Bare-Chested Ballet: A.B.T.’s Very Male Season

Remember Where the Boys Are -Connie

Francis chasing guys in Fort Lauderdale? Today, all the boys are at American

Ballet Theater, and they’re of such high caliber that the company can afford to

dole them out sparingly, as if they were guest artists dropping by instead of

regulars on daily call. In fact, these past two weeks it’s been the second tier

of men-the soloists rather than the principals-who’ve been carrying the

repertory.

It makes sense: Spring is when A.B.T. drags out its full-length

classics and faux- classics at the Met, and the big male guns are needed as

Albrechts and Siegfrieds and Onegins. But the annual two-week season at the

City Center, with its hectic mishmash of revivals and standards and novelties,

needs hungry younger artists ready to leap in once or twice a night. I saw the

impressive Marcelo Gomes close to 10 times during the six performances I

attended, whereas the starry Vladimir Malakhov and Angel Corella were gone

after the first week (and not very visible during it). José Manuel Carreño,

stalwart as always, performed only in those classical pas de deux that were

sprinkled through the programs for a change of pace and a glimpse of tutu, and

once in the second movement of Balanchine’s Symphony

in C , opposite Nina Ananiashvili. (She must realize how wonderfully he sets

her off: She appeared without him exactly once all season.)

Of the boy wonders, only Ethan Stiefel danced a full repertory.

He was on hand for the welcome revival of Antony Tudor’s Dim Lustre ; for the less welcome Clear , a new piece by the omnipresent Australian Stanton Welch; for

Mark Morris’ Gong , which made a

strong impression this second time around; and for both the first and third

movements of Symphony in C . He was at

his best in the latter; his concentrated, explosive energy is the stuff of

Balanchine (well, he’s an escapee from City Ballet). In contrast, his cocky

American insouciance doesn’t really look at home in Tudor’s psyche-ridden

ballroom; it’s more appropriate to Clear -all

those jagged lunges and galvanic turns. He’s more athletic in the role than Mr.

Corella, whose bravura style is less aggressive but more emotionally

compelling.

Clear is peculiarly put

together-how many works can you think of that feature seven men and a girl?

There’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ,

of course, but Snow White is central to that work. In this one, the girl (Julie

Kent or Gillian Murphy) comes and goes, comes and goes, but the boys are so

busy churning away, rolling on the ground, slapping their stomachs and showing

off their technique that although they toss her around a little, she hardly

impinges on their self-absorption. At the very end, she and the lead guy meet

in a moony encounter that pretends to be about something ineffable-but what?

And why all the agonized posturing and the hands over the eyes in pain? We’ll

never know.

If Clear is about

anything, it’s about its men-Maxim Belotserkovsky (the Russian pinup with the

endless legs); Mr. Gomes; the superb little dynamo Joaquin De Luz (he whirled

and twirled his way though the season); the other superb little dynamo, Herman

Cornejo; the elegant Sean Stewart; and others. On the principle that if you’ve

got it, flaunt it, Mr. Welch led from the company’s (male) strength. So did

Kirk Peterson in his high-energy, low-content Amazed in Burning Dreams , to the music (or whatever it is) of

Philip Glass. There were girls in it, but it’s a man’s world; when the women

finally were given their moments alone on stage, it seemed almost

revolutionary. What with all the thrashing male torsos and assertive bare

chests, ballets like these don’t have much room for ballerinas. Throw in the

male-dominated Jabula , held over from

last year, and the company’s women have the basis of a class-action suit.

The best, and least heralded, of the new works was Robert Hill’s Marimba (two years ago, his Baroque Game was also the best of a

mixed batch of novelties). The stage is dark, mostly lit by crossbeams from the

wings. The percussion music is intense and exciting. The dancers are almost

anonymous, although the inescapable Mr. Gomes and Mr. Cornejo can be made out

in the gloom. There’s a natural flow of energy as the nine performers come

forward, explode into motion and recede; the dance invention springs honestly

from the music and is never narcissistic or portentous. The relief!

Back in the repertory was that old standby Rodeo , the Agnes de Mille 1942 crowd-pleaser that won her the job

of choreographing Oklahoma! It

doesn’t change, except to grow more dated. Presumably Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 was exhumed

because of its ballerina roles and pretty costumes, but greater ballerinas than

Paloma Herrera and Susan Jaffe couldn’t have disguised its utter aridity.

Like Antony Tudor’s more famous (and more accomplished) Lilac Garden , Dim Lustre -also from the early 40’s-is a Proustian, Freudian drama

of loss, memory, disappointment and hope. A central couple dances among five

other couples at a ball. Tiny events trigger memories of past loves-in each

case, the “memory” passages are framed by blackouts (a device that grows more

irritating as it grows more predictable).This well-made piece achieves its

effect through its perfect-pitch response to the romantic turbulence of its

music, Richard Strauss’ Burlesque in D

for Piano and Orchestra . Julie Kent, opposite Mr. Stiefel, looked lovely

(she would have looked lovelier if she had ripped off the puffy white ruffs at

her shoulders), but she’s not exactly a turbulent performer. Susan Jaffe was at

her best in this role-it suits her dramatic intensity and doesn’t make

unrealistic demands on her technique. But she too would have been better off

without those ruffs, and without the thick diamond choker at her throat. And

everyone would have been better off without the claustrophobic set; its tilting

Art Nouveau lampposts and off-kilter backdrop made the City Center stage even

more restricted than it already is. Dim

Lustre deserves better than to be cramped this way.

And then there was Symphony

in C , that glorious outpouring of dance which Balanchine set to an early

and almost unknown work by Bizet. Those of us who witnessed the early

development of City Ballet saw it dozens of times on this stage, overflowing

into the shallow wings when its eight principals, 16 demi-soloists and 28 corps

members rush on for one of the most exalted finales in all of ballet. Back at

the City Center for the first time in decades, and new to A.B.T., it presents a

daunting challenge. Along with Mr. Stiefel, only Gillian Murphy (trained by the

Balanchine ballerina Melissa Hayden) completely commands the style. But we

already know that from her triumphs in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations -so why grant her only one performance of the

difficult First Movement? And why then switch her to Third Movement, for which

she’s clearly the wrong type? Perversely, we had two First Movements from

Paloma Herrera-cautious, rigid, her tension manifesting itself in facial

mannerisms-and two from Irina Dvorovenko, who, if she’s going to dance

Balanchine, would do well to focus more on her phrasing and less on her

relentless smile and adorable darting glances.

The sublime Second Movement, the territory of Balanchine’s

greatest dancers, was entrusted first to Ms. Jaffe, who was constricted and

dull in the adagio and could barely handle the allegro demands of the finale,

and then to Ms. Kent, who has the beautiful line the soaring lifts demand, but

whose essentially bland approach bleaches the poetry from the dance. To

compensate, she wears a look of solemn spirituality-how Balanchine would have

hated that! Nina Ananiashvili, who took over on closing night, is a thoroughly

capable ballerina, but she lacks the expansiveness, the profound musicality,

needed here. Various whiz-bang kids made something of the scintillating Third

Movement, and the imposing Michele Wiles calmly assumed responsibility for the

final movement.

For A.B.T. to cut its teeth on this demanding work was an act of

courage, and it paid off by anchoring and invigorating the season. But with

under-casting like this in crucial roles, there’s a long way to go before the

ballet that everyone in the business calls “Bizet” starts to look like itself.