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

Gillian Murphy in Pillar of Fire.
Photo Marty Sohl

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

May 11, 2015: Les Sylphides; Pillar of Fire; Fancy Free
May 12: Theme and Variations, Jardin Aux Lilas, Rodeo
May 13(m): Les Sylphides, Jardin Aux Lilas, Rodeo

Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre tiptoed into the Metropolitan Opera House with a week of performances devoted to ‘Classic ABT’ to open its 2015 Season, but it seemed like relatively few noticed. Despite the publicity barrage accompanying the company’s 75th Anniversary season, the attendance for the first three performances was relatively sparse.

Those who did attend were treated to three fine programs, including a glorious rendition of Fancy Free and a sparkling revival of Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire on opening night, excellent performances of Theme and Variations and Les Sylphides at the next two programs, several outstanding individual efforts, and a noteworthy role debut.

Whatever one may think of ABT’s ‘star policy’ of having guest artists pepper its Met schedule, thereby narrowing full-length role opportunities for its own dancers, and even if one prefers full-length story ballets to repertory evenings, missing Gillian Murphy’s towering portrayal of Hagar in Pillar of Fire, or the cast of Veronika Part, Stella Abrera, Sarah Lane, and Joseph Gorak in Les Sylphides, or Marcelo Gomes in practically anything, is unthinkable.

Lovingly staged by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, Pillar of Fire is Tudor at his best, as wonderful as his Jardin Aux Lilas. The entire cast – Stella Abrera as the dry and bitter Eldest Sister, a pitch-perfect Cassandra Trenary as the Youngest Sister, Alexandre Hammoudi, in a touchingly nuanced performance as The Friend, and Gomes, who portrayed The Young Man from the House Opposite as both fiery and cold as ice, as well as the supporting cast of Lovers-in-Innocence (among whom Skylar Brandt stood out) and Lovers-in-Experience – was marvelous. But Murphy’s portrayal was in a galaxy of its own, and one of the finest performances of this or any other season.

Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free is always fun, and a booster shot every year or so, regardless of cast, is therapeutic for most any ailment. But Gomes’s portrayal of the third sailor on Monday’s opening night performance, though it might look a bit over the top to purists, is an ideal merger of stage persona and character. Herman Cornejo’s first sailor, and Cory Stearns as the sweet and somewhat naïve second sailor both did fine jobs as well. And the three women – Luciana Paris, the lively first girl (the one with the red purse), Isabella Boylston, an engaging second woman (in purple), and Leann Underwood, who danced a particularly captivating third girl – delivered superb characterizations.

Marcelo Gomes in Fancy Free.  Photo Marty Sohl

Marcelo Gomes in Fancy Free.
Photo Marty Sohl

Boylston was less ‘ballerina-ish’ than others who have danced the role recently, but that’s also why I enjoyed her portrayal as much as I did. She acted naturally, danced without artifice, and as a result her portrayal was remarkably ‘real’. At the risk of sounding catty, she acted and danced her role like a girl a sailor might try to pick up, rather than a ballerina who happened to be walking down the street. And I mean that as a compliment

ABT’s celebratory season began without ceremony, moving directly into Michael Fokine’s Les Sylphides. I suppose the company is saving festivities for its Gala next Monday, but the absence of anything to memorialize the occasion seemed odd. And scheduling the Gala after ABT’s week of classics makes it appear that ABT considers these classics to be part of its past, rather than its future. That would be unfortunate.

Be that as it may, Les Sylphides, which was on the program of ABT’s first performance in 1940, was given a strong opening night performance, particular by Hee Seo (who no longer looks as dangerously spectral as she had in recent seasons). Although she fell mid-way through the pas de deux (it appeared that there was a tiny piece of tulle on the stage floor, and that she landed square on it), she recovered well. Melanie Hamrick did nice work with the waltz as well, enunciating with remarkable clarity. Thomas Forster, and Boylston complete the lead cast, and were a bit more problematic. Forster showed considerable promise, but for the ‘poet/dreamer’, less is more, and he pushed higher and harder than he needed to. And although she’s improving, Boylston still doesn’t dance Romantic roles as strongly as others in the company. Her hands bent stiffly at the wrist, she doesn’t have the fluidity of others, and at times she looked clunky. But when she was able to rely on power (as in her concluding jetés), which is her strength, she danced fabulously.

A far different, and far superior, performance took place at Wednesday’s matinee. Many consider Les Sylphides to be a sure cure for insomnia – and I’m one of them. But this performance was almost exciting to watch. The ever-so-slightly faster tempo by conductor David LaMarch (as opposed to the dirge-like recitation on Monday) helped, but the performances were uniformly superior across the board. Lane has danced this role before, and is Romantic perfection: feather light, crystalline, and nuanced without being mannered. That she still has not danced Giselle with ABT defies reason (as is that, to date, she’s not been given any new roles this season). Part has also performed her role before, and her portrayal is equally flawless. But I don’t recall seeing Abrera dance her role previously (she danced the Pas de Deux as well as the Mazurka), and her performance was a revelation. She’s a superb Myrta, but, Romantic as it is, that role carries more weight. Here, she displayed not only appropriate technique, but she looked weightless. And Gorak’s poet/dreamer was delivered with understated grace, and he partnered flawlessly. My memory of past performances of Les Sylphides is not foolproof (see my comment on insomnia), but this is one of the finest casts I can remember.

Sarah Lane in Theme and Variations.  Photo Gene Schiavone

Sarah Lane in Theme and Variations.
Photo Gene Schiavone

Tuesday’s program began with another stellar performance by Lane in Theme and Variations. Notwithstanding the speed with which some portions of it must be performed, she appeared to be a millisecond ahead of the music – or her more nuanced and exquisitely controlled presentation gave the appearance of stretching time. Like Lane, Cornejo has danced this role before, and except for one minor partnering glitch delivered his usual fine performance.

However, despite the excellent performances, I prefer the production by New York City Ballet. ABT trumpets that Balanchine created Theme and Variations for it in 1947 (it was not danced by NYCB until several years later). But NYCB does it (like most everything else) at a faster tempo, which makes it look more exciting. Further, that production eliminates (or minimizes) the extended ‘dead spot’ before the male solo variation that causes ABT’s performance to come to a full stop. And ABT’s costumes, particularly for the corps, lack the pizazz that brighten the NYCB performances.

Both the Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon programs followed their opening pieces with Jardin Aux Lilas and Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo, but with different casts each night. The performances were executed well, but individual efforts dominated.

Hee Seo is one of the company’s strongest dancer/actors, able to infuse her characters with extraordinary warmth and, where appropriate, extraordinary pain. Her Caroline on Tuesday 12th was finely done, although her facial gestures, which are so critical to the delivery of her character, seemed less clearly communicated than usual. At the following day’s matinee, Xiomara Reyes’s Caroline was equally accomplished, albeit somewhat more world-weary. But neither was as vital as last fall’s portrayal by Devon Teuscher.On Tuesday, Stearns, Roman Zhurbin, and Part repeated their superb portrayals of last fall as, respectively, Her Lover, The Man She Must Marry, and An Episode in His Past. And Forster and Hammoudi delivered fine work as well in the male lead roles on Wednesday. But the story of Wednesday’s performance was Christine Shevchenko’s An Episode in His Past. It was a very different portrayal than those I’ve seen previously, in part because she cannot yet convey the quality of experience I’ve seen from others. But she turned her age to her advantage, and her more youthful portrayal, delivered convincingly and with no less authority, was memorable. And as she did last fall, Katherine Williams excelled as Caroline’s ‘best friend’ (not a titled role) on Tuesday.

In Rodeo, the characters are drawn in bold strokes, so distinguishing nuance is everything. If the minutiae essential for a successful characterization isn’t there, the performance doesn’t look quite as right.

Roman Zhurbin, Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein in Rodeo.  Photo Marty Sohl

Roman Zhurbin, Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein in Rodeo.
Photo Marty Sohl

Of any of the many roles that Misty Copeland is being provided with this season, that of the Cowgirl would seem to be a natural for her. And indeed, her debut performance on Wednesday was quite good. But to me, the nuance was off. The Cowgirl’s charm is not that she’s a tomboy, but that she’s vulnerable, and her wanting to do what the guys do is a mask that covers insecurity. With Copeland’s portrayal, I felt the other way around – that she was still her strong, pugnacious self at the end, but she wore a dress. I don’t think that that’s an invalid interpretation, but it’s not as captivating. It will be interesting to see if, and how, her portrayal evolves. And she’ll need to learn how to collapse in a heap without it looking like a step combination. But this was a highly promising debut, and given sufficient opportunities to grow in the role (which she’s getting), I don’t doubt that she’ll be able to tone down the voltage a hair if she chooses. On Tuesday, Reyes, who has considerable experience in the role, did an excellent job in all respects. But of those currently on ABT’s roster who’ve previously danced Cowgirl, I prefer the portrayal by Marian Butler.

Both James Whiteside on Tuesday and Craig Salstein on Wednesday gave superlative performances as the Champion Roper, with Whiteside’s tap dancing more exciting, and Salstein’s characterization more fully developed. Both Lauren Post (Tuesday) and Leann Underwood (Wednesday) excelled as the Ranch Owner’s Daughter. Post was more naively seductive, while Underwood still had some of the more powerful sensuality of the third girl in Fancy Free. And as the girl who gets kissed/swung in the air, both Lily Wisdom (who might make a fine Cowgirl in the future), and Trenary on Wednesday (who is one of those rare dancers who could do either the Cowgirl or the Ranch Owner’s Daughter), stood out, as did Courtney Lavine and Jose Sebastian on Wednesday.

Also particularly noteworthy was Elina Miettinen. She was just one of the group of enthusiastic and energetic womenfolk on Tuesday. But in one brief moment, she was the focus of attention and made it her own. Before the Saturday Night Dance at the Ranch House, she stood alone downstage center, with her face capturing and reflecting the soft moonlight, very clearly dreaming of what the evening might bring, and with her facial expression alone, communicated that dream clearly to the audience. That brief moment was stunning.

Two final observations. In Rodeo, the square dance is a highlight, and was finely executed at both performances. But it would have been helpful to have heard the Caller clearly, without straining; in the future, some electronic enhancement might be worth considering. And at Tuesday’s performance of Theme and Variations, Copeland, listed as one of the featured supporting dancers, was replaced without notification by Stephanie Williams. It should have been posted or announced. Not doing so is unfair both to Williams and the audience.