ABT has completed the first half of its spring season at the Met. We’ve had the Giselles (and their sister Wilis), Bayadére’s Nikiyas (and their sister Shades). We’ve been lucky enough to have the population of the Bright Stream collective farm and the visiting artists who come to cheer them up—though they’re pretty cheerful already. And we’ve had a brand new production of John Cranko’s Onegin. Did we need it? Did we need Onegin at all? No, but ABT needed it. How can the company fill the huge Met without the full-evening costume dramas that keep the tourists coming?
It was in 1965 that Cranko created Onegin for the Stuttgart Ballet and its highly regarded (though not by me) dramatic star Marcia Haydée, and it was in 2001 that ABT took it on. Ballerinas like to dance its heroine, Tatiana, and why not? She loves, she suffers, she has her revenge on the man who spurned her when she was a shy and sensitive girl, and she gets to glitter as Queen of the Ballroom after she marries the rich, older general who’s at the heart of Petersburg society. What she doesn’t get to do is any interesting dancing, but you can’t have everything. It’s waltz, waltz, waltz in the group scenes and lifts, lifts, lifts in the duets. The characterization comes from the emoting, not the steps.
For Russians, to whom Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin is sacred text, the ballet’s story and personae are as familiar and filled with meaning as, for instance, Romeo and Hamlet, are for us. Russians know whole stretches of it by heart, the way we know Shakespeare and Italians know Dante. We Westerners who don’t speak Russian know it best from Tchaikovsky’s glorious opera. (One of the peculiarities of Cranko’s effort is that although he uses Tchaikovsky music, it’s not music from the opera.) For us, Onegin isn’t part of the cultural consciousness; it’s just another story line.
Star performances can partly redeem it, and ABT is star-studded again, thanks to its recent influx of superb ballerinas from Eastern Europe. The Kirov’s Diana Vishneva, a paragon of strength, beauty and dramatic power, was the first-cast Tatiana—it’s a natural role for her. To cast the wonderful Natalia Osipova, now a major attraction here, as Olga was luxury casting; this isn’t a role that demands her exceptional speed and brilliance. Perhaps the most gratifying performance of all came from ABT’s own Marcelo Gomes as Onegin, that callow Byronic figure whose careless pride leads to the fatal duel that destroys three lives, including his own. Gomes is handsome, impudent, haughty yet sympathetic—a riveting figure with nothing riveting to dance. Does it matter? He’s as real a star as his colleague David Hallberg, and as appealing a personality.
The new production is by the estimable Santo Loquasto. It doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt; it’s pretty, conventional, unexciting, like the ballet itself. No treatment of the décor could turn Cranko’s Onegin into a classic. And yet for all its vacuity as a dance event, Onegin has the virtues of lucidity and cohesion. It’s certainly an improvement over such recent other ABT attempts as The Lady of the Camellias.
Osipova’s Giselle was the same girl she first stunned us with several years ago—amazingly buoyant and secure. Her dancing is faultless, her interpretation more open to question. For me, her mad scene and death lack the ultimate pathos we’ve seen in Ulanova, Fonteyn, Makarova and others, including that other current European wonder, Alina Cojocaru. Osipova at the end of Act One leaves me grateful for her ability, not wounded to the heart. Hallberg, her Albrecht, is consistently thrilling. Those legs, that stretch, that grandeur, that radiance. A few mannerisms are creeping in—no doubt picked up at the Bolshoi, for whom he now also dances. The head is flung back just a little too melodramatically as he exits, flying; too much is made of the cape; even the famous hair looks a touch Sovietized. But he’s America’s finest homegrown danseur noble, and he’s entitled.
And then we see him in Ratmansky’s Bright Stream, in full Les Sylphides drag—good-natured, enjoying the joke, part of the fun. And (a quality he shares with Gomes) essentially modest. Bright Stream, with its nonstop energy and endless invention—the big black dog on the bicycle, the human tractor—delights the audience, although the house isn’t as full as it should be: no swans, no Wilis, no Shades. Just about everyone looks terrific in it, maybe because just about everyone, including the happily deployed corps, has something meaningful to do. And, maybe because it’s a ballet about a community, ABT looks like a community when dancing it. Its one weakness is the underdeveloped lead female role; Zina has lots to do, but a good deal of it is generic—we never really know who she is. Even so, Paloma Herrera brings some life to her. Sadly, Julie Kent is too wan, her technique too eroded, to do the same, nor should a woman of her years have to lie on her tummy on the ground, friskily kicking up her heels.
As for the sillinesses of Bayadère, they fade in the light of the great “Kingdom of the Shades” act. ABT’s corps descends the ramp with precision and dignity; the genius of Petipa has supplied the rest. Yes, we have to survive the Orientalia—the Rajah, the High Priest, the stuffed tiger, the ecstatic fakirs, the Bronze Idol, the fatal snake buried in the posy of flowers, the swaying harem-y dancers—but it’s all worth it for the Shades. And some of the nonsense can be fun.
Nikiya is one of the touchstone roles in classical ballet, and perfect for Cojocaru—tender, delicate, passionate, true. She and her superb partner, Herman Cornejo, convince us of their ardor and their doleful fate. Another new Russian import, Polina Semionova, seems twice Cojocaru’s size and was half as effective. The production, by Makarova, is handsome and coherent, but Bayadére is heavy, heavy, and long, long.
City Ballet wound up its spring season with a one-week run of Balanchine’s sublime A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Who can resist it? Shakespeare’s vision is irresistible, Mendelssohn’s music is irresistible. And Balanchine’s genius for narrative is beyond praise. The fluttering fairies and butterflies and bugs, the angry, disputatious Titania and Oberon, the endearing Puck, the two mixed-up sets of lovers, the wooing King Theseus (of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons), Bottom and his rowdy artisan gang—they stride and scamper over the stage with absolutely clarity and perfect timing; there’s not a moment of confusion or blur.
Dream is now 50 years old. Happy golden anniversary!
This year some of the casting, at least of the two performances I saw, was questionable. Maria Kowroski is at her most gorgeous as Titania. She’s both soft and commanding, delicate and imperious, girlish and grand, innocent and sensual. Alas, Teresa Reichlen is short on these qualities. She’s an astonishing physical specimen, almost extraterrestrial—extremely tall with a small head and thin gangly arms. She has remarkable technique, but it’s dissipated as, flinging her limbs around, apparently uncentered, she unleashes a series of startling separate effects that don’t add up to a convincing character or a convincing style of classical dancing. Her one great role is as the big girl in “Rubies”; in ballets like Concerto Barocco and Dream she’s like Alice after drinking from the bottle she finds at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
Another of Peter Martins’s current favorites is pint-size Megan Fairchild. Unsuited as she was to the first movement of Symphony in C and the “Theme and Variations” section of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, she was even less satisfactory in the exquisite and subtle pas de deux that Balanchine created for Violette Verdy in the second act of Dream. Fairchild was nervous, and she faltered, but that’s not the basic problem; she’ll improve. What’s unfixable is that she will never be a paradigm of classicism, and she’s being given the big classical roles for which she doesn’t have the power, the amplitude or, for that matter, the essential articulation in her feet. We’re getting a replay of the Yvonne Borrée story. (On the other hand, she has real comic talent; she was the best thing going in the current revival of Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, a Broadway show masquerading as a ballet. Stroman has musical-comedy smarts, but she has no ballet vocabulary.)
At one Dream performance we had the tallest Butterfly (Brittany Pollack) and the shortest Hippolyta (Ana Sophia Scheller) I’ve ever seen. It was cuckoo. When Savannah Lowery thundered on as the Amazon Queen things were restored to normal: Get out of her way! There were charming performances from Taylor Stanley as Bottom and Chase Finlay as Lysander. from Rebecca Krohn and Sterling Hyltin as Helena and Hermia. The single finest performance of the season, not surprisingly, came from Tiler Peck in the Dream pas de deux—she’s so musically intelligent, so secure, so effortless, so fluent that the Fairchild version vanished like a … dream. But Peck has been these things in every role this season.
Dream is so rich that each time you see it you fall in love with something you hadn’t focused on before. This year, for me, the most moving moment lasted less than a dozen seconds. Bottom has served his purpose as the donkey, and when his worried pals come looking for him, there he is, restored, the donkey’s head vanished. Bottom’s himself again, and the five men hug and prance offstage, the goodness and health of their humanity revealed in a flash. Yes, Balanchine (and Shakespeare and Mendelssohn) are telling us what fools these mortals be. But they also know what mortals these fools be.
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