David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
October 22, 23 & 24 (matinee), 2015
American Ballet Theatre kicked off the first week of its Fall 2015 season with three significant revivals, two noteworthy company premieres, one pleasurable new ballet by Mark Morris – and for good measure, a Paul Taylor piece already in the current repertory. None of the performances was disappointing. On the contrary, together they highlight the versatility of ABT’s dancers and the variety of its repertoire. Equally important was the opportunity to see ABT’s many underutilized dancers in new roles, and in roles in which they actually get to dance.
The most noteworthy of the new revivals and company premieres were Kurt Jooss’ masterpiece, The Green Table, Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Monotones in a season in which the programming reflects the eclectic, adventurous repertoire of the old Joffrey Ballet of the 1970s and 80s, the company with which ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie began his New York performing career.
Jooss believed that choreography and music should evolve together to provide greater unity and clarity to the narrative message. The Green Table, with a two-piano accompanying score by Frederick (Fritz) Cohen, is a prime example: the dance’s component parts fit together seamlessly, and enhance each other.
Derived from the medieval Germanic Totentanz (Dance of Death) and reflecting the concurrent German expressionist movement, The Green Table is very much a creature of its time, but its truths make it timeless. It’s been labeled an anti-war ballet, which is true, but most significantly it’s also a courageous piece of dance theater.
The piece is divided into six individual scenes, each addressing a particular example of the horrors of war and the triumph of death. Bracketing them are scenes of what today are usually seen as diplomats, the Gentlemen in Black, negotiating around a green-topped table and using war as a bargaining chip and refuge when reason fails. To them, war is part of the diplomatic game – a game of faceless combatants; a game of drones. Jooss’s point, which The Green Table demonstrates so well, is that the inevitable consequence of war is that innocent people suffer and die.
The drama in The Green Table comes from the choreography. The characters are archetypes: Death, The Young Soldier, The Young Girl he leaves behind, an Old Mother, a female Partisan, a Profiteer, and the grotesquely masked diplomats. The audience knows, or thinks it knows, everything about these characters just by their descriptive names. Jooss shows the audience that it knows nothing, and proceeds to enlighten them.
There is little extraneous movement here, and little opportunity for acting. For example, the Death character wears garish makeup and a skeletal costume, and is pervasive and dominating. But his movement is stiff and one-dimensional – he doesn’t dance so much as move frighteningly; his emotion is minimal. The soldiers are cardboard. The Profiteer is a coiled snake who drains his victims of hope before Death takes them away, almost as a relief. Death is ‘just’ Death, but the Profiteer is the devil. The women have more movement variety and room for expression, particularly the Partisan, but even with that, the range of expression is usually limited to flat, monochromatic portrayals in which the circumstances deliver the message.
Neither Marcelo Gomes as Death or Herman Cornejo as the Profiteer at the piece’s opening performance on the 22nd, nor Roman Zhurban or Daniil Simkin in the same roles on the 23rd, could match the towering portrayals by Christian Holder and Gary Chryst in the Joffrey revival that I saw in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, Gomes’s Death was memorable. Both he and Zhurban were forceful, and conveyed what little visible emotion each role allows, but Gomes has a strength, muscular tightness and precision that Zhurban couldn’t equal. Both Devon Teuscher and Christine Shevchenko danced the Partisan superbly, with Shevchenko somewhat more animated, and Luciana Paris, with nothing beyond the essential choreography to work with, was a wonderfully war weary Old Mother.
On the 23rd, Skylar Brandt danced the Young Girl the way I remember it – a relatively blank expression, with the essential movement and the situation delivering the tragic message. But Sarah Lane’s Young Girl the previous night was by far the most magnificently conceived and rendered portrayal of that role that I’ve seen. She added nothing to the choreography – it was all in the planning and the expression from within. The difference can be felt in the impact. In one portrayal, the audience thinks how awful it was for something so terrible to happen to that sweet Young Girl. In the other, the audience is transported to her character’s world, and grieves. Judged by the audience response – the stifling of tears and the post-performance applause – Lane’s performance impact was the latter. And I thought, again, of opportunities inexplicably denied.
The week featured another anti-war dance of sorts, Paul Taylor’s Company B. Instead of hitting the viewer over the head, Taylor’s dance is more subtle. A remembrance of life in the 1940s with dances choreographed to songs by the Andrews Sisters, Company B, while exuberant and crowd-pleasing is also tinged with sadness; not for an era ended, but for lives irretrievably lost. Saturday’s entire cast excelled, but Brandt’s live-wire “Pennsylvania Polka” was a particular delight.
Fokine was a revolutionary choreographer. One of his ground-breaking ballets was an early piece for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Le Spectre de la Rose. The story, an expanded snapshot in time, tells of a young girl returning from a ball with a rose momento, who then dreams of her rose coming to life as her dance partner. Where Spectre breaks ground is with the image of, and choreography for, The Rose. Unlike its classical antecedents, there are no dead spots preceding the male dancer’s bravura exhibition – the virtuosic movement is almost continuous. And The Rose is no dreamy, fairy tale Prince Charming – he’s relatively androgynous, with the masculine power of his legs and jumps, coupled with somewhat effeminate posing and port de bras.
Cornejo did a fine job at the revival’s opening performance on Thursday, but his was a more elegant, cultivated Rose. Except for a brief hard fall early on, Simkin in Friday’s performance was slightly more technically precise, although neither delivered the spectacular leap through the window at the ballet’s end that many will remember from Baryshnikov. Lane’s portrayal of the Young Girl on Thursday carried somewhat more emotional depth, but she and Cassandra Trenary on Friday each handled the role very well.
I first saw Monotones II with the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s, and was swept away by its celestial imagery and remarkable sensitivity to the otherworldly sound of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies. Ashton created what was to become Monotones II first, and later expanded the ballet to include Monotones I (to Satie’s Gnossiennes). They’re almost (but not quite) mirror images, with Monotones I somewhat less cosmic than the latter. While one can still admire the ballet’s structure, the dancers’ precision, and the simple beauty of the crystalline choreography, Monotones now looks more like a quaint curiosity. Stella Abrera, Joseph Gorak, and Isabella Boylston handled Monotones I well, but not quite as cleanly as Cory Stearns, Veronika Part, and Thomas Forster in Monotones II. Part’s portrayal, notwithstanding its purity of form, was diminished by an aura of sadness rather than planetary neutrality. And in order for one body to impact another, there should be some compelling force that pulls them together or apart – I sensed none of that here – these celestial bodies were independent entities going through the motions.
The New York premiere, After You, is another Morris pastel ballet, and a fine example of his style and wit. To an intriguing composition by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Morris arranges his dancers (clad in jump-suit-like orange, pink, mauve and yellow costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi) primarily in trios that form and reform in varying patterns as the three movements of the piece proceed. Among the two casts I saw, Trenary, Teuscher, Sterling Baca, Jeffrey Cirio, Blaine Hoven and Forster stood out. And even though including principal dancers was unnecessary, this work is right up Boylston’s alley, and she delivered an excellent performance.
Twyla Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations is yet another in Tharp’s creative pantheon. The piece, like her Bach Partita (which ABT recently revived), is Tharp at her most classical, and even though it doesn’t look as audacious as, for example, In the Upper Room, it’s no less brilliant. Not surprisingly given its title, the ballet is a series of variations on a theme – but it’s not as dry as that simplistic description implies. It’s a large piece featuring seven couples and a sixteen-dancer corps, with the focus being on the courtly but contemporary-looking, elegant but intricate duets. Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, Shevchenko and Gorak, Lane and Simkin, and Trenary and Hoven were particularly outstanding among the couples, and one could not help but notice the stunning classicism of Courtney Lavine in the corps.
Balanchine’s Valse-Fantasie, the other company premiere, is a frothy piece that Balanchine choreographed in 1967 to Glinka’s Valse-Fantasie in B Minor. A duet for a lead couple and four-woman corps, the piece has some unusual choreography for the ballerina and a folksy, party feel, but not much else. Hee Seo and Whiteside, and Teuscher and Gorak were the lead pairs in the Friday and Saturday afternoon performances, and each was sufficiently bubbly and adept. All in all, for a brief Balanchine pas de deux to populate a program segment, a revival of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux would have been a more exciting choice.