A.B.T.’s Boys-and Vishneva; The Kirov’s Leaky Corsaire

That American Ballet Theatre is today a more interesting company than New York City Ballet is an astonishing reversal-who could have dreamed it? Not that A.B.T. is cutting edge, unless you think that warmed-over Fokine and Kevin McKenzie’s wrong-headed Swan Lake are on the edge of anything except tedium. But this has been an A.B.T. season that’s given us Ashton’s Sylvia as well as the best squad of ballet boys in the world-and Diana Vishneva. Perhaps even more important, the company is helping-or, at least, allowing-some of its dancers to grow before our eyes, unlike the situation at City Ballet, where talented kids roar in from the school and stagnate … if they don’t fall apart.

The A.B.T. male roster is so deep that for a ballet like Le Corsaire, which requires four virtuoso men, the company can readily mount three different casts. What a roll call: Acosta, Beloserkovsky, Bocca, Carreño, Corella, Cornejo, Gomes, Hallberg, Lopez, Pastor, Radetsky, Saveliev, Stiefel-and that’s without dipping into the corps, out of which young guys like Craig Salstein, Isaac Stappas and Danny Tidwell, among others, are itching to burst. For some bizarre reason, yet another male dancer, Tamás Solymosi, was scheduled to turn up late in the season as a principal. He didn’t get here, which is just as well, since he’d have to be a combination of Nijinsky and Baryshnikov to make an impression in this crowd of standouts.

Of the last five men to be made principals at City Ballet-Fayette, Marcovici, Millepied, De Luz and Hanna-only one has considerable talent, and that’s pint-sized De Luz, who was imported from A.B.T.! With Jock Soto and Peter Boal retired, City Ballet’s male contingent is so reduced that, recently, the company had to pluck a talented kid from the corps, Antonio Carmena, to substitute for Millepied as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (He did a terrific job-elegant and dynamic-in this fiendishly difficult role; alas, Sofiane Sylve, debuting as Titania, was miscast: Where we needed her was in the second-act pas de deux, which was reduced to absolute nullity by Jenifer Ringer.)

Among the pleasures of the current A.B.T. season: Maxim Beloser-kovsky-freed from specializing in partnering his wife, Irina Dvorovenko (out on maternity leave)-showed a new ebullience and command, and as a bonus provided Gillian Murphy with a strong, suitable partner; Herman Cornejo in everything, his extraordinary virtuoso technique so beautifully embedded in a subtle and easy musicality (watch how his clear and high jetés ride the music rather than pummel it); the grand, generous ease of Marcelo Gomes, even if his obvious modesty and good nature make him less than credible when he’s called upon to be a villain. And, of course, the perpetual joy of Angel Corella.

A.B.T.’s women? There’s the beautiful but uninteresting Julie Kent, the relentlessly adorable but irritating Xiomara Reyes, the impressive but limited Veronika Part. With Amanda McKerrow retiring after a long and honorable career and Alexandra Ferri showing her age, Michele Wiles has been hustled into the ranks of the principals, and is fascinating to watch, with her bouncy eagerness and strong technique. She’s hard to define, though-I don’t detect in her a firm idea about any of her roles. It was good to see Paloma Herrera back in the land of the focused and stable (her technique has never been in doubt)-an appealing, unaffected Sylvia followed by a steady, attractive Medora in Le Corsaire.

Not one of these women, though, approaches greatness-only Diana Vishneva, on occasional loan from the Kirov, does that. She’s a total anomaly: a Balanchine dancer from a non-Balanchine world. This season, she made her A.B.T. debut as Odette-Odile the night after Part, another product of the Kirov, took the same double role. What a difference! How could the two of them have come out of the same egg? Part is a dark, big beauty, with elegant limbs and superb feet. She looks like pictures of ballerinas from the 30’s and 40’s -all glamour and manner, as if they’d been studying Garbo in Grand Hotel. But unlike Toumanova, say, or Danilova, she’s weak. The supported turns are tentative, the third-act fouettés a mess. Worse, she’s dramatically empty-the face is frozen, the phrasing bland, the dancing characterless. What she conveys isn’t Odette or Odile but Ballerina. The audience loves it.

Vishneva? Her strength is so phenomenal that she can do anything, and her dance intelligence has led her to a series of careful choices which that strength allows her to realize. When her Odette has moments of abruptness, it’s for a reason: She doesn’t melt at the sight of Siegfried; she’s wary, even resistant. When she decides that she can trust him, that she loves him, you know how she got there. Her final-act despair isn’t emoted; it’s all in her line, her épaulement, her amazing musicality.

Her Odile is wicked, of course, though less seductive than dominating: No Siegfried could escape her. (I wish that here, in the “black” act, she’d add a touch of triumphant glee to her cool bravura.) Her Odette doesn’t tear at your heart (like Fonteyn’s or Makarova’s); her Odile doesn’t beat you over the head with her wings (like Plisetskaya’s). In fact, her creations aren’t basically dramatic; they’re distillations. Although she doesn’t project a sense of spontaneity-her second performance was almost exactly like her first, if a touch more relaxed-the effect isn’t of calculation, but of a carefully shaped idea.

Astonishingly, Vishneva is also the best “Rubies” girl since the original, Patricia McBride. How did this come about in Russia? I watched her a year ago, in St. Petersburg, soaking up the fine points of Balanchine technique in a master class given by Merrill Ashley while the rest of the Kirov ballerinas looked on, either out of their depth or uninterested. Her guesting with A.B.T. is another sign of her artistic ambition. Vishneva is probably the most accomplished, the most complete, ballerina in the world today. Let’s hope that her association with the company takes on a permanent complexion. The boys shouldn’t have it all their own way.

As for McKenzie’s Swan Lake itself, let me complain yet again about the ludicrous splitting of Rothbart between two dancers-the Creature from the Swamp and the oily seducer. About the nutty ending to Act III, with Odile denied an effective exit, slipping away upstage right (where is she going? To thank the help?), so that we can get the full ridiculous effect of Rothbart II turning into Rothbart I in a flash of fire and brimstone (is Swan Lake really about Rothbart?). About Siegfried beating on the doors (why won’t they open?) like a little boy locked in a closet. About the nonsensical beginning of Act IV, with swans galumphing through the woods instead of waiting in despair at the lakeside for Odette’s return. A strong company director would insist on cleaning all this up, but the director of A.B.T. is Kevin McKenzie.

Compared to the Swan Lake production, Anna-Marie Holmes’ staging of Le Corsaire (after Petipa and Sergeyev) is a triumph of good sense. Of course, much less is at stake, since Corsaire is practically mindless. Do you need to know much more than that its score is by five composers? (When in the last act you hit a stretch of Delibes, you practically faint in gratitude.) We have Byron to thank for the original story, which involves pirates, pashas, odalisques, captive maidens, slaves-you name it, Corsaire has it. It has a thrilling sequence of a ship toiling through the waves (a typical 19th-century stage effect), a shipwreck, a series of Orientalish dances with veils, midriffs and undulations; a duet (by Sergeyev) for hero and heroine with Soviet-style lifts and swoons; the famous Corsaire pas de deux (here a pas de trios) that in its concert version gave Nureyev and Fonteyn their most hysterically applauded moments-it’s the one in which The Slave has a feather sticking up from his headband and ends with him flinging himself to the ground, arched upwards.

 And-at the last possible moment-it provides a supreme example of Petipa’s genius in its Jardin Animé sequence: a quintessence of formal classicism for the corps and the two female leads. In other words, Corsaire is an absurd mishmash, but while you’re watching four brilliant guys leap and twist and turn as Conrad (the corsair), Birbanto (his friend, until they fall out), Ali (the slave) and Lankendem (the slave trader), you couldn’t care less.

A week after A.B.T. gave us this shamelessly amusing relic, a touring group from the Kirov turned up in Washington with a week of the same ballet-sort of. Actually, their Corsaire is of a vulgarity and stupidity that make the Holmes version look like Theme and Variations. What’s happened to the Kirov? Its Corsaire seems to spring less from Byron than from Vegas.

Even the Jardin Animé scene goes wrong, despite its three real live fountains. (The sound of cascading water doesn’t do a lot for Delibes.) Holmes makes sense of it by showing it as a dream sequence; the Kirov just shoves it in, after having undercut it by bringing on the girls in advance, as if they’re just another bunch of harem slaves. The sets and costumes are atrocious-particularly offensive is Medora’s tutu in what a friend identified as Pepto-Bismol-lite. The ship sequence is highly effective, although the shipwreck takes place at the beginning of the ballet, while Holmes puts it at the end-but then, narrative integrity is hardly Le Corsaire’s strong point. In the Kirov version, only the Petipa variations for the three odalisques are worth watching.

More seriously awry than the foolishness of the production is what’s happened to Kirov style, once the purest in world ballet-the style that produced Pavlova, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Danilova, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov et al. With the exception of Vishneva and Pavlenko (not on hand in Washington), it’s become either glacial and affected or coarse. I saw, as Medora, a new wunderkind named Alina Somova-tall, thin, pretty, blond, technically strong. She could fouetté, and she did fouetté. She also flung her legs up, out and around in paroxysms of hyperextension; her limbs don’t seem organically connected to her body-they fly off into their own universe. It was disturbing to watch, both in itself and as a symptom of what one fears may be a company disease.

Somova is so extreme that a talented new choreographer might possibly find a way to capitalize on her qualities. But meanwhile, let’s not pretend that this is Kirov classicism “after Petipa.” To me, it’s just a distressing signal of aesthetic confusion.