Scattered Season at A.B.T.: Nostalgia, Oldies, Newies

American Ballet Theatre is, as usual, moving in a number of different directions at once. In their annual two-week fall season at the City Center, they trotted out some tried-and-true golden oldies ( Fancy Free , Symphony in C ); some more recent overpraised pieces (Stanton Welch’s Clear , Martha Clarke et al.’s The Garden of Villandry ); a revival of a onetime A.B.T. semi-staple (Antony Tudor’s Offenbach in the Underworld ); some bits and pieces as filler; and four new works. Even the new works represent conflicting impulses: Two of them were nostalgia-driven, aiming at easy hitdom; two were pure dance pieces with no trendiness to hide behind. Guess which two I preferred.

Of the retro-works, it’s a toss-up which was more reprehensible, Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison or Lar Lubovitch’s “…smile with my heart,” a rape-sorry, a celebration-of Richard Rodgers on the occasion of his centenary. I suppose I disliked the Rodgers more, maybe because I’m more emotionally invested in the 30’s and 40’s than in the 70’s, or maybe because I had to sit through it twice. The musicians are up on the stage-a pianist, an oboist, a flautist and three cellists. (You may think this is an odd kind of sextet, and you’d be right.) The pianist and leader was Marvin Laird, who was also responsible for concocting the “Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rodgers” that accompanied the dancing.

Is this inflated, lugubrious approach to Rodgers’ wonderful melodies an aberration, or is the Rodgers camp suffering from Gershwin-envy and determined to present him as a Serious Composer? And do Laird & Lubovitch believe that we can listen to the great Rodgers tunes-even as “Fantasie”-without recalling their lyrics? The final section of the ballet, to “My Funny Valentine” (from which the title has been coyly extracted), is refigured as High Drama, mit angst -a man (Marcelo Gomes) and a woman (either Sandra Brown or Julie Kent) caught up in a tormented pairing. What does this have to do with Lorenz Hart’s tender evocation of unglamorous love? It’s “My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine” not “dire, gloomy valentine.” Sorry, but if you’re going to use songs we know and love in order to hook us, you have to respect them, otherwise it’s pure exploitation. Not only was “…smile with my heart” overlong, overfussy and overmiked, it was weirdly structured: three couples in diluted Robbins mode being boy-and-girly, followed by three duets, followed by nothing. This ballet doesn’t end, it just stops. But not soon enough.

The tribute to George Harrison achieved its purpose: to bring to the ballet people who aren’t interested in the ballet. I know, because in the lobby, just before the performance began, a man rushed up and asked frantically, “Is this where the George Harrison tribute is? Where do I go?” I hope he felt he got his money’s worth.

It took four choreographers to do the honors. Stanton Welch contributed twocharacterlesssections-to “Something,” a show-off solo (Angel Corella and Joaquin De Luz alternated), and a group effort to “Isn’t It a Pity?” Natalie Weir, who made an interesting faux-primitive piece for the company a few years ago, gave us “I Dig Love” and the title song, to which Ethan Stiefel, stripped to the waist, agonized, while Gillian Murphy, given nothing to dance, tried hard to be a Romantic Presence, drifting in and out of the spotlight, there and yet not there, Within You Without You. Choreographer No. 3 was Broadway’s Ann Reinking. She labored to make something out of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but it resisted choreography-not that there was much of it to resist. I believe it was meant to be sexy.

Finally, the full cast whirled and tumbled across the front of the stage, over and over, to “My Sweet Lord.” This last effort was by David Parsons, who was responsible some seasons back for The Pied Piper , which you may remember as a world-class calamity. “My Sweet Lord” wasn’t calamitous, only predictable. The Harrison songs try hard and mean well-it’s fun hearing them for the millionth time, and the dancers were clearly having a good time. But none of it mattered. This is the kind of pop dance event that goes through a ballet company, and an audience, like a dose of salts. If A.B.T. wants to make its mark with retro-pop, they should win back the disaffected Twyla Tharp, whose new Broadway musical, to the songs of Billy Joel, towers over the Rodgers and the Harrison the way the Oresteia towers over Urinetown .

Sin and Tonic , a new piece by the well-known Canadian choreographer James Kudelka, had the advantage, the night I saw it, of being sandwiched between the two works described above. Julie Kent, more intense than usual, and the superb Marcelo Gomes were again the lovers, Joaquin De Luz was darting around as Cupid, with a pair of comical wings on his back-he’s now the company’s indispensable cute guy-and yet another two sensational boys, Carlos Lopez and Craig Salstein, came hurtling on as Sin and Tonic themselves. Are they devils? Satyrs? We’ll never know. The point is that Kudelka has taken advantage of A.B.T.’s astounding collection of male dancers-Lopez has emerged as a fantastically energized leaper and twister; Salstein, just up from the junior company, is on the fast track for tenure: He’s slighter than most of the Latin stars, but just as agile and maybe even more determined. At one point, five men in black-the program calls them “The Wall”-appear in silhouette and move forward slowly, slowly into the light: trouble ahead for Julie and Marcelo …. The music was an interesting violin concerto by the gifted Edgar Meyer (not, say, a gaggle of songs by Barry Manilow), and the whole thing was honorable: a ballet, in fact.

The best of the new works was Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra , the concerto a very impressive piece by Lowell Liebermann and the choreography by Robert Hill. Hill is a principal dancer with the company, and he’s now made three first-rate pieces for them in a row: Three years ago there was Baroque Game and last year, Marimba . The latter was percussive, mysterious. The new work-its dancers clothed in tight-fitting orange-is more electric and exciting, filled with kinetic invention. And Hill knows how to put a ballet together so that it pulls you along. By chance, the exotic Stella Abrera was the object of desire in the performance I saw, just as she was in Reinking’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” What a difference for a dancer when the movement she’s given has depth. And what a difference when a choreographer works in a vocabulary that seems to spring from the music, not just sit on top of it. A.B.T. puts on Hill’s ballets late in the season, with little advance fuss, and it doesn’t bring them back; the company seems to take him for granted. Too bad- Concerto No. 1 is the only one of the four new works that I’d like to see again.

In its ongoing search for repertory, A.B.T. is gradually reviving the works of Antony Tudor, who was so central to the company in its formative years. Lilac Garden turns up frequently. Last year we had Dim Lustre . This year it was the turn of Offenbach in the Underworld , a piece from the mid-50’s to Offenbach’s jolly music. We’re in a fashionable café or bar in the late 19th century, with the usual Offenbachian suspects on hand: the operetta star, the courtesan, the innocent girl, the penurious artist, the foreign dignitary, the young soldier. (I saw Irina Dvorovenko, as the operetta’s star. She’s back from an injury that kept her out of the spring season, and she’s as winky as ever, telegraphing her relentless charm. It was instructive to watch her mother, Olga Dvorovenko, as Madame la Patronne. She’s another winker; the oak hasn’t fallen far from the acorn.)

Offenbach is meant to be a worldly frolic, but it looks studied today-a beautifully crafted piece that comes across as pastiche. Compare it to two other story ballets in which bars figure, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936) and Fancy Free (1944): Both of these still seem fresh, because they arise from the urgencies of their moment. Offenbach is a throwback to the kind of hit Massine was creating in the 20’s and 30’s- Le Beau Danube , La Gaîté Parisienne -all flashing skirts and saucy flirts and the inevitable climactic cancan. Yes, it’s well put together, but it doesn’t come to life; it’s stale champagne.