The Great ‘Giselle’ at ABT, Plus a Mixed Bag of the Old and the New

Whatever crimes ABT may have committed through the years–however many Cinderellas, Ladies of the Camellias, Snow Maidens, Pied Pipers, gimcrack Swan Lakes and Sleeping Beauties–they’ve made up for it this season by giving us another brief taste of the Royal Ballet’s supremely gifted Alina Cojocaru in her greatest role, Giselle. Her one performance of it last Saturday night was as fine as any classical dancing we’ve seen here in years–a thrilling reminder of why we love ballet.

There are many ways to be wonderful as Giselle. Diana Vishneva, for instance, is exemplary–technically formidable, highly dramatic, impeccably polished. When you watch her, you’re watching a major dancer, a ballerina, a star performing Giselle. When you watch Cojocaru, you’re watching Giselle herself, who happens also to be a great dancer. There she is, and you love her. This is what happens to her, and your heart goes out to her. You see how her absolute love for Albrecht purifies and redeems, a love that never wavers, starting with the innocent way her radiant face and her body tilt towards him in the first scene; the way her eyes never leave him. His betrayal, her madness and death, cannot affect that love. And her return to the grave is so moving not because she’s gone forever but because she’ll never be with him again.

And, oh yes–the perfect, flickering feet, the buoyancy of the jump, the fleetness of motion, the unaffected charm, the selflessness of performance; never a moment of showing off. She demonstrated all these qualities earlier in the week as Kitri in Don Quixote, a role less natural to her than Giselle but in which she also triumphed. In this romantic comedy, which defines the word “lightweight,” with its lovable tum-ti-tum Minkus score and its colorfully nonsensical action, she was dancing with José Manuel Carreño, retiring this season (just in time). Her attentions to him were tuned differently from those she showed David Hallberg, her Albrecht, but reflected the same innate courtesy and generosity of spirit.

As for Hallberg, what can we say that we (and everyone else) haven’t said countless times already? Here was an ideal Albrecht, from those uniquely arched feet to those extraordinarily delicate entrechats to that noble carriage and countenance. His careless charm at the start, his bewilderment and remorse, his anguished loss were all conveyed on the highest level of conviction and expressivity. He rose to Cojocaru’s heights–and she to his. Can’t we beg, borrow or steal her from the Royal for more than two or three performances a season? That’s the way for ABT to fill the Met!

The Don Q’s and Giselles were interrupted by the company’s ambitious quadruple bill of three premieres and a major revival, Antony Tudor’s puzzling and unappealing Shadowplay, which he made for Anthony Dowell in 1967 and in which Baryshnikov appeared for ABT in 1975. The action reflects elements of Kipling’s Jungle Books, centering on a young boy trying to grapple with the world and himself in a jungle setting–banyan tree, vines–populated by monkeys and predators (male and female) who are wearing Cambodian-like tea cosies on their heads. This new revival was intended for ABT’s incomparable Herman Cornejo who, alas, is injured. Second-cast Daniil Simkin is more Peter Pan than Mowgli but he made a game try at making sense out of this muddied concept ballet–at least he has star presence and the necessary virtuosity. Craig Salstein bravely acted rather than danced his way through the role, but he just doesn’t command the technique it requires.

But why the empty, Buddhisty Shadowplay to begin with? Arlene Croce, referring to it as “this rusting hunk of junk jewelry,” nailed it: “An enigma supposedly lies at the center of the ballet’s events, but the events are manufactured with such coarse efficiency that long before you know you’re not going to guess the secret you don’t care what it is.”

The new ballets included a brief (but not brief enough) Benjamin Millepied romp for three playful guys to decidedly unrompish unaccompanied Bach cello music. There’s no governing idea–Troika was just another busy, empty Millepied exercise.

Far more substantial were pieces by our two leading ballet choreographers. ABT’s Artist in Residence, Alexei Ratmansky, delivered Dumbarton, a modest company piece for five non-star couples which once again revealed his unerring fluency and sense of structure. As with almost all his work, this piece invites repeated viewings, so subtle and original is his level of invention. The surprise here is that he ignores the pronounced jazzy elements of his music–Stravinsky’s 1938 “Concerto for Chamber Orchestra” (the “Dumbarton Oaks Concerto”)–in favor of an evocative lyricism. The jazzy approach paid off for Jerome Robbins in his long-vanished, amusing Dumbarton Oaks, created for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. Ratmansky, however, has made a useful and appealing work–a gift to the company as a whole.

Finally, Wheeldon has come up with the ambitious and large-scale Thirteen Diversions, to Britten’s “Diversions for Piano and Orchestra.” The stars came out for this one: Gillian Murphy at her technically brilliant best (those lightning-tight turns!) with Hallberg; Marcelo Gomes, that beautiful partner and commanding presence, with the swiftly up-and-coming Isabella Boylston; and on, through both casts, down the ranks of the company’s leading dancers. Plus a cherry-picked corps of sixteen, effectively used though sometimes nearly invisible in their black costumes against a dark background. Brad Fields’ lighting, with its shifting panels of color, was bold, dramatic, and vexingly intrusive.

The heart of Diversions lies in the duets that dominate it. Here Wheeldon displays his largest talents in the sympathetic and diverse ways he shows us couples meeting, interacting, separating. The relationship between these duets and the constantly appearing and reappearing corps is a touch mechanical, but there are grand pleasures to be had from the piece. This is a return to form for Wheeldon. My only caveat: I don’t feel it finally arrives anywhere. The parts are greater than the whole.

  The Great ‘Giselle’ at ABT, Plus a Mixed Bag of the Old and the New