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

article thedance gottleib A.B.T.s Boys—and Vishneva;   The Kirovs 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.