The Unbearable Emptiness Of Truly Bad New Ballets

Tolstoy may be right about happy and unhappy families, but in ballet it works the opposite way: All good ballets are different from each other and all bad ones are alike, at least in one crucial respect-they’re all empty. We’ve had more than enough proof of that these past weeks as American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet have bombarded us-or do I mean suffocated us?-with emptiness. Nature, we’re told, abhors a vacuum. So do dance critics.

Without question, Worst in Show goes to A.B.T.’s two-part yawnathon, HereAfter , which took two choreographers to unload. In Part I, “Heaven,” the curtain goes up on a spectacular construct-platforms, ladders, runways, stairs-which accommodates tiers of singers halfway up the Met space. There’s also a big, round contraption-a hamster cage out of The Matrix ?-that lowers Ethan Stiefel onto the stage, and not a moment too soon for my nerves. Ethan Stiefel is The Man. Marcelo Gomes is Death. Stella Abrera and Julie Kent are His Memory. Everyone else is Humanity. The music is John Adams’ portentous Harmonium . The singers are from the New York Choral Society. The texts are by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. And the place? Heaven.

Stiefel’s spiritual journey apparently takes place at the moment of his death (hence, Death). He climbs a ladder, he clings to some bars, he reaches out-it’s anguish all the way. You’ll be stunned to hear that one of the ladies, Abrera, represents worldly love, and the other, Julie Kent, is spiritual . (Abrera, A.B.T.’s current sexpot of choice, is in black, the eternally virginal Kent is in taupe. All the over-elaborate costumes, as well as the set, are by Santo Loquasto.)

The choreographer of “Heaven” is the Australian Natalie Weir, whose efforts for A.B.T. are getting successively weaker-and longer. There’s a lot of milling around, two uninspired duets for Stiefel and his Memories, and then he collapses in a shaft of light. But, no, he’s on his feet again, and-surprise!-he’s back in the cage and being hoisted back up in the air. Stiefel does his best, but he’s not really suited to this kind of thing-I’d like to think it embarrasses him.

Part II of HereAfter , which brings us down from “Heaven” to “Earth,” is the work of that other rampant Australian, Stanton Welch. (What did we ever do to Australia?) Welch is an A.B.T. favorite, having recently given them a specious hit in Clear ; in fact, he’s everywhere, including Houston, whose company he’s currently running. The spiritual journey here on Earth is taken by poor Angel Corella. It can only be his unwavering good nature that allows Corella to be trapped in pieces like this one and the never-to-be-forgotten Pied Piper . He, too, is The Man, but he has Experiences, not Memories, and he has three of them (which means three uninspired duets). He also has Fate and Fortune, danced all-out by two of A.B.T.’s whiz kids, Joaquin de Luz and Herman Cornejo. Fast and Furious would be more like it; Welch’s stock in trade is virtuoso young guys flinging themselves around to ooh ‘s and aah ‘s. Abrera (sensuous) and Kent (lyrical) are back, along with Ashley Tuttle (sweet innocence until she and Corella kiss ), and about 30 other soloists and corps members, all valiantly trying to animate the most static choreography I’ve ever seen to Orff’s Carmina Burana . Corella gets a classical solo utterly out of context. There are cute moments-medievalish boys and girls hippity-hoppity-skippitying around-interrupting the pyrotechnics. And then The Man, Corella, ascends a walkway, vanishes and-wait for it-is replaced by The Man, Stiefel.

A.B.T.’s other new entry was Lar Lubovitch’s Artemis , its Greek theme fitting in with a one-time-only, directed-by-Costa-Gravas “2001-2004 tribute to the Cultural Olympiad”-in other words, a pan-Hellenic evening. There were a lot of pleasing Greek popular and traditional songs and some heavy scenes from Euripides and Sophocles-a total of 45 separate items, of which Artemis was No. 15. There was some pretty scenery-cut-out trees cunningly manipulated around the stage by half a dozen Sylphs-and some pretty costumes. You know the story: The virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis, is seen in the forest by the hunter Actaeon (Aktaion in the program); by decree of Zeus, he must die. It seems unfair, because in this version, Artemis is very willing to be seen. No matter: He’s transformed into a stag and is shot with an arrow by one of his erstwhile companions, followed by Apotheosis among the stars.

Needless to say, Julie Kent danced Artemis, the ultimate virgin. Marcelo Gomes was a modest but virile Actaeon. Assorted lively boys and girls were Hunters, Nymphs, Satyrs (in Pan-drag, with bobbly tails) and the tree-shifting Sylphs. Everything was pleasantly put together, but I couldn’t detect one original dance moment. Who can count the influences on this piece? A moment of L’Après-Midi d’un Faune , a touch of Orpheus , even a snatch of Snow Maiden . And doesn’t that stag munching grass remind you of Balanchine’s donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ? When Lubovitch has to put together extended dance sequences, we’re back in a flash from Ancient Greece to genericland-that is, to Lubovitch country.

City Ballet’s premieres were by Peter Martins and Christopher Wheeldon. Martins gave us his eighth collaboration with John Adams, to a newly commissioned score called Guide to Strange Places . But strange places are exactly where we didn’t go: This is the same propulsive ballet we’ve seen over and over from this partnership. There are five couples, drifting in from black curtains upstage and then disappearing back into them. The men are dressed alike, drably, the women in different colored, beautiful dresses by Catherine Barinas. At first, it seems we’re in for another Martins lesson in frantic partnering, but soon groups form. As usual, the most exciting presence onstage is Jennie Somogyi; she’s galvanizing. Martins exploits Janie Taylor’s exciting jump. Alexandra Ansanelli, too, is shown to her advantage-she’s full of thrashing conviction-and a poised Miranda Weese holds her own. Darci Kistler, front and center, is as beautiful as ever, her hair up and wearing an exquisite rose dress. She’s a commanding presence, but she’s no longer a commanding dancer. Why her partner, Jock Soto, almost strangles her with her chiffon scarf I cannot explain. Or is he helping her to make a fashion statement?

Peter Martins can turn out this kind of thing by the yard, and this version is no less capable and no more interesting than its predecessors. It’s far superior to the cynical sleaze of last season’s Thou Swell and to the cynical perversity of his Swan Lake , but despite all its faux intensity it’s too easy-it doesn’t begin anywhere or go anywhere, except in and out of those black curtains.

The last-and best-of the new ballets, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals at City Ballet, can’t really be called empty: It’s too jam-packed. It’s set to Saint-Saëns’ much-loved suite of little pieces (the most famous was used by Fokine for Pavlova’s “The Dying Swan”), and features a text written and narrated by John Lithgow. The ballet’s framework is the story of a little boy-played with terrifying assurance by P.J. Verhoest, a flaming redhead from the School of American Ballet-who falls asleep in a big museum, presumably the Museum of Natural History, and spends the night there watching or dreaming or fantasizing about the various species he encounters.

Carnival has many clever and charming moments. Wheeldon is always intelligent and frequently witty in his work, and he’s found the right collaborator in Lithgow, whose words score high in the Dr. Seuss sweepstakes, and whose performance manages to be both carefully modulated and apparently carefree. Certainly, everyone’s favorite memory will be of Lithgow got up in matronly elephant guise, in an enormous gray dress with daring pink accents. (He’s literally a matron-a school matron.)

There are other happy inventions: Rachel Rutherford and Pascale van Kipnis as matching turtles (their parasols are their shells), perching and preening on a bench; Arch Higgins as a very human baboon; and, most effective of all, a scene (“Cuckoo”) in which Kyra Nichols, as a distraught mother, waits for news of her missing child. I didn’t recognize her at first, and kept wondering who this extraordinary dramatic actress might be. I should have known.

Carnival ‘s story fits the music, and it’s ingenious enough to keep you watching. The problem lies in the music itself: The individual pieces are so short that Wheeldon is limited in what he can do with them. The less interesting sections-group work for various batches of fluttering birds and scurrying rodents-seem like quick filler; the more ambitious sections don’t have enough time to expand: They’re over just when you want them to keep going. Despite the efforts of Lithgow and Verhoest to bind it together, the ballet breaks apart into a series of skits. But beggars can’t be choosers: The inventiveness of Carnival of the Animals makes it fun to see, at least once.