American Ballet Theatre: Giselle

Paloma Herrera and Roberto Bolle in Giselle.  Photo Gene Schiavone

Paloma Herrera and Roberto Bolle in Giselle
Photo Gene Schiavone

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; May 27, 2015 (m & e)

Jerry Hochman

At first, I was bemused at the thought of scheduling two farewell performances on the same day. It wasn’t what was originally intended, but when Paloma Herrera wisely decided to finalize her American Ballet Theatre career with Giselle, I thought the company would change her schedule so both she and Xiomara Reyes, whose farewell had already been set for May 27 evening, could have a celebration to themselves. But having both goodbyes the same day provided a sense of symmetry that brought with it unexpected benefits.

There’s something about a ‘farewell’ that brings out the best, and these performances were no exception – both for the retiring ballerinas and their lead casts. And for both, the cheers began as soon as each, in character, stepped onto the stage, and continued repeatedly through the flowers and tears and the multiple curtain calls.

There never was a ballerina with a more perfect name. Paloma. In Spanish, it means ‘dove.’ And unless you were fortunate enough to see her cross Lincoln Center plaza while still a teenager, as I was (even then, she was instantly recognizable), your introduction to Paloma Herrera possibly was rather appropriate – and no less spectacular. It was November 20, 1994, and she was pictured on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine, on Spring Street in SOHO (back when it could be emptied of tourists or closed off without creating a traffic nightmare), posing en pointe in perfect near-180° attitude, torso upright, arms spread, prepared to take flight – and looking every inch the star she would become. Her rise through ABT was meteoric:  she joined the company in 1991, became a soloist in 1993, and a principal in 1995.

Paloma Herrera at her curtain call.  Photo Gene Schiavone

Paloma Herrera at her curtain call.
Photo Gene Schiavone

By the time I first saw Xiomara Reyes, she had already become an audience favorite; not only because of her obvious talent, but also for her sweet-as-sugar stage persona. Like Herrera, her rise through ABT was rapid — after joining the company as a soloist in 2001 she was promoted to principal in 2003. Reyes’s stage persona had a palpable measure of warmth coupled with vulnerability. Following my introduction to her as Juliet in a 2004 performance, I observed she was ABT’s latest sweetheart. And as her performance opportunities increased (like Herrera, she seemingly danced every role there was to dance), she excelled in each of them.

Their farewell performances were fine choices. Giselle is a role they’ve done very well in the past, and can still do very well. Although there were significant differences in the two performances and they don’t at all blend together into the memory, they were differences in degree one way or another, not in capability or execution. Indeed, they looked somewhat like performance bookends.

Certainly Herrera and Reyes’ years of experience showed, but in a positive way. They both utilized their experience to enhance their portrayals. Herrera delivered an exceptional Act I, with superb characterization and human quality. Her ‘mad scene’ particularly shined. I overheard several people at intermission saying that her retirement was premature. Reyes’ Act I was no less well done, and with the speed that has been one of her hallmarks since her first appearance with ABT. That both pulled off the technical demands and ethereal requirements of Act II defied their respective ages. The evening would have been memorable regardless of performance quality; that they delivered memorable performances as well was a bonus.

Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in Giselle.  Photo Gene Schiavone

Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in Giselle
Photo Gene Schiavone

But it wasn’t just the retiring dancers who delivered memorable performances. Their respective Albrechts, Roberto Bolle and Herman Cornejo, gave exceptional portrayals as well. Although a company member, Bolle doesn’t appear very frequently. That being said, he has been the Albrecht of choice for many retiring ballerinas, with good reason. Like Marcelo Gomes, he makes his ballerina, whoever it is, look good. And although he’s no longer a twenty-something phenomenon who resembles Christopher Reeve, when the choreography permits him some solo histrionics, he’s still a danseur Superman. In his concluding Act II solo, the audience gasped. When Bolle not only equaled the outstanding entrechats produced by Vladimir Shklyarov the previous Saturday, but did so with even greater clarity. No wonder the audience gasped. And what must be his standard operating ending is particularly moving.

Cornejo’s Albrecht was one of his most aggressive outings. He too was in command, and he was Reyes’ shadow, making certain that she never listed on his watch. His noble bearing, which he has had to develop over time (by that I mean that he wasn’t born to be a danseur noble – he earned it), was impressive throughout. And in terms of acting, both were superior to Shklyarov.

Aside from the corps, which shined with its usual brilliance through both performances, the other featured dancers at both performances rose to the occasions. In the evening, Patrick Ogle delivered an impassioned portrayal of Hilarion, and Thomas Forster repeated his execution of the role at the matinee. Devon Teuscher (matinee) and Stella Abrera (evening) were both vital, powerful Myrtas, and Luciana Paris’ matinee Moyna and Leeann Underwood’s evening Zulma were particularly noteworthy.

But the most vibrant additions to both performances came in the Peasant pas de deux, especially from Skylar Brandt and Arron Scott in the matinee – evidence that, perhaps, there is a long overdue effort by ABT management to expand opportunities beyond what has become standard casting. Both corps dancers, Brandt and Scott are a fortuitous stage pairing in that they complement each other well. Scott took chances I’ve not previously seen – not all of them worked, but he gets high marks for effort, and for his excellent partnering. Brandt provided an unusually fine, effervescent performance, with far more variety of expression than one would expect from someone so young. She looked every bit the peasant girl who can dance rings around anyone else in the village, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Subject to seeing how she handles Romantic roles, she’s on track to be a Giselle some years down the road.

Xiomara Reyes' curtain call.  Photo Gene Schiavone

Xiomara Reyes’ curtain call.
Photo Gene Schiavone

The celebrations following the ballet’s conclusions were similar, but heartfelt in both cases.  With their audiences immediately leaping to their feet to provide the well-deserved standing ovations, each corps dancer placed a rose at Herrera and Reyes’s feat, atop ‘performance’ roses, and each principal dancer and members of the artistic staff, as well as some alumnae returning for the occasions (I noticed Angel Corella at both celebrations) presented flowers, or kisses, or both. Soloists and other corps dancers and personnel overflowed onto the stage from the wings, and bouquets were tossed from the audience.

The similarity of the celebrations didn’t in any sense diminish their individual significance, or their sincerity. The tears – from Herrera and Reyes and the dancers who surrounded them – were real. And although relatively programmed, the festivities are joyous, and permit remarkably unprogrammed insights into these dancers as people no longer wearing their stage skin. For audiences, the individualized experiences and memories provided are as enduring as the memories of these retiring dancers’ performances.