Something Old, Something New: American Ballet Theatre Brings José Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane Surging Back to Life at City Center

And Alexei Ratmansky’s 'Symphony #9' is explosive, but at BAM, Pina Bausch’s last work is pure kitsch

Cory Stearns and Veronika Part in ‘The Moor’s Pavane.’ (Courtesy

A.B.T. just dropped into the City Center for a week—all the time it could get, and not nearly enough. The fall season is when the company is free to mix and match, focusing on one-act works and younger dancers who don’t get much of a chance during the Met’s spring marathon of full-evening classics (and bores) that demand Stars, however faded.

The company managed to cram six ballets into its seven performances, most of them worth looking at and a few of them exceptional. I myself had no need to see, ever again, Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, which premiered in 1942 and which I was taken to see a few years later. It was this ballet that won de Mille the chance to take on Oklahoma!,and it was an A.B.T. calling card for decades, trotted out when management felt it’d better pay a little homage to the very difficult Aggie. Also, it’s fun. But you don’t want to be exposed to its cutenesses very often.

The Leaves Are Fading had something of a vogue when Antony Tudor made it in 1975, largely because of Gelsey Kirkland’s ravishing performance. The company has been loyal to Tudor, too, and hauls it out every few years, to less and less effect. The problem is that it’s too long for what it has to tell us, and too repetitive in the way it tells it. We’re in the world of Dvořák string music, and not the best of it, and by the time the lead couple and the three secondary couples and the corps have rhapsodized around in the same swirly way for what seems an eternity, you just want those leaves to wither and be done with it. Hee Seo gave a lovely performance, but she can’t yet hold an essentially dull ballet together.

Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room is an A.B.T. staple, and one of my favorite modern pieces, but the company, absent much of its star power, doesn’t do it full justice these days. Kristi Boone and Simone Messmer are mismatched as the “bomb squad” that opens the ballet. Sascha Radetsky, Patrick Ogle and the delicate Jared Matthews are not very stompy “stompers.” Only Isabella Boylston, Craig Salstein and Herman Cornejo (of course) brought to it the tsunami of energy that Tharp demands; the company as a whole just doesn’t have the stamina.

On the other hand, a non-star cast was fully up to the more subtle demands of Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988), to piano music by Virgil Thomson. You can sense Morris’s pleasure as he played with the classical vocabulary, creating a hybrid that for the most part works charmingly; that’s right, Mark—when a girl is up on point she has more sweep! This is a piece in which the 12 dancers swiftly come and go, following each other in solos, duets and groups with the fluency that is so characteristic of Morris’s choreography. It’s not really a Morris masterpiece, but it’s to be cherished.

The big surprise of the season was the excellent revival of José Limon’s most famous work, The Moor’s Pavane, to sublime music by Henry Purcell. It’s not a retelling of Othello but a compressed formal dance for the four central characters, with as much focus on Iago and Emilia (here called The Friend and the Friend’s Wife) as on The Moor and The Moor’s Wife. Marcelo Gomes was the Othello figure, his noble carriage and the controlled amplitude of his emotion creating a moving if not tragic character, though he doesn’t have the brute power Limon brought to his creation. Desdemona is pallid to begin with, and Julie Kent simply made her more pallid; when she dies you hardly notice she’s gone. But Cory Stearns, who can be so bland, was a thrilling Iago—a lithe, dangerous charmer. And Veronika Part as a conflicted, even complicit, Emilia was simply the best I’ve ever seen her. Her heavy beauty and dramatic intensity—and the glorious red dress she wears—dominated the proceedings. Indeed, the costumes, originally by Pauline Lawrence, Limon’s wife and opulently recreated here, were utterly magnificent, almost stealing attention from the dancing except that they suit it so well. This Pavane was directed and “reconstructed” by Clay Taliaferro, who brought back to life a dance that has been both over-performed and neglected.

Finally, there was a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, Symphony #9, the first of three Shostakovich symphonies he’s choreographing to make up an evening program in the spring. It’s so full, so highly charged, so teeming with invention that it’s hard to take it all in at one viewing. The first movement is a joyous explosion—bang! Craig Salstein and Simone Messmer, two of the company’s most individual soloists, are jaunty and sparkly—perhaps too much so,they’re in such contrast to what follows. But then this is a ballet of contrasts, just as the symphony itself is constantly, almost willfully, changing gears. The duet that follows for Gomes and the company’s striking new ballerina, Polina Semionova, draws us into another, darker world. The corps, as in most Ratmansky works, has a crucial role—crashing on and off, grouping and regrouping, sometimes deliberately masking the principals. And then Herman Cornejo bursts on, his amazing good-natured, wholly un-narcissistic virtuosity carrying the ballet to its conclusion. The structure of the piece is in clear response to the music, and everything Ratmansky does is intelligent and interesting, but I don’t yet see Symphony #9 as a whole. The black, white and gray costumes, by Keso Dekker, are too busy—they distract rather than contribute. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, of course, is perfect.

Something Old, Something New: American Ballet Theatre Brings José Limon’s <em>The Moor’s Pavane</em> Surging Back to Life at City Center