Doug Varone Divides Opinion; Bayadere Challenges A.B.T.

IT’S THE SAME WITH INDIVIDUAL DANCERS. In the run of Bayadères with which A.B.T. has opened its spring season, we’ve seen a bewildering array of performances, particularly in the central role of Nikiya, the temple dancer who is loved and betrayed by Solor. If you’re seeing only the famous “Kingdom of the Shades” scene—the way we first encountered Bayadère in the West—Nikiya is an emblem of pure Kirov classicism. But if you’re watching the entire ballet, she’s also an exotic, a victim, an object of passion and despair. Her role is a prime example of the dual demands on a ballerina that spark so many 19th-century works: Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile; Giselle’s peasant girl and Wili. Mastering all aspects of Nikiya is a formidable challenge. Pavlova was a famous Nikiya; Fonteyn another; the Kirov’s Altynai Asylmuratova yet another.

The three ballerinas I saw last week were radically different—and to radically different effect. I have a Veronika Part problem: Her somewhat bovine beauty, her deliberate and affected mannerisms, her unmusicality get in the way of my appreciating her dance glamour. But at least I can understand why others worship her. Paloma Herrera is a pleasing and honest lyrical dancer, but she has neither the sensuality of the temple dancer nor the absolute authority of technique which the “Shades” act calls for.

And then there is Diana Vishneva. She has everything—or almost everything. (I’m not sure I sense deep feeling.) But the beauty of her plastique—that supple back and exquisite arabesque; the easy command; the stage smarts…. She’s a supreme example of Kirov training combined with a powerful dance intelligence. Who else is equally impressive as Odette and as the lead girl in Balanchine’s Rubies—two roles that are almost a contradiction in terms? Her association with A.B.T. is an unalloyed blessing.

The outstanding Solor I saw was David Hallberg—magnificent in his size, pliancy, ardor. He excites without effort and dominates the stage without hogging it. And what an actor! Alas, he wasn’t paired with Vishneva, whom he would set off more effectively than Ethan Stiefel does, whereas Stiefel would look more comfortable with the shorter Herrera. Stiefel, hardly an actor at all—and sometimes one wishes he wouldn’t try—is looking good after his recent knee problems, but he’s no Indian warrior: He’s a dazzling all-American boy trapped in a 19th-century melodrama (and not one, like Le Corsaire, that he can have fun with).

Another dancer about whom viewers disagree is that other American whiz-bang, Gillian Murphy. She was trained by Melissa Hayden, which means she’s a Balanchine dancer—strong, quick, musical. I liked her very much as Gamzatti (the Amneris character)—her acting is improving and she was well up to the technical challenges of the betrothal-scene pas de deux. Various highly knowledgeable British and Russian observers find the tightness in Murphy’s upper body—the lack of épaulement—impossible to get past, despite their acknowledgement of her dance powers. For me, her thrusting brilliance is primary. But then my eye was formed by Balanchine, who famously sniffed, “The English dance from the waist up.”

There were other gratifying performances sprinkled through these Bayadères. No one could fault Herman Cornejo’s brilliant Bronze Idol: He’s a paragon of dynamic excitement fused with non-showoff ease. (Baryshnikov is the greatest example of a dancer with this combination of qualities, but then Baryshnikov was a paragon of everything.) Both Stella Abrera and Michele Wiles were convincing Gamzattis. Perhaps Craig Salstein, recently promoted to soloist, was over the top as the Head Fakir, but you can’t do too much in this role, you can only do too little; he galvanized the opening temple scene. And, finally, a tip of the hat to Sarawanee Tanatanit, whose Aya, Gamzatti’s servant, carries servility to new heights—or depths. Oh, the mysterious East ….