Something Old, Something New, Something Male, Something Female.

by Leigh Witchel

American Ballet Theatre’s Lincoln Center season offered encore looks at repertory. On the second night the program featured two commissions from recent seasons bookending two classics.

Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations” should be one of ABT’s treasures, but the cast looked unprepared and unclear on details, as if having to do the ballet took them by surprise. At one point all three women were in a line ostensibly doing the same arm movement, only two women with curved arms and one with straight. Which was it? Calvin Royal III’s tours were shaky, and there are a lot of them in Michael Somes’ role. Christine Shevchenko fumbled as she walked back on pointe. On the other end of the scale, Joseph Gorak was technically exquisite as usual in Henry Danton’s part, but when he sailed through a turn looking upwards as if it were nothing, the heroism of effort was missing.

Happily, “Other Dances” was in better shape. It was made by Robbins for stars (Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov) and given a star outing by Hee Seo and David Hallberg. In this moment where almost every discussion in ballet seems to gravitate towards its social implications, it’s fascinating to see how Robbins looked at gender roles four decades ago. He used the same mazurka to create a solo for both dancers. Several aspects, particularly musical attack and character dance, were unisex, but others demonstrated the stereotypes of ballet technique – the man’s variation is aerial, the woman’s emphasizes pointe work and balance. Stereotypes aren’t just prejudice, they’re rooted in a mental shorthand for things that often are so – and both variations flattered their performers.

Like many dancers after a long injury, Hallberg has come back not only physically changed. His personality has loosened up; you could see it in the ease of attack and his smile. Yet in his solo, he didn’t milk the comedy. The spin-out from turns that’s usually the biggest gag was skated over; the wittiest moment was the final port de bras and pose, done like a magic trick where Hallberg misdirected which hand you should follow. In her variation, Seo took the balances to a high apex and hung them on the stage like pictures.

The two larger works to start and finish the program were also part of the gender conversation: both concentrated on looking peering into the thoughts of one sex.

Blaine Hoven, Daniil Simkin, Herman Cornejo, James Whiteside, Calvin Royal III and Gabe Stone Shayer in “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” is already a proven showpiece for the men in the company, but it hasn’t coalesced as a ballet. This cast was largely the original, with the exception of Alexandre Hammoudi in a double substitution, pinch-hitting for the injured Alban Lendorf in Marcelo Gomes’ role.

The original cast is as important in understanding Ratmansky’s work as it is Ashton’s. “Serenade” is a personality piece; Ratmansky pushed all the men tricky group sections, including turns done in synchrony, as well as dense variations, but the challenges are tailored to them. You can imagine Ratmansky spying James Whiteside in the studio spoofing a ballerina and then using that to open his solo before asking Whiteside to sail through a chain of air turns.

Blaine Hoven’s solo featured his facility for contemporary movement, first exaggerated into a Chaplinesque plastique that escalated into virtuosity. Herman Cornejo raced in to a cascade of strings, throwing his legs to the side and slicing them back in. The audience applauded him on a false ending, but his section actually closed with an exit with a small flourish mid-thought as the music abruptly ended.

Royal showed off his ability to connect a phrase, drifting through an adagio attended by Hammoudi, Whiteside and Hoven, who hovered over him in a tableau that hearkened back past Nijinska. Royal lay down and the others drifted in bourrées; ballet-speak for a dream. Daniil Simkin has a gift for comedy and Ratmansky gave him a drunken solo. Gabe Stone Shayer sped through petite batterie before Simkin returned for – what else – barrel turns.

The ballet’s logic frayed when Ratmansky introduced a woman. Hammoudi offered his hand to his compatriots, all six joined with him – and “Oh look, it’s a girl!” and everything got dropped. Devon Teuscher danced in parallel alongside Hammoudi, but more often got hauled around by him and replaced offstage like a china figurine put back in a curio cabinet. At the finale, the men jumped up and down like toy soldiers, but then Hammoudi reached for the wings. On a late light cue, there was Teuscher because it was about her all along, right? If this was Ratmansky’s point, after concentrating on seven strong male solos, he made it weakly.

Gillian Murphy in “Her Notes.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Jessica Lang’s “Her Notes” got an encore performance from its debut this spring, but it wasn’t more affecting. To music by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, “Her Notes” began with a twisting variation by Thomas Forster in front of panels suggesting a house. The rest of the cast stayed behind a scrim until the women exited through a window like steam – or spirits – escaping.

“Her Notes” had an episodic structure. The score was a series of piano sketches and didn’t make strong demarcations. People washed on and off the stage like leaves in rainfall. Yet it didn’t have the attractive randomness of chance operation – the work felt distracted. The dancers moved behind the house, here come two men, and now two women appeared from the sides lying horizontal like logs, but that was a gag because the third person was a man – gender reversal, haha!

As the piece went on it didn’t focus: a duet rushed on and a trio rushed off and the rush of concepts didn’t feel like an exploration, but a gimmick. You can expect one major element in each of Lang’s works that looks like it would be a controlling metaphor, but gets picked up and put down as easily as a prop. It used to be an object, more recently it’s been scenery.

The choreography was predictable rather than memorable. On a piano cadenza, each woman in a cluster dutifully raised her arm on a note. A pas de deux was danced in counterpoint with a quintet of women racing to and fro, and you didn’t know where to look.

This was a strong cast, with Gillian Murphy, Corey Stearns and Misty Copeland as part of the ensemble, yet no one was registering. “Her Notes” went through its dancers breathlessly yet you barely noticed a thing they did.

In a form so dependent on idealized gender types, it is a big deal for a woman to make a ballet about the inner lives of women – and a big deal for a man to make one about men. But at the end of “Serenade,” you felt as if Ratmansky threw you a red herring. At the end of “Her Notes,” you still didn’t know who anyone was.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Her Notes,” “Symphonic Variations,” “Other Dances,” “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” – American Ballet Theatre
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
October 19, 2017

Cover: David Hallberg in “Other Dances.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

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