Dancing With the Stars: American Ballet Theater Shines With Talent at Every Level

We’re back to the Ballets Russes

Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg in ‘The Dream.’ (Courtesy Geen Schiavone/ABT)

Through the ABT season just ended, the company had 10 female principals. (It has just added an 11th, the Korean Hee Seo.) Of the 10, six are Russian—well, Alina Cojocaru is Romanian—and three of them, Cojocaru, Vishneva and Osipova, are the biggest ballerina drawing cards. In other words, we’re back in the good old Ballets Russes days, when “ballet” meant “Russian.” Is it this lingering Russophilia that explains the company’s loyalty to the artistically irrelevant Irina Dvorovenko, its partiality for the odd mixture that is Veronika Part, and its recent welcome of Polina Semionova?

Semionova arrived not from the Bolshoi, where she was trained, but from the Berlin State Opera, where she became a principal at 18—and you can see why; she’s one of those dancers who goes in for, and wins, ballet competitions. She’s got a gorgeous slim figure and exemplary technique. There isn’t a moment of hesitation or doubt: she nails every step. What she doesn’t do is reveal anything—of her role or of herself. In both La Bayadère and Swan Lake she was step-perfect … and anonymous. In a way, she’s the opposite of Part, whose luxurious body, eager willingness and uneven technique make her a constantly provocative question mark. (Whatever her virtues and flaws, though, Part has no business undertaking Terpsichore in Balanchine’s great Apollo.)

Diana Vishneva is not only a magnificent dancer but a magnificent actress—no one works harder or understands more. When she first turned up among us, she was a dominant force. Who else could so impress as Giselle or Odette-Odile and yet so dazzle (with the Kirov, her home company) in Balanchine’s “Rubies”? Vishneva is a ballerina on the highest level. And, in her very different way, so is Cojocaru, with her apparent ease and simplicity and her lovable nature. This season she did one Giselle, one bayadère and one Juliet—not nearly enough, but we’ll take what we can get.

And then there’s Natalia Osipova. She was the season’s undoubted star of stars, and she didn’t just drop in. Not only was she the lead in Ratmansky’s new Firebird but she charmed in his Bright Stream and gave us as well Giselle, Juliet and Medora in Le Corsaire. Her performance on July 5 in that latter role was like nothing I’ve ever come across—bravura dancing on a level you can only call exalted. It wasn’t just the famous jumps—so high, so quick, so light—or the thrilling fouettés or the astoundingly tight, rapidissimo châiné turns, the fastest I’ve ever seen. What’s so remarkable is the seeming ease with which everything is accomplished. Osipova never pushes, never strains; her flawless execution precludes the possibility of a misstep. She’s so strong and so musical that she can dance with the greatest delicacy as well as let off the big guns. She’s simply a phenomenon. That she’s not yet a dramatic artist on the level of a Vishneva isn’t a problem—she’ll become one if she makes up her mind to.

The other superb Medora I saw was our homegrown Gillian Murphy. Her technique may not be quite on the level of Osipova’s (no one’s is), but she’s very strong, very musical, and has become an appealing actress. Medora is barely a two-dimensional character, but Murphy finds both wit and passion in her: she understands that Corsaire, for all its melodramatic trappings—the pirates, the lascivious pasha, the slave auction, the gun, the knife, the poisoned flower, the shipwreck—is pure romantic comedy. Murphy is a first-rate dancer—the dancer City Ballet lacks for its most demanding Balanchine roles.

Forget its source in Byron’s famous dramatic poem; forget its relentless demands on the dancers. With its rum-tee-tum score sewn together from the music of five composers and its ridiculous plot and nonstop dance hijinks, Anna-Marie Holmes’s version of Le Corsaire is first and foremost a show. The audience loves it, despite its unkind length, and the dancers seem to revel in it. The corps, in Petipa’s classical “Jardin Animé” scene, looks strong and confident. And it’s given Craig Salstein his most successful role as the hero’s swaggering, treacherous second-in-command. Salstein has come a long way: from clever self-conscious shtick to full-out dance performance based on a constantly improving technique. Alas, the deteriorating technique of the Danish Johan Kobborg was no help to him as Pirate No. 1. He’s been a beautiful dancer, but not even back in the day could he have convinced in this unsubtle bravura role.

I SAW THE GILLIAN MURPHY Corsaire on what was both the final night of the season and the occasion of Ethan Stiefel’s farewell performance with the company (he’s now running the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and we have to hope he doesn’t carry Murphy, his fiancée, down under with him). He’s been an exhilarating dancer from the start, when he galvanized New York City Ballet audiences as a virtuoso classicist. But, like Gelsey Kirkland before him, he defected from Balanchine’s company for ABT—and with happier results than Kirkland’s. Beset by injuries, he’s been fading recently after 15 years of heroic service, but you wouldn’t have known it from this all-out last performance as the bare-chested Ali, the faithful slave. From the very start to the very end, this always electric, brash, bright American kid has given us everything he had.

Dancing With the Stars: American Ballet Theater Shines With Talent at Every Level