American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

May 22, 2018
Firebird, AFTERITE (new McGregor)

Jerry Hochman

Following a week of Giselles, and after its annual Met Gala on Monday, American Ballet Theatre shifted gears with an evening of contemporary / classic / futuristic Stravinsky. If that tripartite description sounds somewhat peculiar, it’s nevertheless consistent with the ballets on the program: Alexei Ratmansky’s updated version of Firebird, and Wayne McGregor’s futuristic visualization of Rite of Spring, both to the unaltered Stravinsky compositions.

Before delving into McGregor’s AFTERITE, which premiered at Monday’s Gala the previous night (I saw last night’s performance), I must first salute the four leads in Firebird, which opened the program. Christine Shevchenko, Thomas Forster, Catherine Hurlin, and Duncan Lyle, each in NY role debuts, delivered dynamite performances, in the process converting a middling ballet into a memorable event. I’ll discuss it further after I address McGregor’s new piece.

The only previous version of Rite of Spring that I recall ABT presenting was that by Glen Tetley (titled Le Sacre du Printemps) in the mid-1970s. I’m aware that many consider it a masterwork, but I was never enthusiastic about Tetley’s piece, which I saw many times (ABT seemed to force-feed it to its audiences back then as an example of “contemporary choreography”). To my admittedly unsophisticated contemporary ballet mind at the time, it seemed lots of sound and fury signifying nothing.

American Ballet Theatre dancers in Wayne McGregor’s "AFTERITE" Photo by Marty Sohl

American Ballet Theatre dancers in
Wayne McGregor’s “AFTERITE”
Photo by Marty Sohl

AFTERITE isn’t that. For all its flaws, it undeniably has a reason for being beyond moving bodies through space to Stravinsky’s score. Indeed, it may well be the most successful, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, ballet I can recall seeing. It has everything going for it: very good McGregor choreography superbly executed, and an interesting concept. But it fails because of its wild and rampant incoherence, and in the insular or monstrously insensitive manifestation of its concept.

The good stuff.

AFTERITE presents outstanding examples of contemporary ballet, and is easily the best McGregor piece that I’ve seen (admittedly, however, there haven’t been many). Intricate, interesting movement qualities – no dancer is asked to contort like a pretzel – with images both of violence and despair that are clearly expressed, at least in the context of discrete individual dances. And the thirteen dancer cast is extraordinary. Their thoroughly committed execution of McGregor’s complex and generally frenetic choreography appeared both intense and flawless.

Now the rest.

McGregor’s vision applies Stravinsky’s composition to some future human outpost (maybe on another planet; maybe not); a fragile frontier “colony” where (quoting the brief program note): “… survival demands the fittest. As nature reclaims its rites, a mother must choose what she holds most dear and what she can afford to lose.”

Based on this description, AFTERITE might have been an interesting ballet. And it certainly looks different. What’s presented is a vision of a stark, barren landscape in front of a dark rear scrim suggesting some surrounding and overwhelming outer cosmos. Upstage right sits a large greenhouse-like transparent box (my estimate is that it occupies a sixth of the stage) stocked with plants being nurtured or preserved (or both).

The ballet opens with two men (Herman Cornejo and Jeffrey Cirio) in a stylized confrontation about something, while Misty Copeland stands downstage right watching them. Eventually, Cornejo approaches Copeland (in hindsight, as if indicating it’s ok to proceed – though I didn’t have that sense as I watched the scene), and gradually the eleven other humans who occupy the balance of the landscape, costumed in various degrees of what appears to be underwear (not unusual for a McGregor dance), meander onto the stage and dance with varying levels of aggression in isolated groupings, with one, Alessandra Ferri, obviously being the “mother” in the program note description. Concurrently with this “preliminary” exposition, one sees one young girl, then another (students at ABT’s affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School), in the greenhouse either tending to the plants or staring out the clear walls, as if they were living in, or confined to, a square plant-filled bubble.

(foreground, l-r) Misty Copeland, Alessandra Ferri, and Herman Cornejo in Wayne McGregor’s "AFTERITE" Photo by Marty Sohl

(foreground, l-r) Misty Copeland, Alessandra Ferri,
and Herman Cornejo in Wayne McGregor’s “AFTERITE”
Photo by Marty Sohl

After a lengthy period of generic agonized dances (not apparently related to anything beyond the sense of despair), the greenhouse door is opened, Ferri takes the children out of the greenhouse, stares stone-faced at the assembled group or into space while solemnly holding each girl’s hand, and then lets one of them go. The other is returned to the greenhouse, and the greenhouse door is locked. At some earlier point in this penultimate scene, a photographic tripod-like object was brought from the wings with something (not a camera) atop it aimed at the greenhouse.

Suddenly smoke fills the greenhouse, the child therein disappears (although the plants remain seemingly intact), and the inhabitants of the barren landscape return to doing whatever they were doing before the dance started. [What is on top of that “tripod” may well be some type of “beam” used to vaporize the child trapped inside, although I saw no indication of any “light,” laser or otherwise, emanating from it. But even if there’d been some destructive light, the concurrent visualization of the light’s impact was the release of smoke/gas within the greenhouse.]

So, obviously, in McGregor’s incarnation of Rite of Spring, the “Chosen One” is the mother, compelled to decide which of her children is to be sacrificed, and the child she chooses is gassed to death in an enclosed box from which there’s no escape.

Wait. What?

Perhaps you can glean my concern. Aside from the action on stage making little sense (which I’ll get to), McGregor’s concept, at least as manifested, is incendiary.

The first thing that anyone alive more than 20 years might think when hearing that the subject of the ballet is a mother having to choose which of her children will be spared from death, with the other condemned to die, is “Sophie’s Choice,” the title of a book by William Styron that Alan J. Pakula adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. That story tells of a mother (not, as I recall, Jewish, at least not in the book, but nevertheless that’s how the character is often remembered) forced to choose which of her two children to save from being gassed to death by Nazis.

As I left the Met last night, I overheard at least a dozen audience members say the words “Sophie’s Choice” to their companions. I don’t doubt that reviews already written use the same words to describe what AFTERITE is about. It’s an obvious, and inevitable, allusion. So is AFTERITE really a ballet about the Holocaust; some attempt to trivialize it, or universalize it? I don’t really think so. But if that was not McGregor’s intent in setting the ballet up as he did, he is either incredibly ignorant (which he is not) or just astonishingly tone deaf.

Moving on, I’ll assume that the thought of “Sophie’s Choice” never crossed McGregor’s mind, and has nothing to do with AFTERITE. I’ll assume further that what McGregor intended to present, consistent with a futuristic update to the story told via Stravinsky’s composition, is the sacrifice of a child (in this case selected by its mother) to satisfy some god so the humans who populate this outpost (on another planet or in an isolated corner of a devastated earth) can survive. [Lucy Carter’s magical lighting, including images of a “moon” in the celestial sky seeming to morph into an ugly, salivating entity as the dance progresses, also supports such a conclusion.]

But what does this have to do with “survival demands the fittest” (from the program note)? Does McGregor really mean that the power to sacrifice a child is an example of “survival of the fittest” in a human context? Or are these humans to be considered animals who prey on the weakest of their own? And is the sacrifice an offering to appease the gods in a general, primitive sense, or is it to make plants/ crops/ vegetation/ nature represented by the plants in the greenhouse grow? [Paul Taylor’s To Make the Crops Grow, as well as Val Caniparoli’s The Lottery, have previously addressed the subject of human sacrifice to satisfy the gods to make crops grow.] Must be – or why have the greenhouse?

But even if one assumes that that is the purpose for the ritual sacrifice, and that there are crops in the greenhouse for which the gods need to be appeased (I only saw what appeared to be flowers and trees), what does that have to do with “nature reclaiming its rites.” What rites? The rite to expand beyond the greenhouse? There’s no indication that expansion beyond the greenhouse is a consideration or that the plants, confined there for a reason, would be able to exist outside the greenhouse. So it must be growth within the greenhouse. But what rites of spring does nature need to reclaim in the greenhouse? Annual plant growth so crops that are presumably inside the greenhouse can provide sufficient food to feed the tribe (or maybe just to keep the plants alive to preserve near extinct plant species)? Ok. But why is the child killed in the greenhouse? Is vaporization the point (some 22nd Century version of sacrificial execution) just to have the deed done, or is the gassed child to be repurposed as fertilizer?

And, aside from Ferri, who are these people? One can make an argument, via the choreographic interaction with Ferri, that Cornejo is the children’s father, but one can also conclude through Ferri’s interactions with others (e.g, Blaine Hoven; maybe Cirio) that the children have more than one father. Or one can just as easily conclude that the men are simply inhabitants of the colony with no relationship to the children, with Cornejo being some sort of societal enforcer. And one might determine that Copeland’s character is some high priestess who orders, and carries out, the execution, although there’s little clear justification for that (the thought only crossed my mind in hindsight), but.there’s an equally valid argument, based on the choreography, that she’s just another member of the colony community who maybe was the one selected to push the button on whatever it is that causes the child to die. [Except – why is Ferri the one (before her choice is made) to wear a black hood? Is this symbolic of her being the actual executioner because she’s the one who made the choice?]

There are dozens more questions that AFTERITE raises and doesn’t answer, as if the questions are insignificant. But even if one suspends disbelief and just accepts on faith that somehow AFTERITE is about a mother’s choice as to which child to sacrifice and which to save so that the gods can be appeased so that nature can reclaim its rites and plants can continue to grow in the greenhouse so the thirteen inhabitants of the futuristic colony can survive (or, alternatively, that a purpose behind all this is irrelevant), there’s still the problem of the choreography with respect to the dance as a whole.

Except for some group dances toward the end of the piece, what AFTERITE displays on stage are primarily individual dances by sub-groups of the community. The dances are connected to each other only by their solemnity and apparent aggressive nature (though much more muted in that respect than in other productions to Stravinsky’s score); these dances don’t move the action toward some inevitable conclusion – they just occupy musical time. Nor did I sense any message in them beyond non-specific intensity and (at least in Ferri’s case) numbed sadness: no sense of urgency; no attempt to persuade or force; and none to calm or compose. And as for the mother having to “choose what she holds most dear and what she can afford to lose,” there’s no indication of any deliberation or specified agonized decision: her face registers nothing (similar to those of the other dancers in the piece; it’s apparently what McGregor wanted). And when she lets one child go and holds the other’s hand and escorts her back inside the greenhouse, they’re matter-of-fact actions with no apparent particular significance (and if there’s a reason she chose one and not the other, the audience doesn’t know it). Maybe one might want to assume that the decision was based on which child’s father she loved more, but there’s no indication of that either.

The individual dances could just as easily have been presented as an abstract collection of McGregor’s best choreography rather than in the context of a mother’s choice, human sacrifice, and a greenhouse. But the result of what AFTERITE presents on stage is essentially that already, with the whole being far less than the sum of its individual choreographic parts.

Ferri and Cornejo, Cirio, and Hoven, do remarkable work here – as does the entire cast. And Ferri remains the exquisite dancer she always has been, with flexibility and precision that would be significant in any ballerina regardless of age. But beyond the physical execution and dour visage (not just on her part; its common to the full cast), there’s no there there.

Perhaps I’ll see some unity, and some point, to AFTERITE upon seeing it another time (if experience is a guide, it’ll be back in the Fall). But based on my initial exposure to it, it should be seen for the excellence, if not the coherence, of McGregor’s choreography, the opportunity to see Ferri defy age limitations, Cornejo’s brilliance, and the commitment and quality of the cast. That’s a lot – but to me, not enough, particularly for a ballet that takes itself so seriously that its title must be capitalized.

American Ballet Theatre dancers in Alexei Ratmansky's "Firebird" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Firebird”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Ratmansky’s Firebird is not your parents’, or grandparents’, Firebird. It’s non-stop movement, no ceremony, and it’s peppered with indicia of Ratmansky’s wit and attention to detail. I see, in his Firebird, echoes of other semi-comic ballets (Namouna, a Grand Divertissement, which he created for New York City Ballet, and The Bright Stream, for the Bolshoi, come to mind), and his attention to detail (the image of “feeding firebirds” is related, in its detail and powers of observation, to the detail and accurate representation of snowflakes as they hit the ground in his Nutcracker).

Even so, I didn’t like his Firebird upon my first few exposures to it, and still don’t consider it one of his better efforts. But I appreciated it much more this time because of the outstanding cast – all but one of whom were largely unrecognizable here – as well as by gaining a better understanding of his choreographic response to Stravinsky’s score. For example, there really are indications in the score that I didn’t “hear” before that Ratmansky ingeniously picked up on that support his turning the “maidens” into spell or drug-addled Valley Girls (it must be a Valley in Russia), which was one of my previous complaints.

Shevchenko is a force of nature. She’s not a prima donna “Firebird Queen,” which is what I sensed in prior portrayals I’ve seen, and she does nothing to call attention to herself: she’s just one in a flock of firebirds indistinguishable from the others until Ivan (Prince Ivan in other versions) captures and then releases her after she gives him a magical firebird feather. She captures the Firebird’s essence, both physically and emotionally. As in this version, or at least in her portrayal, the Firebird is in the details. I never noticed this Firebird’s clawed hands before, but Shevchenko physically enunciates them clearly even while percolating around the stage like a bird powered by some internal nuclear generator. Once again, this was a dazzling Shevchenko debut.

Forster did the impossible – he made the role of Ivan believable. Everything about his portrayal – broad strokes as well as more measured nuance – was clearly delivered. It was Forster’s finest role (at least of those I’ve seen) to date.

I must confess that I don’t remember noticing Lyle previously, but I will pay attention now. His Kaschei was demonic yet engaging, serpentine, dominating, vicious and hilariously frightening.

But the dance’s revelation was Hurlin’s Maiden (the Princess, as I recall, in other versions). In addition to displaying her increasingly confident technique, her role here shows that she can change temperament and attitude from one second to the next, and has impeccable comic timing. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me – she exhibited the same qualities, on a much smaller scale, in Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream – but it’s still a rare quality, and reveals a depth of talent versatility I never anticipated from her. At one moment, she’s a budding ballerina; at another she’s Carol Burnett.

Following this program’s week-long run, ABT’s Met season continues after Memorial Day with a week of La Bayadere.