Risky Business

By Leigh Witchel

A recipe for artistic growth can also be one for bankruptcy. American Ballet Theatre has to fill the 3800-seat Metropolitan Opera House, and anything but “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” “Romeo & Juliet,” or maybe “Giselle” is a risk. In ballet, there’s no safer investment than Tchaikovsky, and ABT’s mixed bill featured the composer in two ballets each by Balanchine and Alexei Ratmansky. If the repertory choices were safe bets, so was the dancing. But a ballet company isn’t run like an insurance company. You’re taking risks, not managing them.

“Mozartiana” is extremely demanding – a risk in itself. The ballet looked carefully staged by Maria Calegari. Christine Shevchenko led the opening Preghiera with soulful moves, including a lot of face­wiping port de bras, but the feeling seemed external instead of illuminated from within.

The Gigue suits Daniil Simkin’s temperament, but not his rank, and he succumbed to the temptation to try and pump it up. Simkin didn’t overdo the steps, but tried to turn the close into a coda: puffing his chest as the four women surrounded him, looking out at us portentously. But the end of the section portends nothing. It’s just an exit. Wait, get up, reverence, exit stage left. Simkin also didn’t pair well with David Hallberg. They’re not together for long in the finale, but what Balanchine originally cast was two similar men (Ib Andersen and Victor Castelli) – a positive and a negative, not Mutt and Jeff.

The four women in the Menuet had an excellent sense of one another’s timing. There’s a leg extension they all do at the same time, only they can’t see one another.  Even doing it blind, the women did it in synchrony.

Shevchenko looked her best at high speed, doing better work in the allegro Thème et Variations than in the adagio Preghiera. She sailed through the variations. She was musical; her dancing fell on the note without hammering it. She was also strong turner, in the final variation she would have had an easier time of it had the repeated series of double turns in her last variation been triples – she wanted to keep going.

It was more touch-and-go for David Hallberg. It seems he’s still coming back to full strength, and he took a light attack in the first variation but still got rubber-legged and had to save a series of turns shooting out into arabesque. “Mozartiana” would be hard for him in the best of times – he’s long-legged and not accustomed to that kind of speed. But he got himself together in the wings and came out for his next variation to do clean, fast beats and a smooth tour to the knee.

Hallberg and Shevchenko’s long pas de deux was fluid and clean, but the dangerous timing Balanchine wanted – the man should still be turning when the women begins her turn, so that he has to come in and stop her in the nick of time – were massaged into safety-first dancing. Hallberg completely finished and landed his turn before Shevchenko started hers.

Gillian Murphy in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Photo © Jack Vartoogian.

The same thing happened in “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux”: caution won out over bravery. The dance wasn’t congenial to Gillian Murphy. She didn’t vary her attack and stayed placidly on balance in poses and turns when she should have pushed off her axis off and fell into James Whiteside. Then again, one partnered direction switch threatened to go all the way off-balance. Murphy’s variation was loosey-goosey; her arms whipped around her rather than being supported from her back.

Whiteside had more variety and attack, from blistering chaînés in the opening to springy ballonés and assemblées in his variation. He did his own favorite steps in the coda – as do many – but he inserted the high-speed turning exit from “Rubies,” so he was borrowing from within the style. But in the final hair-raising dives, Whiteside was supposed to get into position to catch Murphy at the last moment. Instead, he got in front of her as soon as she started moving. What should have been a livewire leap was done with training wheels.

The grand pas de deux from “The Nutcracker” is occasionally dropped into a mixed bill as a standalone act, but Alexei Ratmansky’s version was conceived of as a pas d’action that’s more of a conversation than a display. Instead of beginning with Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes presenting themselves, it starts with them just looking around – odd enough on a stage without the set.

Ratmansky’s usual conception of goofy princes and princesses also works better in context. It was a sweet moment when Seo exited in the middle of her variation and peeked out from the wings at the pause in the celesta. But most of the time, Ratmansky was being winsome when the music was being grand.

Again – the man was more vivid. Like Murphy, Seo is an even-toned dancer in a role that benefits from variation. When she pushed her hips forward a little in a chassé it felt like a big deal. Ratmansky threw the kitchen sink at the guy in this duet, and Gomes still managed to show off both his partnering and solo work. He popped, threw and caught Seo in this-way-and-that-way lifts and went straight into a variation. Ratmansky made it a little easier by making the opening a place Gomes could catch his breath. But then he was charging into turns in the air while changing his spot.

Joseph Gorak in “Aurora’s Wedding.” Photo © John Grigaitis.

The performance concluded with question marks as well as exclamation points. Ratmansky’s version of Act 3 of “The Sleeping Beauty” is an homage to the Ballets Russes’ 1922 excerpting, “Aurora’s Wedding,” and it was performed strongly. The Bluebird pas de deux was smoothly danced by Sarah Lane (a few days later promoted to principal, along with Shevchenko) and Gabe Stone Shayer.

Joseph Gorak was subbed in for the injured Herman Cornejo, and his work with Trenary was a reprise of Lensky and Olga two weeks prior: great solo dancing and questionable partnering. Nothing went awry, and more secure grips were used for tricks that are often done one-handed or hands-free. That would have been a risk not worth taking. But Trenary has rock-solid aplomb and yet Gorak could put his hands on her waist, and not have any sense of where her balance was. You could see it when Trenary tried to make the best of wherever she was and pose with her hips behind her pointes.

But Gorak and Trenary were both exclamation points dancing alone. Trenary made the demanding technique look easy, exploding through retiré in sissone jumps. Gorak did a series of double tours with his foot curled in front of his ankle, and they were textbook stunning.

Cassandra Trenary in “Aurora’s Wedding.” Photo © John Grigaitis.

A final question mark: Ratmansky added in two divertissements from “The Nutcracker,” the Russian and Chinese dances as they were interpolated in the original production. Importantly, they were by Ninette de Valois and Bronislava Nijinksa respectively. Both of them have limited extant repertory, so anything we’ve got of them is a historical treasure.

But what made sense in 1922 didn’t work as well in 2017. “The Nutcracker” wasn’t done in the west until 1934,and in 1922 the variations were unfamiliar. But in 2017 in the U.S., “The Nutcracker” is our most familiar ballet and those variations are famous.  People recognize them as from “The Nutcracker,” not “The Sleeping Beauty.” The importation is a digression, and serves to make the act longer.

With its finger pointing and pagoda hats, the Chinese variation is a borderline offensive stereotype that’s held on in “The Nutcracker” because of the concise and witty music. Plenty of people, Chinese included, see nothing bothersome about it, but just as often, we’ve had to defend, finesse or outright alter the piece in the ballet where it belongs. Why drop it unnecessarily back into a ballet where it doesn’t?

With so little Nijinska and de Valois choreography in repertory, should we come down on the side of historical preservation? Particularly for the Chinese variation, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Mozartiana,” “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” “The Nutcracker (Act 2 pas de deux),” “Aurora’s Wedding” – American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
July 5, 2017

Cover: Christine Shevchenko and David Hallberg in “Mozartiana.” Photo © Gene Schiavone.

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