American Ballet Theatre
David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
October 30, 2015
He can choreograph too!
For the final new piece of its Fall 2015 season, American Ballet Theatre presented Marcelo Gomes’ new ballet, AfterEffect. Simply put, it’s wonderful, and the best new ballet by a relatively emerging choreographer that ABT has mounted in a very long time.
Gomes, a Principal since 2002, is arguably the company’s most valuable and respected dancer. He’s choreographed previously, and I’ve noted his considerable potential. But the prior three choreographic efforts that I’ve seen, one of which was an earlier incarnation of part of this piece, didn’t prepare me for AfterEffect in its final form. There’s a startling amount of choreographic variety in this piece, an exquisite attention to detail, a finely developed artistic sense (in terms of lighting, set and staging), and an abundance of musicality. And it’s a big ballet, with 24 supporting dancers in addition to the three leads.
Most of all, this is a ballet that succeeds in three vital respects. It is the first new ballet I’ve seen in many years for ABT that recognizes, and does justice to, the talents of everyone involved, including its corps and newly-promoted soloists. It is an audience-friendly piece that appeals on multiple levels and is consistently entertaining. And, perhaps most important, it is obviously a labor of love; a product of Gomes’ heart as well as his performing experience and choreographic skills.
That AfterEffect contains a message/statement is apparent. Although it doesn’t dominate every thread of the ballet, it’s unmistakably there in the staging and the names of the lead characters: ‘The Man’, the central character; ‘His Loss’, played by a woman; and ‘His Hope’, danced by a man. And it’s there in the dedication: “to those who have fallen…and those who prevail.” It speaks of a man coming to terms with his being different – and is also a salute to his colleagues who accept him for who he is. That Gomes doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with his message does not in any way diminish its clarity or dilute its impact.
In his finest role to date, James Whiteside portrays The Man. He’s initially seen illuminated by a ray of light from above and to the back of the stage, bent diagonally. Within this area (the rest of the stage is dark) Whiteside looks up as if challenging some decision by a higher authority, and rebels. His body twists both lyrically and with angular movements that seem incompatible, but which blend into each other seamlessly. The movement is vigorous, alienated, angry and frighteningly hopeless – it brings to mind Whiteside’s performance as the central character in Alexei Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony, except Whiteside’s torment here is even more primal.
Gradually, the stage brightens as if bathed in sunlight – in the process revealing an extraordinary mural created by Francoise Gilot (only her second work for ballet; her first was over 60 years ago); a tapestry of different colors and mostly square shapes of various sizes. The Man sees what perhaps he had not seen before, as groups of male dancers costumed in white unitards (with a color ‘stain’ marring the purity) gradually populate the stage. These men dance vigorously in groups – including a series of thrilling concurrent leaps around the stage (think the introduction to Act II in the Kirkland/Chernov/McKenzie version of The Sleeping Beauty, only with more men) – and also come together to form patterns reflecting ideal physicality (at times the men line up diagonally, remindful of Balanchine’s lines of ballerinas in white). But they also dance individually or in various permutations. One of the dancers, Zhiyao Zhang (His Hope) separates, at least in Whiteside’s mind and the viewer’s sight, from the pack.
Women eventually join the men, and they pair off, although there is no sense of any negative feeling or impact. That there isn’t any is at least partly the point.
I’ve previously observed that Misty Copeland and Whiteside present as kindred spirits. Gomes obviously has recognized this. In the second movement, Copeland appears as His Loss. She is the idealized female, the love interest who isn’t, and can’t be, The Man’s love interest. The choreography is gentle and warm and exactly right, as Copeland responds lovingly to Whiteside, but at the same time, there is somewhat of a burden – a weight he carries on his back. At the end of their duet, Whiteside lays Copeland onto the stage floor beneath him, appears ready to simulate a sexual act, but Copeland is immediately whisked from the floor to the wings, disappearing as if her relationship with Whiteside is illusory and could never be. At another point, Copeland, who performed with obvious but muted passion, is more clearly viewed as a vision – held aloft by groups of men. And as if to say ‘it’s ok,’ she is lowered like a heavenly angel to his upturned face, and kisses him on the cheek.
Toward the end of the piece, Zhang separates himself from the pack of men, and he and Whiteside find compatibility. And echoing an earlier moment when one of the male dancers descends sideways atop another, but the other prevents his fall – a signal of mutual care, reliance, and affection. Gomes inserts the same movement for Whiteside and Zhang. Subtle, and brilliant.
The theme is only one aspect of this ballet. Gomes mines the score in intriguing ways – and makes everyone in the piece shine. At one point he has featured ballerinas dance consecutive individual solos, or pairs dance consecutive brief duets. It’s thrilling to see what Gomes has achieved here – a beautifully constructed abstract ballet within which a theme runs; or a themed ballet through which an abstract ballet is joyfully woven.
As the ballet evolved, criticisms evaporated, including that about the dance being too slavishly connected to the music, and that Gomes apparently couldn’t decide between themed and abstract. I also felt that the ending was not handled well – the entire cast dances in unison, and at one point, seemingly gratuitously, Gomes adds a czardas reference that looks out of place (there are folk themes in the score, but they had previously been were deemphasized or ignored). But maybe this is one of those subtle plays with the staging or choreography that he sometimes employs; just enough to remind you know that he’s in control and has a sense of humor. Maybe it’s a Gomes wink.
AfterEffect was complimented by repeat performances of Monotones and Company B. At this performance, the roles in Monotones II were assumed by Hee Seo, Alexandre Hommoudi, and Sung Woo Han. The result was a different, and superior, experience. Seo executed perfectly, in demeanor as well as technique, looking beatific rather than sorrowful or pained; not only an independent entity, but connected to her partners through some invisible force. The performance reminded me why I was so impressed with Monotones II when I first saw it. Company B received another exceptional performance by the same cast I saw several days ago.
With the brief Fall 2015 season now over, taking stock is in order. What stands out, aside from Gomes’ ballet, is the quality of the dancing of ABT’s soloists and several corps dancers. Of those performances I saw, Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary, Christine Shevchenko, Luciana Paris, Devon Teuscher, Arron Scott and Joseph Gorak had multiple opportunities to dance, and delivered brilliantly. Sarah Lane excelled both in her acting and her execution, elevating the role of the Young Girl in The Green Table, to a major one. And Sterling Baca, a highly regarded member of the corps, continues to impress.
One hopes that this performance excellence is translated into significant performance opportunities in new roles during ABT’s Spring 2016 season at the Met, but experience over the past few years tells me that aside from the usual one or two exceptions, that’s unlikely.