Big Traffic Jam at A.B.T.: Not Enough Roles to Go Around

The American Ballet Theatre spring season ended in a flock of Swan Lakes -11 of them. That’s what the Met audience seems to want: name classics, the more the merrier. And, of course, anything with the word “swan” is an automatic audience grabber: Swan Lake , The Dying Swan -when do we get Swann’s Way ?

Unfortunately, Swan Lake in the Kevin McKenzie production, now three years old, is fairly dispiriting, with its two Rothbarts, its muffed climaxes and its curious last act-Rothbart seems to be pummeled to death by the corps of swans: death by poultry. It does have its virtues, though. Some of the business McKenzie has invented for the usually tedious first-act birthday celebrations-Prince Siegfried is 21-is easier on the eye than the usual filler we get here, and the absence of an adorable jester or a fussy old tutor is balm in the wilderness. Also, the business in Act III for Rothbart (the “human” one, not the Jolly Green Giant) and the four princesses is ingenious and pretty. What this production lacks is resonance; it’s not a meditation on good and evil, on love and loss-it’s a star vehicle. If only the company had a roster of real stars!

To judge from her Odette-Odile, Paloma Herrera is greatly restored from the disastrous shape she was in several years ago, on her return from a prolonged absence. She’s always been strong-you could say hard-rather than subtle, so it’s no surprise that her Odile makes somewhat more sense than her Odette. In neither role is she very swanny-she’s definitely more girl than bird. She doesn’t phrase deeply, and there’s not much dramatic intensity. After a pallid second act, she seems relieved to find herself in Act III, where her determined attack can be a plus and she has the notorious fouettés to look forward to. I didn’t sense any real connection with her Siegfried, the admirable Marcelo Gomes, or any real connection to the story or the music. In short: Swan Lake is not a happy vehicle for this curiously tentative and undefined star.

Herrera’s back-up team was first-rate. Gomes is a tall, dark beauty with magnificent line, a generous attitude and an appealing languorous energy, and he was well complemented by the tall, blond David Hallberg as Benno. (Hallberg and the quickfire Craig Salstein, both still in the corps, were standouts throughout the season.) Because A.B.T. is so strong on the soloist and demi-soloist levels, the lesser roles in the repertory have been brilliantly filled much of the time. Both eager, large-scale Michele Wiles and Stella Abrera (proving here and elsewhere that she’s more than an exotic) were exuberant and secure in the demanding classicism of the first-act pas de trois, with Hallberg making up the trio. Carlos Molina was an elegant, sinister, commanding Rothbart.

Herrera’s inadequacies as Odette were thrown into sharp relief by Nina Ananiashvili, celebrating her 10th anniversary with the company. With her Bolshoi background, her extreme competence and her ballerina conviction, Ananiashvili can carry almost any role, even if she isn’t necessarily thrilling. After having danced God knows how many Swan Lake s around the world, she’s refined her performance to the point where everything is exactly as she wants it-the exquisite rippling arms in her swan mode, the poised arabesques on pointe , the flashing jumps, the inescapable rapid-fire fouettés . Her beautifully deployed shoulders and carefully refined plastique compensate for a not particularly elegant body. In other words, she may not be a supreme artist, but she’s the next best thing: a consummate pro.

Her Siegfried, and frequent partner, was the ex–boy wonder Julio Bocca, whose once-pleasing youthfulness is looking more and more forced. He’s far from being a boy these days and it shows, in the diminution of his technical powers. Bocca works hard, though, substituting conviction for fraying virtuosity. I just wish that instead of giving him a crossbow for his birthday, the Queen had given him a haircut. Marcelo Gomes’ Rothbart was less effective than Molina’s, since not even a beard and an ominously swirling cape can mask Gomes’ essentially heroic persona. Joaquin De Luz was his usual dazzling self as Benno-his beats are the fastest and cleanest in town.

It was, of course, gratifying to see dancers on the level of Abrera and Wiles and Monique Meunier and Veronika Part in subsidiary roles throughout the season, but the demand of A.B.T.’s public for blockbuster ballets must have a dampening effect on dancers of this quality. La Bayadère has two ballerina roles, Romeo and Juliet , Don Quixote , Swan Lake and La Fille Mal Gardée have one apiece, and these five ballets made up 47 of the season’s 64 programs. Since the season also included two worthless new pieces and two worthless holdovers, where were the opportunities for soloists to grow? The principals have a stranglehold on the big parts, however unsuited they may be to them, and there aren’t enough big parts in the blockbusters to begin with. Hungry dancers need roles to stretch in. Michele Wiles, for instance, was a magnificent Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son several years ago; she hasn’t had a comparable opportunity since. It’s not that I want to see her as Kitri in Don Q , say-a role perfectly suited to Irina Dvorovenko or Herrera; I just want to see her in something perfectly suited to her .

Balanchine understood this problem, and created ballets in response to it. Apollo and Who Cares? and Serenade each have three ballerina roles, Symphony in C , Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet , Liebeslieder Walzer and Robert Schumann’s ‘ Davidsbündlertänze ‘ have four, Divertimento No. 15 and Vienna Waltzes have five. City Ballet dancers are constantly moving up and into important parts; they may be miscast or may not get the necessary coaching-it’s often sink or swim over there-but if they’re talented, they have somewhere to go. As a result, every City Ballet ballerina is homegrown, whereas that’s true of only four of A.B.T.’s female principals, and two of those are marginalized: Ashley Turtle had two performances of the full-evening ballets, and Amanda McKerrow had exactly one. To make the point painfully clear, it was left to two guest artists from overseas, Alina Cojocaru and Diana Vishneva, to deliver the strongest performances of the season.

The Kirov’s Vishneva, who danced only once, is an extraordinary classicist-powerful, accurate, expansive-but as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan’s R & J , she was not only headstrong but jarringly mature: This Juliet had been around the piazza a time or two. Her Romeo, Vladimir Malakhov, is such an odd puppy that their relationship seemed doomed less from circumstance than from incompatibility. It’s just as well things didn’t work out-with his apparent lack of physical focus, his long limbs flying every which way, his hangdog look, he could never have held his own with the high-powered Vishneva as his Mrs. Montague. The other Verona couple I saw were Xiomara Reyes and Angel Corella, and what a difference! Reyes specializes in soubrette roles-she’s all innocence and gaiety. Her Juliet seemed barely pubescent-in the early scenes, I was half-worried about child abuse. Except that Corella is obviously incapable of abusing anybody-he’s pure virtue and goodness. Reyes doesn’t have the technique of Vishneva or Ananiashvili or Dvorovenko; as Juliet, she gets by on rhapsodic fervor, an approach that can work in this ballet of nonstop rhapsodic lifts. As for Corella, he remains a nonpareil dancer and a great star. At 27, he’s mastered the standard roles, and there’s not much at A.B.T. to challenge him. He’s shoveled into most of the company’s big new efforts-this season, the dread HereAfter -but what he needs to grow on as an artist are the roles Balanchine made for Edward Villella: Rubies , Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream et al.

At least this year and last Corella has had Fille Mal Gardée , that perfect work of art by that profound humanist Frederick Ashton, an expression of love and reconciliation that can hold its own with Così Fan Tutte and The Tempest . Again this season, his partner was Reyes, but they were slightly less enchanting this time around: Reyes’ innocence is beginning to seem studied, her perpetual smile edging toward smugness. She doesn’t have the technical clarity that Gillian Murphy so effortlessly displays in this role, and her manner is cute while Murphy’s is wholesome. Murphy’s partner, Ethan Stiefel, is once again more randy than tender, and he’s reverted to peeking up Lise’s skirt in the maypole scene. Is there no one at A.B.T. to tell him that he’s breaking the spell?

Fortunately, he takes no such liberties with his finest role, Oberon in Ashton’s glorious The Dream , which was given four times in the final week of the season, interrupting the endless parade of Swan s. His Titania was the still-appealing, charmingly feminine Alessandra Ferri, his Puck the phenomenally air-borne Herman Cornejo, just promoted to principal, and not a moment too soon. The demi girls were, again, cast from strength; Abrera and Marion Butler were differentiated as Hermia and Helena; and Julio Bragado-Young, as Bottom, was funny in his solo on pointe and moving in the aftermath of his transformation. I could see only one Dream before my deadline, but there could have been no happier ending to these eight long but rewarding weeks.