It’s powerful (but not macho), with interesting patterning and sequencing. Mr. Gomes’s choreography continues to develop, and “Aftereffect” is another positive step. Led by Sasha Radetsky, each of the dancers (all but Mr. Radetsky are members of the corps) was given a chance to shine, and all executed Mr. Gomes’s choreography with gusto.

The opening night audience was also treated to a fine performance of George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” by Gillian Murphy and Mr. Whiteside, which featured new costumes by Zack Brown. [The costumes are gorgeous, but the colors (peach and red-orange), are not at all regal-looking.] Ms. Murphy danced impeccably; Mr. Whiteside was somewhat off in his turns, but otherwise did quite well in his ABT debut in the role. On Saturday evening, Ms. Semionova (also a debut) and Cory Stearns assumed the lead roles, and both performed with appropriate regality. The leads on Saturday afternoon were Isabella Boylston and Mr. Simkin. Except for somewhat ginched shoulders and monochromatic demeanor (she didn’t smile until the concluding section), hers was a fine and promising ABT debut in the role, one to which she appears well-suited. Mr. Simkin, on the other hand, decided to add characterization and personal bravura touches where there aren’t any. He didn’t need to pretend he was Prince Siegfried, with his chin in the air and nose pulled back into his head. And he didn’t need to emote profusely during the pas de deux, acting like his partner was his long lost love and that he would be the love of her life. And he didn’t need to milk his arabesques during his initial diagonal, or do double turns when other dancers were doing one, just because he could. Whatever he was dancing wasn’t Balanchine. Losing control during some of his turns didn’t help, nor did the painfully slow tempo of the orchestra, conducted by Charles Barker, presumably to accommodate the principals (he conducted at a noticeably less lugubrious pace on opening night).

The four performances also included three additional revivals: “Les Sylphides,” “Clear,” and Mark Morris’s “Gong.”

“Les Sylphides” is a lovely relic. Choreographed in Romantic style by Michael Fokine to music by Frederic Chopin, it debuted in St. Petersburg in 1908 and was on ABT’s initial program in 1940, but has been out of the repertory since 2005.  “Les Sylphides” is famous for being the first plotless ballet. Not only is there no story – the characters have no names, and there’s no emotion other than the emotion that a sylph might naturally generate just by being a sylph. It has significant value as ballet history, but for many contemporary audience-members it’s a sure cure for insomnia. As the woman seated next to me said to her companion: “George, is it the music or the dancing that’s making you fall asleep?” I heard no response from George.

But focusing on style and performance quality can convert the tedium to excitement.

Friday’s cast was led by Ms. Seo (‘Prelude’ and ‘Pas de Deux’), Ms. Boylston (‘Mazurka’), Ms. Lane (‘Waltz’), and Thomas Forster. In the same ‘roles,’ Saturday afternoon’s cast was Veronika Part, Ms. Semionova, Melanie Hamrick, and Mr. Stearns – except Ms. Semionova danced the Pas de Deux. All were either role or ABT debuts. The finest performances, in terms of proper execution of the Romantic style, were provided by Ms. Lane, Ms. Seo, and Ms. Part.

Mr. Forster, a member of the corps, performed remarkably well as the character that in other ballets would be called the Poet. Mr. Stearns danced admirably as well, but he had a tougher road to hoe partnering Ms. Semionova, who is considerably taller and more solid than Ms. Seo.

On Friday, Ms. Boylston did a fine job with the ‘Marzurka’ leaps and jumps. But the Romantic style does not come naturally to her. She appeared relatively earthy rather than weightless, and consistently kept her arms straight (and at one point flapped her hands as if she was trying to fly). Ms. Seo did a much better job with her sections – she was softly rounded throughout, delicate, and looked every inch the sylph. But Ms. Lane is a natural Romantic stylist, and was the most successful of the three. Not only were her arms and hands correct, but she moved with a soft, effortless, and exquisite fluidity, that sense of being ethereal, that is a cornerstone of Romantic style. I particularly liked the way she slowly glided her arms and hands forward as imagined music flowed from her mouth, spreading the silent sound for all to hear.

On Saturday, Ms. Semionova danced the ‘Mazurka’ with appropriate grace. But she’s is not a sylph, and to me failed to look in any way ethereal. She also was sparkly – a quality that served her well in “Theme and Variations,” but was out of place in “Les Sylphides.” Ms. Hamrick did a fine job with the ‘Waltz’ section, but lacked Ms. Lane’s polished execution. But Ms. Part danced the definitive ‘Prelude’. Her performance stopped the show – literally. At its conclusion, and long after Ms. Part had exited the stage, the audience continued applauding, trying to coax her out for a curtain call.  Eventually the performance moved on without it, even as the audience was still applauding Ms. Part.

The usual order of performance in “Les Sylphides” has the dancer who performs the ‘Prelude’ dance the Pas de Deux, as Ms. Seo did on Friday. But at Saturday’s performance, Ms. Semionova danced the Pas de Deux. The change was not the result of a sudden injury – it was listed that way in the program.  To me, this was a poorly reasoned decision, since Ms. Part has a superior ability to transmit the Romantic style. Audience-members with whom I spoke afterward were dumbfounded.

Mr. Welch’s “Clear,” which premiered in 2001 and hasn’t been in ABT’s repertory since 2007, is a fine example of an (almost) all male dance. Choreographed to a variety of Bach pieces, Mr. Welch presents nearly non-stop movement (except that certain dancers calmly walk offstage when their segments have concluded), with every part of each body moving in strange and wondrous ways — neck and head rotations, arms moving like short staffs (the weapon that Little John wielded in the Robin Hood stories), leg kicks….culminating in a slow duet between the lead male dancer and the lone woman (Mr. Gomez and Julie Kent on Friday, Sasha Radetsky and Paloma Herrera on Saturday). It was a kitchen sink of movement – but there was no sense of awkwardness, or of movement for movement’s sake, and it was structured such that the eye never tired of the visual cacophony. Mr. Gomes was extraordinary – movement quality that was both angular and lyrical, every gesture crisp, repetitive turns in second on a dime, and his usual sensitive partnering.  His performance was frequently greeted with cheers, as well as an audible expression of disbelief.  But each member of the two casts performed exceptionally well. In addition to the principals, and without diminishing the efforts of all, I found the performances of Mr. Royal and Mr. Ribagorda in the afternoon, and Daniel Mantei and Mr. Shayer in the evening, to be particularly and unexpectedly exciting.  [Mr. Ribagorda is having an exceptional season.]  As I overheard one audience member say to another, with reference to the men: “Where have they been?”

The least significant of the ballets in these opening programs was Mr. Morris’s “Gong.” “Gong” may well be a fine ballet, but it’s hidden behind Isaac Misrahi’s pastel palette (each of the ten dancers is costumed in a different pastel color, except that all dancers wear the same contrasting colored shoes), and it’s buried in gimmicks and take-offs on the Asian themes in the score (“Tabuh-Tabuhan” by Colin McPhee). To me, the best parts of the ballet (except where Ms. Murphy again demonstrates that she’s an astonishingly superb turner) were the two pas de deux, danced by Ms. Murphy and Mr. Radetsky, and Ms. Copeland and Mr. Gomes, each of which was performed without artifice and in complete silence.

Overall, however, the opening programs of ABT’s Fall Season provided the audience with interesting new ballets and revivals. Of at least equal importance, it also provided casting opportunities for ABT’s soloists and members of the corps that are rarely offered during the company’s spring seasons at the Met. As an opportunity to see dancers one might not otherwise see, and dancers in roles one might not otherwise see them dance, this brief season should not be missed. ABT’s Fall Season continues through November 10.