Ranks of Dazzling Boys Prop Up A.B.T.’s Fall Season

This fall, A.B.T. decided to divide its repertory into four set programs, each with a label; you couldn’t cherry-pick your way through the season. Your choices: the Innovative Worksprogram,the Master Works program, the Contemporary Works program and the Family Friendly matinees. Let’s deal with the contemporary works first.

Two imported pieces, both horrible, were by Jirí Kylián-to Mozart. But the Mozartean connection-needless to say, if you know Kylián’s art-had very little to do with the music. There were lots of 18th-century touches, though: rapiers, wigs, Figaro-ish gowns. Petite Mort is somber (it starts in silence), Sechs Tänze is a spoof. The rapiers turn up in both pieces, as do some big stand-up black ball gowns, which have a life of their own. In Petite Mort , apart from the endless rapier-play, there’s a good deal of pedaling feet in the air, splaying legs, rolling around on the floor. Sechs Tänze is in whiteface, the boys bare-chested, lipsticked, grinny. The movement is spastic-romp: grotesque stomping around, slapstick flops to the floor. At the end, the wigs start shedding powder (hilarious) and bubbles start descending from on high (adorable). This was not Mozartean jokiness but jokes at Mozart’s expense. Kylián knows how to produce effects, but his ingenuity is invariably at the service of vulgarity.

Robert Hill’s Dorian was home-grown contemporary, based on Oscar Wilde, to a lush score made up of Chausson, Chopin and Schumann. It follows the novel-up to a point. But it can’t follow all the way: The portrait we see on the stage can’t change before our eyes to indicate Dorian’s aging and corruption. Instead, a second Dorian steps out of the picture frame and confronts the “real” Dorian in some kind of split-personality or split-psyche Jekyll-and-Hyde drama. The two dancers I saw, Jesus Pastor and Carlos Lopez, look enough alike and dance enough alike (they both come from the famous Víctor Ullate School in Spain) so that the device works. But what’s it all about? Do they represent Good and Evil? Unspoiled and corrupt? Straight and gay? Certainly they don’t suggest the pathology of self-loathing that informs the novel, or its frantic wit. Hill can put steps together: His rhapsodic duet for Dorian and the silly little dancer he momentarily loves (Xiomara Reyes) isn’t very original, but it’s pleasing. There are other proofs of his competence-no surprise, given the capable ballets he’s previously made for the company. But Dorian is both too literal and too fuzzy. Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray is intractable material for dance.

As for the purportedly Innovative pieces, Without Words -this season’s entry in the Nacho Duato sweepstakes-wastes Angel Corella, Ethan Stiefel and a handful of others on derivative and pointless agitations. It’s angst-ridden, it’s soulful, it’s yearning, it ends with Stiefel curled up on the floor-do you need to know more? This kind of flashy, empty choreography is a plague, like Céline Dion’s singing. When will A.B.T. realize that recent isn’t the same thing as modern?

The George Harrison “tribute,” Within You Without You , may be a hit, but it’s as vacuous as ever, despite the efforts of its four choreographers. As the song says, “Isn’t it a pity?”

By far the most successful of the “innovative” ballets was William Forsythe’s workwithinwork , to Berio, made for the Frankfurt Ballet five years ago. This isn’t one of Forsythe’s more brutal pieces; its fragments can be raspy, but there’s a restraining intelligence at work. Unlike Duato, Forsythe doesn’t waste Ethan Stiefel: He provides this virtuoso but often misused dancer with an opportunity to explode in a series of shattering spasms across the stage. It’s not a one-man show, though; the entire cast, involving many of the company’s stars and stars-in-waiting, gets to pull out all the stops. I never thought I’d be grateful to William Forsythe, but in this batch of Contemporaries and Innovators, he’s a king.

You can’t accuse the company of hyperbole for applying the term “Master Works” to Diversion of Angels (Graham), Symphonic Variations (Ashton) and Pillar of Fire (Tudor). They’re all major pieces, and all from more or less the same moment: the 1940′s. Too bad they didn’t throw in Balanchine’s 1946 The Four Temperaments ! (It makes you weep to contemplate what “contemporary” and “innovative” meant back then.) Instead of Four T’s , which has never been in A.B.T.’s repertory, we got the Grand Pas Classique from a new version of Petipa’s Raymonda -part of a work in progress that, if this snippet is symptomatic, should be nipped in the bud. Irina Dvorovenko gave her usual applause-trap performance. I used to think her problem was smugness, but I’m beginning to think that she just prepares and polishes and perfects until every trace of spontaneity is gone, and we’re left with nothing but mannerism. The corps looked weak and scared.

But some justice was done to the other masterworks. A.B.T.’s Graham will never look like what we think Graham should look like; the basic Graham contraction, for instance, is so dim it barely exists. Yet Diversion of Angels registers. It’s so beautifully composed, and it was danced with such ardent willingness, that even ironed out, it was a pleasure to watch. A.B.T.’s problem is that without a definable aesthetic of its own, and with such a grab-bag of styles for its dancers to master, everything is ironed out. Pillar of Fire , once the company’s pride, is another superbly crafted ballet, but it demands a kind of dramatic urgency that these dancers can’t provide. I saw the admirable Amanda McKerrow as the tormented, frustrated Hagar. She danced with her usual refinement, but she was more lyrical than intense. Nora Kaye, the original Hagar, and Sallie Wilson, her most notable successor, may not have been true classicists, but they embodied the desperate anguish that Pillar is all about. McKerrow just seemed depressed. The season’s three Hagars-McKerrow, Gillian Murphy and Julie Kent-are all superior dancers, but they’re not dramatic dancers. Maybe the breed has died out.

Symphonic Variations is Ashton’s signature work, in much the same way that Concerto Barocco is Balanchine’s, and yet it doesn’t really resemble the other Ashton works we know best. It’s less charming, less human ; its beauty comes from its stillnesses, its apparently simple fluencies. Not that it’s easy to put across-the dancers are totally exposed; there’s no flash to hide behind. It’s a joy to be watching this true masterwork, and if the company keeps working at it, it will grow more harmonious, less studied. A more vivid musical performance would help; the orchestra and pianist drained all the excitement and energy from César Franck’s inspiring score. The dancers were on their own.

Family Friendly matinees? I’m not sure Balanchine’s great Theme and Variations , created for A.B.T. in 1947, is family friendly, but the performance I saw was deeply satisfying. Michele Wiles is clearly a Balanchine dancer. Her movement is open, expansive, relaxed-she reminds you that Theme ‘s roots lie in Sleeping Beauty . And her partner, the star-in-the-making David Hallberg, matches her large-scale blondness, her ease of manner. Most of the seven double air turns he essayed came off cleanly; he partnered well; but most important, he’s a genuine danseur noble: refined, unmannered, generous. With luck, he’ll be to A.B.T. what Peter Boal has been to City Ballet. Theme was strongly cast throughout, with soloists in all four girl demi roles. The corps-crucial in Balanchine-was spirited and confident. All this and Tchaikovsky, too.

Agnes de Mille’s Three Virgins and a Devil is dated. It may always have been dated. De Mille was relentlessly derivative, so that today her work looks like pure pastiche. (If only her choreography was as interesting as her writing!) In the original A.B.T. cast, back in 1941, the Youth was Jerome Robbins, a superb comic dancer; fittingly, his own first ballet and biggest hit, Fancy Free , was the friendliest piece at this season’s final matinee. Fancy Free is practically dancer-proof, and although this wasn’t an electric performance, it served. Most convincing was Marcelo Gomes, that indispensable manly, handsome, modest and (in this case) funny guy. He does the final bumps-and-grinds variation, Robbins’ own variation, and he does it just right.

The Family also got two pas de deux: Flames of Paris (Kirov, 1932), danced with delicacy and musicality by Gillian Murphy, though she’s not exactly Sovietsky in manner, and by Gennadi Saveliev, who’s Sovietsky, all right, but not exactly delicate or musical; and a parody by Christian Spuck, made in Stuttgart in 1999, called Le Grand Pas de Deux . Dvorovenko, in eyeglasses and carrying a pink handbag (sometimes in her teeth), and her game husband, Maxim Beloserkovsky, camped up a storm, culminating in her dementedly relentless curtain calls. The two of them were funny, and they would have been funnier if they hadn’t underlined everything-mugging and shrugging all over the place. He’s a strong and appealing dancer, she’s highly capable, but they’re so driven, so mannered, that they seem to live in a different world from the rest of the company; they drop in, do it their own way and, like the Cheshire Cat, vanish, leaving nothing behind but their smiles.

But let’s not complain. A.B.T. has a remarkable group of dancers, and this kind of season shows them off far better than the all-snooze classics of the spring. The ranks of dazzling boys just keep swelling-this season spotlighted the talent not only of Hallberg but of newcomers Jesus Pastor and Danny Tidwell, and of steadily improving Carlos Lopez, Carlos Molina, Craig Salstein, Isaac Stappas and half a dozen others. Established principals Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carreño and Vladimir Malakhov made token appearances. Corella and Stiefel and Gomes were the brilliant mainstays. Has there ever been an American company this strong in the male division? I think I’ve suggested it before: How about trading a couple of these guys for a world-class ballerina ….