A.B.T.’s Girls on the Move, Anne Boleyn to the Sylphides

Yes, A.B.T. is where the boys are-the male contingent is now so strong that the absence of Ethan Stiefel during the season just ended hardly seemed to matter-but at last some of the girls have been getting their licks in, too. The ascending Veronika Part and Michelle Wiles are growing more visible. And more attention is being paid to Carmen Corella and to Maria Riccetto (who was made a soloist several years ago but never seemed to dance), as well as to a number of strong girls in the corps, from Kristi Boone, Yuriko Kajiya and Laura Hidalgo to the very young Sarah Lane, who was singled out by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to dance the role of Anne Boleyn in the last performance of his new (to A.B.T.) ballet, VIII. Apart from the satisfactions we may receive from any of these up-and-coming performers in any specific part, we’re beginning to be able to watch A.B.T. the way we spent decades watching New York City Ballet-that is, tracking talented young dancers as they make their way through the company. And for serious ballet lovers, there’s no greater satisfaction.

To judge from her Anne Boleyn, Lane is a real talent. She’s small, light and quick, with a heart-shaped face and the right sly, provocative approach to the role. She makes it clear what she has to offer King Henry, and she makes sure he takes it. Nor does it come as a surprise that her seductiveness isn’t enough to hold him once he’s turned away; she’s shallow, unlike the more richly nuanced Katherine of Aragon, so that at the end, she’s pathetic rather than tragic. This is more or less true to history, although Wheeldon is oversimplifying when he tells us that Anne was sent to her death “for not much more than her failure to provide a son and heir to the throne of England.” But his evocation of the longed-for son does provide a motive of sorts for the action. The important thing is that Lane’s Boleyn works both as a performance in itself and as a reflection of the Anne Boleyn we think we know. Of course, she had the advantage of appearing in the role after the first-cast Julie Kent, whose unflappable, competent blandness inevitably deflects attention.

VIII is a departure for Wheeldon, at least as we know him from his work in New York. His best ballets have been dark Balanchinian abstractions: Polyphonia ,

Morphoses and, for San Francisco, Continuum. His light-hearted novelties like Carnival of the Animals and Variations Sérieuses have had less to offer; they seem more dutiful than achieved. Now we see him attempting a big psychological/historical drama, and with dance vocabulary and atmosphere that seem to descend less from Balanchine than from Tudor and Graham: The controlled spasms of Queens Katherine and Anne would be at home in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire or Graham’s Errand into the Maze. VIII is a substantial achievement in that not only do Wheeldon’s steps make complete sense in relation to his subject and his music (Britten’s highly charged Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge ), but he has found a way to tell a large story that needed to be compressed.

The eight couples that make up Wheeldon’s corps suggest the anxious and turbulent life of Henry’s court, punctuated by its brilliance, as four masked dancers burst in to entertain and distract. His intense solos for Katherine-more effectively performed by the strong, compelling Kristi Boone than by Paloma Herrera (I didn’t see Alessandra Ferri)-convey her sad story. Wheeldon’s Henry, though, is underdeveloped. This isn’t the older, larger-than-life Henry we know from Holbein, or the increasingly tyrannical one we know from history. So who is he? Just a philanderer who happens to be a king who requires a male heir? Angel Corella is a wonderful dancer, but he has nothing to tell us about Henry the Eighth. Gennadi Saveliev is closer to the physical type, but he too has to struggle to invent a Henry who isn’t really defined by his choreographer. Beggars can’t be choosers, though: Compared to the specious and tedious new works that have come and gone at A.B.T. in recent years, VIII is a real success,  motored by Wheeldon’s unfailing dance intelligence. He made this piece in 2001 for the Hamburg Ballet. Why doesn’t this side of his ambition reveal itself at City Ballet, where he’s the official resident choreographer?

The other new ballet of the season was by the young Trey McIntyre, whose work is everywhere these days, and you can see why. He’s capable and confident; he keeps his dancers moving in not unattractive ways; and he makes no demands-essentially, every piece of his that I’ve seen is so much pretty wallpaper. But at least this particular piece- Pretty Good Year -is flocked wallpaper; it has a little texture. The music is by Dvorak: three of the four movements of his Piano Trio in B-flat Major. (Those 35 minutes of music have already stretched McIntyre’s capacity for invention, so it’s fortunate that he decided to omit the third movement.) Pretty Good Year is a work for seven dancers, most of it sprightly though with moments of angst. Occasionally the central male dancer-I saw that paragon David Hallberg, still only a soloist but already a star-falls to the floor and lies there on his back, spent. Or napping? It doesn’t matter, because McIntyre’s work isn’t about content, it’s only about mechanics. At least they’re smooth.

We were also given the beginning of A.B.T.’s attempt to reclaim Fokine as a viable part of the repertory: Both Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose re-entered the repertory after many years’ absence. Les Sylphides has strong associations for the company-staged by Fokine himself, it was the opening ballet on A.B.T.’s opening night, Jan. 11, 1940.  But more than 60 years have gone by since then, and Sylphides has lost its vitality-I haven’t seen a convincing performance in 20 years. Yes, it’s of immense historical importance, looking back in its groupings to Petipa and Ivanov and forward to the Balanchine of Serenade. But today-let’s be honest-it’s more than a little boring, and even a little silly, though that may be because we’ve seen it most frequently these past years through the skewed vision of the all-male Trocks. Its poetic delicacies aren’t natural to today’s athletic dancers-certainly not to the cast I saw the other day, who solemnly (and very, very slowly) went through the motions to almost no effect.

As for Spectre, has it ever really worked since the original cast of Nijinsky and Karsavina? Fokine didn’t think anyone who came later compared to them, and the critic Jacques Rivière in 1913, only two years after it was created, called it “a faded flower, too fragile to withstand the constant inhalation of its own perfume.” The brilliant Herman Cornejo is certainly up to its technical demands (although the difficulty of the famous leap out the window has been seriously exaggerated), but he isn’t a dancer who gives off perfume. As the girl who comes back from the ball and dreams of the rose, Maria Riccetto did brave work, but although the audience responds to the old-fashioned greeting-card atmosphere of the ballet-the pretty set, the quaint costumes-it’s a losing battle. The Fokine aesthetic, so thrilling in its day, no longer carries. We haven’t seen the last of the company’s attempt at resuscitation: Both Petrouchka and the Polovtsian Dances are scheduled for spring.

Riccetto also made a good impression in Balanchine’s Mozartiana, his last major work. She has assured allegro attack and a vivid wit; she really moves. More attention was paid to the ex-Kirov Veronika Part in the same role: She has passionate admirers, who swoon over her dark beauty, her superb arms, her velvety, deliberate style. I like her, too, but not to the point of swooning. Unlike Riccetto, she doesn’t easily move through passages-everything is carefully presented. And she’s not completely secure in the more complicated moments of this killer role. But she seems to have lost some weight and gained some lightness, and she was more open and energized the second time I saw her. She’s a long way, though, from the great performances this ballet has received not only from the original, Suzanne Farrell, but from her successors at City Ballet, from Maria Calegari (who staged this production) to Kyra Nichols to Maria Kowroski. Can the nonpareil Calegari, a model of intelligence and sensitivity, have sanctioned the nonstop smiling of almost everyone onstage, from the male leads (Corella and, most egregiously, Maxim Beloserkovsky) to Cornejo and Carlos Lopez, who danced the gigue, to the four corps girls and the four little girls who round out the cast? When did Mozartiana become a grinfest?

A final word on the company: It’s in terrific shape. You could see that most clearly in the group effort required by William Forsythe’s propulsive workwithinwork, a ballet that would just collapse without the high level of ability and commitment its cast brought to it. And what a cast! Corella, Hallberg, Herrera, Wiles, Lopez, Boone, the glittering Gillian Murphy, the stalwart Marcelo Gomes and more. The originally scheduled Stiefel would have been almost too much of a good thing.