A Happy Week for Dance Lovers

gillian murphy and david hallberg gene schiavone A Happy Week for Dance Lovers

Let’s start with the magnificent performance of Ashton’s incomparable The Dream at the first of three all-Ashton evenings at ABT. Gillian Murphy brings to Titania, her most completely satisfying role, the lyricism, the depth, the allure that elsewhere can be overshadowed by her powerful technique. And she’s perfectly matched by David Hallberg, whose long torso and peerless legs, along with the radiance of his dance intelligence and the nobility of his concept of Oberon—lovingly, amusedly resolute—command the stage and define the ballet. Whereas Balanchine’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about contention, Ashton’s is about resolution: The quarrel between the fairy king and queen isn’t serious; it’s a pretext for reconciliation—and for the rhapsodic duet between them, one of the very greatest love duets in all of ballet.

Do we have to wait another 10 years to see Brahms-Haydn again? And why don’t other companies snap it up?

And then there’s Herman Cornejo’s nonpareil Puck. He has those fantastic explosive jumps as he arches upward with his legs nimbly tucked beneath him. He has Puck’s mischief, but it’s a modest mischief, the essence of charm without a touch of cuteness. He’s short, but so what? So were Villella and Baryshnikov, and he possesses their rarer-than-rare mix of technique, virility and commitment. Finally, the two pairs of lovers (more comic, less tormented than Balanchine’s), the fluent corps and Julio Bragado-Young’s highly original Bottom—not so much a bumpkin as an endearingly bewildered young man—rose to the occasion. There’s one more performance of The Dream with this cast, on Wednesday, June 30, and anyone who can get to the Met that night shouldn’t hesitate.

 

LAST WEEK, ABT also gave us an all-American triple bill, highlighted by the revival, after a decade or so, of Twyla Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations. This is one of her masterly works—formal, restrained and bursting with invention. Apart from the five leading couples, there are two sets of demis plus a corps of 16, and as with Balanchine, these secondary roles are not padding or background; they’re essential to Tharp’s ingenious explorations of the vivid, majestic music. And they’re essential to the large-scale finale that, with another nod to Balanchine, brings the ballet to a thrilling close.

Tharp has given Paloma Herrera her most interesting role (she was in the original cast back in 2000), freeing her from the somewhat stiff carefulness she brings to much of her work. The two casts I saw involved Cornejo, Hallberg, Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Julie Kent, Sarah Lane, Jose Manuel Carreño and Veronika Part, along with much of the rest of the cream of ABT’s crop, and as always, Tharp reveals dancers at their best. Do we have to wait another 10 years to see Brahms-Haydn again? And why don’t other companies snap it up?

The second work on the program was Paul Taylor’s Company B, somewhat dispirited with one cast, happily ratcheted up in energy and zest with another. Once again Murphy (“I Can Dream, Can’t I?”) and Cornejo (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”) stood out, as did Craig Salstein’s appealingly self-satisfied and strutty “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!”

As for Jerome Robbins’ masterpiece Fancy Free (which I first saw as a kid in the mid-’40s), it got a vigorous workout from Cornejo (again), Carreño and Ethan Stiefel. Carreño was particularly convincing as the hip-swinging rumba-ist (Robbins’ own role), but Stiefel—possibly to camouflage his somewhat eroded technique—has chosen to color his hair a blinding gold, and (worse) paste a shit-kicking grin on his face. The original, John Kriza, was a typically nice all-American kid, not a mugging goofball. Sometimes Fancy Free in these later years invites caricature or shtick—Stella Abrera as the first girl leans in that direction. But the great appeal of the ballet lay in the fact that the dancers looked just like the real sailors and girls out on the street—except they could dance.

 

FAR FROM A triumph, alas, was No. 6 of City Ballet’s season premieres, Mauro Bigonzetti’s Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light), his fourth ballet for the company. It’s dark, shapeless, endless. To the extent that you can see them, the dancers are kept busy in their puffy and unflattering little semi-tutus and bare midriffs (the girls) and their wide pants and bare chests (the boys). There are lots of splayed fingers, crooked feet and jutting posteriors, and far too much use of a running slide that’s meant to be a binding theme but ends up as an irritating tic. The music, by Bigonzetti’s longtime collaborator, Bruno Moretti, alternates between pointless climaxes that come out of nowhere and soaring epiphanies—and in both cases is pure Hollywood, circa 1940.

Luckily, the same program included a ravishing performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, the opening section for three couples as well as the concluding duet, which is often shown on its own. This is Wendy Whelan at her best—lyrical, delicate, inspiring; Craig Hall lifts and floats her with wonderful ease. Whelan has mastered if not conquered many roles through hard work and integrity, but it’s Wheeldon who’s defined and liberated her.

Who Cares? is safe in the hands of Tiler Peck, who’s closing in on the consummate level of Patricia McBride, and Robert Fairchild; he’s loose, free-wheeling and touchingly attentive to his three ballerinas, and he never stints. Perhaps, though, he could use a little more swagger—this is a showboat role. He’s Apollo, after all—leader, not servant, to his three muses.

It was right and proper for City Ballet to celebrate Philip Neal’s 22 years of stalwart and gracious service with a farewell gala. He’s been used primarily as a partner to the taller ballerinas—Whelan, Kyra Nichols, Darci Kistler, Maria Kowroski—but he’s more than a porteur. That became evident when Suzanne Farrell coached him as Apollo for her Kennedy Center–based company and he turned in a refined, reflective and subtly accented performance. At his gala he was his usual striking yet modest self—a dancer to remember with affection and gratitude.

THE MOST EXCITING—because most unexpected—thrill of the week was a performance of Martha Graham’s Sketches from ‘Chronicle’ given by the Graham company at the Joyce. Its director, Janet Eilber, has been commissioning new works to complement the Graham repertory, and is trying to make Graham “relevant”—this year, by launching a “Political Dance Project.” 

Well, Graham was political—at one time and up to a point—and from a pedagogical viewpoint, this is an interesting concept. At the performance I saw, an elaborate new piece created by Anne Bogart—American Document (2010), a look back at Graham’s own American Document of 1938—proved to be an old-fashioned pageanty number, utilizing performers from the SITI Company together with the Graham dancers. The costumes were haute-Americana. Texts were read—Green Grow the Lilacs (the source of Oklahoma!), Sinclair Lewis, Jack Kerouac, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, lots and lots of Walt Whitman and up-to-the-minute takes on the Iraq war, torture, feminism. The big question: What is an American? Anne Bogart doesn’t have the answer, but agitprop rarely has answers.

And then: Graham herself. The three sketches from Chronicle are powerful, and must once have seemed incendiary. The miracle is that this season they were far more effective than in recent years. I saw Blakeley White-McGuire in the Graham roles: towering, searing, totally invested. She’s not like Graham, but this is what Graham was like. The entire band of women was magnificent—they’ve been superbly drilled and coached, their momentum never deflected, their unity one of spirit as well as training. This was the strongest all-round Graham performance I’ve seen since the company came back to life after the recent troubles. It’s dancing the Graham repertoire this well—not the themes and concepts— that is the justification for the company’s continued existence.