City Ballet got one last season, and now A.B.T. has one, too—a new ballet by Jorma Elo, the latest Designated Choreographer of the Day. “Jorma Elo is huge,” The New York Times recently quoted someone as saying. “Huge!” So huge that apparently he’s making seven new ballets for seven different companies this season alone. (Is this a record?) What’s more, he’s clearly a nice guy.
A.B.T.’s Elo, Glow–Stop, is softer, quirkier, darker than City Ballet’s Slice to Sharp, which was all slam-bang virtuosity. But at bottom, they’re the same: fluent and empty, unstructured (or if they have a structure, it’s invisible to the naked eye), effective without being interesting. And what’s their relationship to their music? The new piece begins with part of a Mozart symphony and goes on to an endless stretch of Philip Glass, but from what the dancers are doing, you wouldn’t know that the music has shifted gears; it’s just more of the same. (I’m sure Elo would dispute this: Telling choreographers or dancers they’re not musical is the ultimate insult—like telling people they have no sense of humor.)
This use of contrasting composers is not the only ploy Elo has lifted from Twyla Tharp, who couldn’t have known what she was getting us all into back in the days of Push Comes to Shove (1976). There’s lots of idiomatic gesture in Glow–Stop (another irritatingly enigmatic Elo title) that looks like misunderstood and undigested Tharp. On the basis of Glow and Slice, we can see that Elo is as inventive as needlework: There are pretty or amusing or “wow!” moments, but they come from other peoples’ patterns, not from inside himself—unless that self is pure pasticheur. Though I don’t know whom we can blame for the final miniature epiphany: Herman Cornejo standing still, looking anxious, his hand all a-twitch. Is this the “Stop” after the “Glow?”
The dancers are obviously enjoying themselves, the way dancers do when a choreographer challenges them with lots of hard little things to do, however pointless. Not that we get to see all of them: The stage is so dimly lit (by Brad Fields) that not only the dancers’ movements but often their identities are obscured. Is that Julie Kent over there? And there goes Kristi Boone—I think. And do choreographers really believe that somber lighting guarantees high seriousness? The darkness has one advantage, though: It reduces the effect of the ugly Zack Brown costumes.
Non-dance people find it hard to sense content in ballet—what they respond to are virtuoso excitements and powerful personalities. But for dance people, content, or meaning, declares itself at once in a ballet if it’s there. Glow–Stop’s premiere came on Thursday. On both Wednesday and Friday, we got Tharp’s In the Upper Room; also on display during these few days were Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table and Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante. These three works are violently dissimilar, but all of them immediately reveal conviction, a point of view, the mind of an artist with something to tell us. Huge Jorma Elo reveals nothing besides large ambition and appreciation of his betters.
As for In the Upper Room, a big hit when revived last year, it was looking wan and dispirited opening night, not only lacking the star power of Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella, but under-rehearsed. It also suffered from the substitution of Irina Dvorovenko for Paloma Herrera in the “ballerina” role. Dvorovenko is frighteningly smooth, but, as usual, she isn’t inhabiting the ballet—I don’t think she has the slightest notion of what Tharp is all about; she’s just out there selling herself. The hero of the occasion was the hard-working, selfless Sascha Radetsky, dancing full-out at every instant and holding things together without showing off. Sometimes I wish he knew how to show off: The one thing he lacks is the belief that he can be a star—everything about him is modest, even his haircut. By the second performance, things in general were looking better. The two “bomb squad” girls were synchronized, the “stompers” were stomping harder, and the ballet didn’t sag as badly.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to watch In the Upper Room being set on another company, and the more you watch it being brought to life, the more you recognize that it’s not only kinetically thrilling but brilliantly put together. For once, the customary standing ovations are earned.
The Green Table repeats its powerful effect this season. Amazingly, David Hallberg’s performance as Death is even stronger and more commanding than it was. He’s not only a terrifying presence, but he’s deeply musical underneath the terrifying costume and makeup. This is one of the (few) great performances of recent years.
THE TWO MAJOR REVIVALS THIS SEASON are Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes and Symphonie Concertante. The Morris piece, which A.B.T. premiered in 1988, is a honey: Morris clearly enjoying playing at “ballet” and responding unerringly to Virgil Thomson’s luminous piano score. The happiest surprise this time round was the wonderful dancing of Michele Wiles. She’s an oddity—brimming over with talent but unfocused so much of the time; I don’t think the company knows what to do with her, and it doesn’t look as if she has sympathetic coaching. In the Morris piece, she’s able to show us the elegant classicist that she is: a true Balanchine dancer in her attack, energy, purity. (I first loved her, years ago, as the Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son.) In big dramatic roles, she goes in and out of sync, but here she’s a radiant presence. And she seems to have recovered from the Smiling Sickness.
In Symphonie Concertante (1947), she dances the “violin,” while Veronika Part dances the “viola.” Is A.B.T. nuts? Wiles, as I say, is a Balanchine dancer; Part doesn’t have the strength, the attack, the fresh charm that this ballet, made on students, requires. She comes from an entirely different world from that of Wiles, Balanchine and Mozart. Part is the kind of ballerina fans love—all deliberate, heavy glamour in place of energy and technique. In the original Ballet Society cast, only Maria Tallchief (the viola) and Todd Bolender were professionals; the violin, Tanaquil Le Clercq, was still in the school. She’d been chosen for the role two years earlier, at 16, for a school performance—because, she claimed, everyone else was even worse than she was. (Take that with a cellar of salt: At 18, when I first saw her, she was already a phenomenon.)
The ballet itself, from the same period as other Balanchine exercises in classicism like Symphony in C and Theme and Variations, is hardly on their level—which is why it dropped out of the repertory for so many decades. But it has real virtues apart from its historical interest, and this revival has made it possible for us to enjoy them. The second cast—Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera—was better matched than Wiles-Part, though neither Kent nor Herrera has the easy strength the piece requires. They were a definite improvement on the orchestra, however, which kept threatening to fall apart.
AT THE OPENING-NIGHT GALA, we had the predictable Swan Lake Act II pas de deux; a snippet of Lar Lubovitch’s lugubrious Meadow (he was another “huge” one once); Tharp’s Sinatra Suite (which isn’t coming to life—it needs the glamour of Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo, on whom it was made); and the pyrotechnical Diana and Acteon pas de deux, which is what you get at galas when you don’t get the Don Quixote pas de deux or the Le Corsaire pas de deux. Diana was danced by Xiomara Reyes, yet another ballerina misfire. How long will the company go on enabling her in the notion that she’s a prima rather than a soubrette? She’s got the mannerisms, but she doesn’t have the moves; it’s not that she lacks technique but that she has the wrong idea.
Here’s a thought, A.B.T.: Take Reyes, Part and Dvorovenko and cast them in Gala Performance, Antony Tudor’s once-popular spoof of ego-mad ballerinas. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch.