If ever we needed proof that the gods giveth even as they taketh away, it was to be found at ABT this season, when on successive evenings the company presented in the role of Giselle first Nina Ananiashvili, the greatly admired ballerina on the verge of retirement, then the very young and much heralded Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova.
Ananiashvili has never got by on mere virtuosity. She has an endearing personality, appealing looks and—most important—a profound musicality. In Act II, transformed into a Wili, her long legato phrasing was utterly ravishing. Yes, the technique was still intact—the hops on pointe, the balances, the arabesques—but you didn’t really notice it because you were so caught up in the exquisite flow as she moved in and out of every famous moment. Her dancing is seamless, subtle, almost low-key, perhaps at its most affecting in those great climactic pas de deux, like the one in the last act of Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, in which she quietly projects the ecstatic fulfillment of romantic love.
Again and again, Ananiashvili has proven herself to be a delicate yet deep artist. She will be badly missed by the New York audience, who this season also had the pleasure of seeing her triumph in such diverse ballets as Balanchine’s Mozartiana and Swan Lake. And finally she is doing us (and herself) the favor of retiring while her dancing is still at, or close to, its peak: yet another demonstration of her intelligence, sensitivity and integrity.
Osipova is a very different kind of dance animal. On YouTube, you can catch her dazzling virtuosity in a variety of roles, most thrillingly as Kitri in Don Quixote. But YouTube is no substitute for the real thing. From her first steps in Act I of Giselle, it was overwhelmingly clear that here was an electrifying performer, with a lightness, a fleetness and an elevation that seem to stretch the limits of what a ballerina can achieve. Of medium height, with endless arms and legs, she has a piquant face and black hair (though in one interview, she confesses that she’s naturally blond, but aspires to the dark look of Plisetskaya and Fonteyn). Her jump is astounding, her fouettés irreproachable, the speed and accuracy of her footwork nonpareil. And she has charm. In the first act of Giselle, there were moments that seemed too studied, too charming, but the mad scene was convincing for a new Giselle, and the second act was so light, so airy and yet so solid that her success was complete. There hasn’t been an ABT debut performance this exciting since Baryshnikov’s decades ago; we can only hope that the company can enter into an extended relationship with her the way they have with Ananiashvili and Diana Vishneva.
Osipova’s La Sylphide was less impressive than her Giselle—Bournonville style is as yet alien to her, although her lovely dance qualities shone through. This famous ballet, in its Erik Bruhn version, didn’t really prevail this season; it needs to be rethought (but not, please, retired). And it was a good idea to pair it with Paul Taylor’s Airs, at which the ABT dancers made a gallant stab.
AS FOR OUR leading American ballerina, Gillian Murphy simply gets better and better. Her technique is impeccable—strong, secure, nuanced—and her acting has improved immeasurably. This season she was the most persuasive of the heroines in Ashton’s splendid Sylvia, with its glorious Delibes score and its predictable but engaging story: One of the goddess Diana’s virgin huntresses defies the god Eros, and (of course) is pierced with one of his arrows and surrenders to Love. Sylvia was one of the great Fonteyn roles, demanding robustness in the first act, pathos in the second (when Sylvia is kidnapped by an evil hunter) and triumphant bravura in the third, when Eros reunites her with the shepherd Aminta. Four years ago, when ABT first took on Sylvia, Murphy—with her superb athleticism—was already resplendent in Act I. Today she’s found a touching forlorn quality for the second act and a radiant splendor for the third.
Sylvia also proved to be a rewarding role for Vishneva. She’s such an exemplary dancer, so incapable of inferior work, that one almost starts to take her for granted. She isn’t really an Ashton dancer, but Sylvia is a gloss on 19th-century French ballet, and her classicism carries her through. She’s perhaps a little too much of a dominatrix in Act I—a little too bossy with her troop of huntresses and a touch too rude in her challenge to Eros—but it’s always wonderful to watch dancing on this elevated level.
Paloma Herrera, yet another Sylvia, conscientiously held things together in her pleasant, appealing way. Audiences like her, critics like her, even I like her. But in 15 years of watching her, I’ve never for a moment been excited by her; she seems to me the same nice, reliable executant in every role. I’d rather take my chances watching the far more uneven but always stimulating Michele Wiles.
AS FOR THE MEN what’s left to say about ABT’s amazing contingent of stars? There’s Marcelo Gomes—romantic, generous, commanding. There’s David Hallberg, he of the gorgeous line and astonishing jump. Herman Cornejo, Ethan Stiefel (out for too much of the season), Angel Corella, Jose Manuel Carreño—it’s a monopoly. And Cory Stearns, a new soloist, is coming up fast. Then there’s the unique Daniil Simkin, to me more of a specialty act than a normal dancer for a normal repertory. He whirls, he twirls, but, for instance, as the little goat in the finale of Sylvia, in his super-snug, form-fitting blue costume (with blue face and blue wig), he looked neither goatish nor human—not so much gender confusion as species confusion. In the same role, Carlos Lopez was appropriately goatish and ruttish.
Also impressive in Sylvia was Gennadi Saveliev as the wicked hunter Orion; he has the bulk, the strength, the brutishness. (Casting the more refined Jared Matthews both as Orion and Hilarion in Giselle was a less fortunate idea.) The important thing is that ABT is carefully bringing along its younger dancers, so that we’re beginning to enjoy the pleasures with which City Ballet has provided us for more than 50 years: tracking careers from the very start. Yes, the company imports an Osipova at the very top, but it’s also raising and grooming its own. Among the talented young who made themselves felt this season were Alexandre Hammoudi, Arron Scott, Blaine Hoven and two highly talented (and highly dissimilar) girls: the lyrical, enchanting Hee Seo and the provocative and fascinating Simone Messmer. Not only was Messmer the only one in the cast of Taylor’s Airs who really looked at home, but also—in a New York debut—she was a remarkably strong, self-assured and authoritative Queen of the Wilis. Now there’s a one-two punch.