City Ballet, A.B.T. Surprise: A Pair of Thrilling Finales

At the very last possible moment, after the endless parade of non-events, silly events and disastrous events perpetrated by City Ballet to mark the George Balanchine centenary, there was finally a real event-three performances by the imported Georgian State Dance Company. Yes, Georgia was the place of Balanchine’s origins (although he didn’t set foot there until City Ballet’s 1962 tour of the Soviet Union); and, yes, he was crazy about the Georgian dancers; but the real relevance of their appearance at the State Theatre, the real Balanchine connection, lay in the dancers’ fierce attack, their discipline, their obvious love of what they were doing-these guys and dolls were out there giving their all. After the anemic and despondent work that characterized so many of the season’s earlier performances (I can’t get out of my mind a disastrous Chaconne that brutally exposed the limitations of Darci Kistler and Nilas Martins), it was more than exhilarating, it was thrilling to see this much energy, this absolute command of technique, this uncynical, unironic dedication. We’re grateful when our boys pull off the occasional double tour en l’air; the Georgian men leap skyward, spin twice, come down on one knee, bounce up, and they’re off again. And they make it look easy. They even make dancing on their toes-in their boots-look easy.

In Georgia, apparently, men are men and women are women-at least in their folk dance. But perhaps this is true of all folk dance; it was one of the qualities that contributed to the stunning impression made back in 1985 when Tango Argentino hit town. As with so many animal species, it’s the men here who strut and blaze, the women who appear modest, eyes downcast, gliding rather than glittering. The men are warriors-blades flashing and clashing; the women are maidens (unless they’re queens). “The women must be regarded with the greatest respect,” the program notes tell us; and, again, “This choreographic scene brilliantly displays a profound respect of stern men for the fair lady.” Well, this more or less applies to Balanchine, too (“Ballet is woman”), except that Balanchine’s men are less stern than worshipful.

Would I want to watch the Georgians day in, day out? I wouldn’t-finally, the repertory and the steps aren’t diverse enough. But what a jolt of pleasure for a jaded audience, to say nothing of a jaded critic. And what an example for the men at City Ballet, who season by season seem to lose their buoyancy and zest even as they put on weight.

It’s not only City Ballet that went out in a burst of glory. The last week of A.B.T.’s marathon stay at the Met was devoted to Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet . The cast I saw gave the finest all-round performance of this work I can remember-a superb group effort, reminding us that while it may be over-familiar and under-subtle, R&J is also extremely well put together, full of telling detail and sharp characterization. And it also reminds us of the company’s depth of talent and generosity of spirit.

Everyone was terrific. Angel Corella was all youthful ardency as Romeo, his brilliant virtuosity easy and appealing, never showoffy or showboaty. Amazingly, A.B.T. now has his equal in virtuosity and charm in Herman Cornejo, the Mercutio, who has been giving extraordinary performances throughout the season. He may be less leading-man glamorous than Corella, but he’s just as dynamic and perhaps even purer in technique. Fortunately, the two of them don’t seem to be in competition; indeed, one of the pleasures of watching A.B.T.’s incomparable male contingent is that the leading men appear to be so friendly, so mutually supportive. And if Corella and Cornejo weren’t enough, we had Sascha Radetsky as Benvolio-not their equal, maybe, but wholly estimable, and steadily improving. Paris? The silkily elegant Carlos Molina, with a touch of danger to him. Tybalt? Ethan Brown, about to retire, but as commanding and threatening as ever-a man to respect and fear. The fatal duel with Romeo was for once electric with excitement. Victor Barbee as Lord Capulet, Kirk Peterson doubling as Friar Laurence and the Prince-who could ask for more committed cameo performances? And the same can be said of Georgina Parkinson’s passionate Lady Capulet and the three vigorous harlots of Erica Cornejo, Stella Abrera and Kristi Boone. This is casting from strength.

And then there was Ashley Tuttle as Juliet. Tuttle has always been an exception among A.B.T.’s women-a pure classicist whose acting is subtle and true in a company that all too often rewards slam-bang power or blatant cuteness. Because she lacks obvious starriness, it took a long time for the powers that be to acknowledge her rare gifts, and now there is a serious question about whether she will be back next season: This performance had all the appearance of a farewell, with all the ovations and flowers and tears that are appropriate to such an occasion. But what a performance it was; what a way to go! From first to last, Tuttle gave us a totally believable and moving Juliet, dramatically convincing, beautifully danced. No, she’s not Margot Fonteyn, Lynn Seymour or Natalia Makarova, the three greatest Juliets of the past-who today is?-but she’s the most satisfying Juliet A.B.T. has shown us since Makarova. That the company prefers the more aggressive approach of an Irina Dvorovenko, a Paloma Herrera, an Alessandra Ferri is a damning comment on its failure to understand and deploy its ballerinas. Balanchine’s “Ballet is woman” is certainly not the rule at A.B.T.

Leading up to the final week were the usual array of other full-evening classics. Luckily for me, I was in Russia during the final five Raymonda s-two had proved more than enough. And Don Quixote and I didn’t miss each other either. But there were two interesting and wildly contrasting new Odette-Odiles during Annual Swan Lake Week. The company’s recent import from the Kirov, Veronika Part, had a big success, and you can see why. She’s wonderful-looking-dark, strong-featured, fleshy in an attractive sensual way; and she knows just what she’s doing-this was a performance with brilliant effects. But to me she’s a throwback to an old-fashioned idea of Russian ballerinadom: unmusical (or perhaps it would be fairer to say non-musical); strong on mime; studied; slow, slow, slow. She’s like a silent-film star-a Pola Negri. Or, moving into sound, this is how I imagine Grusinskaya-Garbo’s languorous Grand Hotel ballerina-would dance if we got to see her dance. Yet why not? Part is a real talent, and if she’s given something to do beyond one or two isolated performances a season, she can definitely help take up the A.B.T. ballerina slack.

The other new Swan was Michele Wiles-American (well, Canadian), lithe, sharp, ultra-musical. Like Gillian Murphy, she’s at heart a Balanchine dancer-the two of them were superb together in Ballet Imperial . Wiles’ Odette wasn’t fully formed, but it wasn’t tentative, either; she was feeling it out in direct response to the music and to her splendid partner, David Hallberg, yet another major male talent. (And let’s not forget Ethan Stiefel and Marcelo Gomes.) Not surprisingly, her Odile was completely assured-the inevitable fouettés right on target. Wiles is something of an anomaly in the company: She isn’t heavy with glamour, she doesn’t trade in flirtation or adorableness; she’s just a very good, very strong dancer. It will be interesting to see what A.B.T. does with her; probably they’ll give her a chance here, a chance there, and it will be up to her to seize those chances and force her way into the running. She has Ashley Tuttle (and Amanda McKerrow) to remind her of what can happen in this company to a ballerina who relies on talent rather than personality.

And then there was Coppélia , back in the production staged by Frederic Franklin in 1997. This was a sentimental tribute to “Freddie,” who was celebrating his 90th birthday by getting down to work once again on the Delibes/Saint-Léon masterpiece that he used to dance so triumphantly in the 40’s with the great Alexandra Danilova. It’s cheery, it’s fun-and it, too, is a throwback: to the high spirits and lack of resonance that characterized those good old Ballet Russe days. Gillian Murphy was a sparkling Swanilda, a feisty ringleader who put her flirtatious, slightly goofy Franz (the handsome Gomes) firmly in his place. And then there was Xiomara Reyes, pouty and cute-her mannerisms growing more pronounced year by year, as if to make up for a blurring in her dancing. But her Franz was Herman Cornejo, so clean, buoyant and exciting in the third-act pas de deux that it didn’t really matter whom he was paired with. This was classical dancing on the highest level. Alas, Reyes may be the only principal woman in the company whom he’s tall enough to partner.

A.B.T.’s Coppélia can’t help seeming old-fashioned today, 30 years after Balanchine gave us a Dr. Coppélius who was not just a cranky old fuss-budget, a harmless hometown tinkerer, but a somewhat sinister deluded scientist willing to rob Franz of his life force-in other words, to kill him-in order to give life to his doll, Coppélia. We’re in Dr. Frankenstein territory here, until common sense, Swanilda’s courage and Delibes’ happy music restore the ballet to comedy. But not before we’ve been led to understand how Coppélius’ dangerous delusion and eventual comeuppance skirt tragedy. Is there a place today for a simpler, lighter Coppélia than Balanchine’s? Yes, but it’s not as interesting, and certainly not as moving. It’s as if A.B.T. reverted to its standard old Fille Mal Gardée after blessing us with the rich and glorious Ashton version.