Revitalized by Ashton, A.B.T.’s Dancers Shine

For two weeks this season, ballet came back to life in New York as something you could love without hesitation

For two weeks this season, ballet came back to life in New York as something you could love without hesitation or reservation. American Ballet Theatre, after floundering so long in search of plausible repertory, found it where they should have been looking all this time-in Frederick Ashton. By staging so beautifully two of his greatest works- La Fille Mal Gardée and The Dream -the company not only revitalized its dancers, but revitalized an audience that’s spent far too long dutifully trying to find pleasure in duds like The Snow Maiden , super-duds like Pied Piper , and the Crankotrash of The Taming of the Shrew and Onegin . Gallant stabs at Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels and Balanchine’s Symphony in C haven’t measured up to these masterpieces. But Ashton suits A.B.T.-and if the company perseveres, he will come to suit the big Met audience, too. As a friend of mine remarked after the cheering at the end of Fille had died down, “You’d have to be dead not to love it.”

This is not the conventional Fille that A.B.T. was trotting out in the 70’s, a production that had nothing to recommend it but the star power of Makarova, Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. This is Ashton’s great reinvention of 1960, in which the traditional French tale of young lovers triumphing over parental disapproval is transmuted into a glorious English pastoral, reflecting, as Ashton wrote, an “eternally late spring … of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees-the suspended stillness of a Constable landscape of my beloved Suffolk, luminous and calm.” Above all, it’s a ballet about love: Lise and Colas’ love for each other, of course, but also the love that is so touchingly indicated between Lise and her mother, the Widow Simone, who is determined to marry off her daughter to the zany, rich simpleton, Alain; the love of the strutting cockerel for his four hens, of Alain for his red umbrella, and underlying the entire ballet, the love of dancing which redeems everyone and everything. Even when the Widow is at her crossest with her wayward daughter, she can be coaxed into her joyful clog dance or will snatch up a tambourine to get Lise up on her toes. And poor abject Alain, disdained by Lise, will brighten at the sound of a flute and burst into his brilliant parody of classical dance. He may be a fool, but he’s a dancing fool. As for the chickens, they were born to dance.

Ashton, I suspect, was partly drawn to Fille by his lifelong adoration of Anna Pavlova, in whose repertory it was featured for many years. But it was that other great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, who in her old age taught him the brilliant mime passage from the Petipa version in which Lise, believing herself alone, acts out her dream of being married, being pregnant and having babies-one, two, three! Ashton’s Fille , then, is a French story told in an English spirit with Russian connections.

There was one Russian Lise in the four casts A.B.T. presented-the formidable Bolshoi star Nina Ananiashvili-and although she’s somewhat mature to be playing the very young Lise, in the rapturous pas de deux that brings the love story to its climax, she demonstrated the command of a true ballerina, dominating the audience rather than appealing to it. But the success of Fille ultimately depends on the degree of sympathy between the lovers. First-cast Ashley Tuttle and Ethan Stiefel are both impeccable classical dancers but, as they used to say, they come from two different worlds: She’s delicate, romantic, womanly; he’s a horny kid. The perfectly matched couple were Xiomara Reyes and Angel Corella, at first childlike and shy in their feelings for each other, then growing-like a Romeo and Juliet for whom things work out happily-from puppy love to tender and satisfied passion. Where Stiefel was randy, Corella was ardent.

The final pairing gave us Gillian Murphy-at last promoted to principle rank-and Maxim Belotserkovsky, and what they projected was glowing youth. The intricacies of the ribbon dances were easily dealt with by Murphy’s rock-solid technique, and the barnyard high jinks-churning the butter, sampling the porridge, trying to sneak out the gate to get to the boyfriend-allowed her to relax into her open American niceness. Belotserkovsky is good to look at, with his endlessly long legs and handsome features-think Cyd Charisse-but he’s an under-energized dancer and not what you’d call an actor. It was Ananiashvili’s partner, Carlos Acosta-A.B.T.’s latest Hispanic import-who caused the biggest stir. He’s big, strong, centered, accurate, engaging-a Cuban black with lots of experience and charisma. In Fille , though, his acting was limited to The Shrug and The Grin.

All three of the Widows-Victor Barbee, Kirk Peterson and Guillaume Graffin-were funny and touching; the drag is good-natured, not campy. The Alains were more variable: Joaquin De Luz dancing up a storm but too relentlessly chipper; Carlos Lopez unformed; only Herman Cornejo subtly identifying the sadness as well as the goofiness in this brilliant creation. But although Alain is a disappointed suitor, won’t he really be happier with his umbrella than he would have been with Lise? So there’s a happy ending for everyone-except for those like me who, after five performances, were left pining for more. This production, staged by Alexander Grant (the original Alain), Christopher Carr and Grant Coyle, is markedly superior to the Royal Ballet’s. Well, London’s loss is our gain. Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée is a great work of art; in its generosity of spirit, its belief in the power of love and the power of dance, its humanity and decency, its innocent sexuality, it shines like a good deed in a bad world.

In the years immediately following Fille , Ashton went on expressing his love for love-in the enchanting The Two Pigeons (1961), the overwrought Marguerite and Armand (1963) and, in 1964, the radiantly beautiful The Dream , the first ballet made on Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley. Mr. Dowell (now Sir Anthony) worked with Christopher Carr on staging and coaching The Dream for A.B.T., and the result is another miracle of recreation, authentic but not slavish. When the curtain goes up on David Walker’s exquisite forest glade and the 16 fairies rush on in their beautiful bell-shaped skirts, their hair piled up behind their coronets, you’re in enchanted territory. The choreography here is so fluent, so charged, so natural, that even before the entrances of Oberon and Titania and Puck, of the star-crossed lovers, of Bottom and his gang, you know you’re in the hands of a master.

Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream , choreographed two years before Ashton’s version, is about contest: The battle between the king and queen of the fairies over her little page is prolonged and serious, and Oberon practically gloats over his victory-this is a relationship in trouble. (The misunderstandings among the humans also cut deep.) In Ashton’s Dream , Oberon never ceases to love his queen; you can sense his rueful ambivalence over the trick he’s played on her. Their quarrel is only a pretext: Its real function is to serve as foreplay to the ecstatic duet at the end that signals their passionate and melting reconciliation. In contrast, the squabbling humans are close to caricature in their Victorian costumes and posturings-Lysander and Demetrius in their velvet frock coats and pugilistic standoffs, Hermia and Helena with their tiffs and makeup kisses-while putting the transformed Bottom on pointe underlines what an oddball donkey he is, not a semi-tragic one, like Balanchine’s.

It was gratifying to see how this Dream gave nourishment to so many of A.B.T.’s dancers. Oberon seems to me Stiefel’s finest role: It accords with his somewhat arrogant demeanor and gives him superb opportunities to show off his transparent classicism-those whip-clear turns and elegant jumps-without demanding the kind of realistic acting he can’t pull off. Belotserkovsky’s technique and strength weren’t up to the job-and why expose a non-turner to this role so dependent on fast turns? But the nature of Acosta’s technique matches the fierce demands on Oberon, and he helps Julie Kent, so bland usually, reveal a new sexiness and playfulness as Titania. She’s generally partnered by the slightly built Corella; Acosta’s massiveness brought out an appealing delicacy. Amanda McKerrow was underpowered as Titania (opposite Belotserkovsky), but Alessandra Ferri, also approaching the end of her career, has retained enough of her ballerina strengths to make a satisfying pairing with Stiefel.

As for the fiendishly demanding role of Puck-darting, crouching, leaping, spinning-it gave further opportunities to the company’s two brilliant little guys, De Luz and Cornejo. A.B.T. has now what practically amounts to a monopoly on first-rate male dancers-it’s almost unfair of them to add Acosta to the mix. But he’s of a different breed from a Stiefel or a Corella; like Jose Manuel Carreño, whom he’s presumably being groomed to spell, he’s a grown-up.

For these two weeks of Ashton we can forgive A.B.T. their dopey Tchaikovsky-snippets program and even the pernicious Onegin . I don’t know why they chose to invest this heavily in Ashton at this moment; I only know he’s made them a powerful contender.

Revitalized by Ashton, A.B.T.’s Dancers Shine