Second Cast Is First Best in New ABT Work

Like City Ballet two weeks ago, ABT has come forward with a pair of new ballets to activate its spring season. Well, James Kudelka’s Désir is only new to New York: It was made in 1991 and has been performed in Canada, Mexico, Geneva, Stuttgart—in enough places, that is, to have alerted ABT that it’s just as terrible as, say, Kudelka’s Cinderella, which the company took on board a few years ago. But whereas Cinderella was terminally bland, Désir is terminally empty and vulgar. Seven couples spend over half an hour endlessly doing lifts and swirling skirts—but why linger over the details? This kind of stuff may be fun for the dancers and for those in the audience who wish they were home watching Dancing With the Stars. But for the rest of us, the big question—already raised in The Times by Alastair Macaulay—is why ABT, for its all-Prokofiev program, chose to ignore Tudor’s charming Gala Performance, which it’s been presenting on and off since 1941, and to inflict Kudelka on us instead?

The other new work was a major event—the first piece created for the company by its new resident choreographer, the very talented Alexei Ratmansky—but it’s far from clear that it’s a major ballet. Prokofiev’s score for On the Dnieper isn’t very danceable. He wrote it in 1932, to a libretto by himself and Serge Lifar, and if you didn’t already know the story, it wasn’t an easy one to follow on first seeing. It’s your basic love quadrangle: Sergei, a returning soldier, spurns his adoring fiancée for another girl, who in turn spurns her fiancé for Sergei. There are villagers and there are elders—the bride’s mother and father, Sergei’s mother, even “Olga’s fiancé’s father.” (Shades of Balanchine’s famous dictum “There are no mother-in-laws in ballet.” What would he have made of a “fiancé’s father”?)

Ratmansky, as always, produces lovely movement—the solos for both men (on opening night, Marcelo Gomes and David Halberg) are particularly telling. And he never loses his touch with groups of dancers, their extended passages both coherent and effective in themselves and reflecting the emotional trajectory of the story. But the story has nothing to tell us beyond the specifics of the not very compelling plot, nor do these people have any particular resonance. What’s it all about, Alexei?

On the Dnieper looked considerably better with its second cast. To begin with, we already knew the story and so could concentrate on the dance. But the casting made more sense, too. Veronika Part was the wrong dancer for the abandoned but noble Natalia. Not only is she too big for this souffrante lyric role, but her glamorous dark looks can’t really disguise the stolidity of her dancing: She’s interesting to look at but not interesting to watch. An exquisitely lyrical girl named Hee Seo, still in the corps, was second-cast and immediately won your sympathy. (Look for her one performance as Juliet later in the season, on July 9.)

The first Olga was Paloma Herrera, who played her as just another nice girl, with hardly any contrast in temperament between her and Natalia. One of the world’s greatest dancers, Diana Vishneva, was the second-cast Olga (Vishneva second-cast?), and showed us someone very different: seductive, determined, authoritative. Poor Natalia didn’t stand a chance. This second cast (all the men were effective, too) made some drama out of the drama. But Ratmansky, who begins to seem almost perversely devoted to Russian music and Russian stories, backed the wrong horse when he backed Lifar.

The third ballet in the company’s all-Prokofiev program was The Prodigal Son, now in its 80th year since Balanchine created it for Diaghilev (and Lifar). It remains a thrilling work, and ABT has the men for it, although I’m not sure that the new wonder boy, Daniil Simkin, is one of them. He’s 20 but looks 16, and although he’s got the dynamic technique for the first scene, he scarcely has the depth for the agonizing despair and self-abasement of the conclusion. It’s not his fault that he seems so young, but when in his extreme boyishness he’s splayed across the upended table, stripped and humiliated, his blond hair flopping over his face, there’s a clearly unintended suggestion of child porn.

A lot was wrong with this Prodigal. The “goons” were insipid rather than scary, the father had no real gravitas and, most disastrously, the lighting was so dark that famous crucial moments were completely lost. When the Siren’s great magenta cloak, doubling as the boat’s sail, billows out behind her, you could barely see it against the black background, and you certainly couldn’t make out its color. Likewise, when she emerges from behind the upright table on the shoulders of one of the goons, he has to take three or four steps forward before she becomes visible. Prodigal has some of the most stunning stage effects in all of ballet—they’re an essential element of Balanchine’s achievement. It would be nice to be able to see them.

 

THE COMPANY’S all-Tchaikovsky/Balanchine program gave us one wonderful performance—Nina Ananiashvili in Mozartiana. She danced it many years ago as a guest artist at City Ballet, and now, in her retirement season, she showed again her subtle phrasing and depth of feeling. No one could be more different from the imposing Suzanne Farrell, for whom the ballet was created, but the self-contained Ananiashvili showed how a real artist can transform a role without disfiguring it. And once again, Gillian Murphy, in both Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Theme and Variations, demonstrated that she’s the company’s one consistently reliable Balanchine ballerina. If only we had her at City Ballet.

Yet more from Russia: a mercifully brief season of Boris Eifman at the City Center. This time he’s trashed Pushkin’s great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. (And I used to think the John Cranko version was trashy.) Eifman does, however, understand something that neither Pushkin in his poem nor Tchaikovsky in his opera managed to grasp: That the reason Onegin pushes Lensky to the fatal duel is that he has the hots for him and is rejected! Since Lensky is dead at the end of Act I, he has to be brought back as a ghost in Act II so that we can be treated to a second homoerotic duet—my first ghost with a bared chest.

In other words, everything here is echt Eifman—the frantic, undifferentiated gang numbers (Soviet dance clichés meet West Side Story), the ugliness of the vocabulary, the waste of strong, attractive dancers. I hope for their sake that they’re not aware of how they’re squandering their talent.

rgottlieb@observer.com

 

Second Cast Is First Best in New ABT Work