American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; May 23(e), 2015
It’s about time.
For years, Stella Abrera has toiled in what I’ve described as ‘soloist purgatory’ at American Ballet Theatre (she’s been an ABT soloist since 2001), dancing essentially the same roles year after year after year, garnering rave reviews in the featured roles she’s danced , but never being given the opportunity to perform a significant leading role at the Met. This year, she’s been assigned to dance Cinderella (a role she’s danced previously, albeit in the James Kudelka version), and that would have been it.
It took an injury to change that.
Polina Semionova recently announced that she was withdrawing from the current Met season because of an injury, including this performance of Giselle, in which she was to be partnered by guest artist, Vladimir Shklyarov. Several days after that news broke, it was revealed that Abrera, who had danced Giselle previously, but not with ABT, would replace her.
To say her performance was a triumph would be an understatement.
In addition to being relatively flawless both technically and emotionally, Abrera included nuances – little ‘secret’ moments that usually develop over years of experience performing the role – that added texture to her portrayal. Her mime was clear as crystal. And she and Shklyarov, who danced an unusually fine, and notably gallant, Albrecht, looked like they’d rehearsed together for weeks: their timing was impeccable.
There were apparent two minor exceptions to what some might consider technical perfection. Abrera’s ‘chugs’ when Myrta first commands Giselle to dance were perfectly executed, but at a slightly slower rate of speed than some others, and her initial exaggeratedly slow penchée arabesque upstage of the dumbstruck Albrecht was delivered very carefully to maintain her balance, resulting in a leg that elevated incrementally rather than smoothly. In fact, these were not exceptions at all, but evidence of Abrera’s experience and artistic class. She knows that the most important thing is to maintain the style, and not to push – to show off – so hard that the stylistic purity is destroyed.
I anticipated that Abrera’s Act I would be more difficult for her than Act II, but she pulled it off brilliantly, with a convincing mad scene. I confess that I have more difficulty connecting with an older Giselle, even though, unlike for example, Juliet, the role does not require a youthful appearance. But age was not an issue in Abrera’s portrayal – she was real, danced without artifice, and consequently not only was able to connect with me, but obviously with the rest of the audience as well. And her Act II was extraordinary. She danced feather-lite, seemingly without corporeal existence. And her traveling diagonal entrechats were executed perfectly, and thrillingly.
In addition to his partnering (and his obvious attention to Abrera throughout), Shklyarov’s own Act II entrechats were perhaps the most extraordinary that I can recall. He didn’t travel downstage, as many do, and which would have been fine, he did all of them while remaining in a relatively stationary position upstage. In addition to being perfectly executed (at least at the beginning, before he began using his arms a bit too much to provide lift), they went on long past the point where any other danseur who does that step sequence (as opposed to the ‘Baryshnikov’ brisés volés) would have stopped. The audience gasped – the first time I’d heard any such reaction since…Baryshnikov.
The one minor quibble I have with Shklyarov – but, again, nothing hugely significant – is that his Act I acting needs some measure of improvement. He dismissed Wilfred before he knew Wilfred was turning to make one last plea to get Albrecht to leave Giselle’s village, without even bothering to look at him. And his reaction to being found out – He tapped his forehead as if to say ‘what was I thinking?’ – was not made until long after he should have responded to Bathilde’s inquiry.
Veronika Part delivered her usual excellent Myrta, Nancy Raffa the appropriately concerned Berthe, Thomas Forster was a stalwart and wooden (not inappropriately) Hilarion, and the corps was exemplary throughout. The only disappointment of the evening was the peasant pas de deux, danced by Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein, which was both underwhelming, and, for the ballerina, conducted at a ridiculously slow place.
Before the performance began, Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s Artistic Director, saluted and recognized his ‘great’ ABT dancers, as well as the assemblage of ABT alumnae who had gathered for what was intended as a special performance. But no mention was made of the cast change. Awkward as it may have been, the fact that Abrera finally got this opportunity, even if it wasn’t what he had been initially intended, should have been acknowledged. The audience knew it (and cheered Abrera when she first appeared – not something that an audience usually does when a cast change is made), and recognized it again with a deserved standing ovation and extended curtain calls at the ballet’s conclusion. This belated and unplanned opportunity, and Abrera’s stellar portrayal, was what made this performance of Giselle special.