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American Ballet Theatre

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Editorial Review

ABT program proves enduring power of ballet

By Sarah Kaufman
Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010

In recent years, American Ballet Theatre has rarely looked more confident, danced more decisively or presented a more satisfying program than it did at its Tuesday opening at the Kennedy Center Opera House. With Frederick Ashton's "Birthday Offering" and Alexei Ratmansky's "Seven Sonatas," truly great classical ballet took center stage -- and left its audience cheering for more. If anyone seeks further proof of the enduring power of ballet -- in both its vintage glory (Ashton's came out in 1956) and present promise (Ratmansky's premiered in October), let him see this company dance and be convinced.

Choreography, music and casting were the obvious bounties of this program, but what must not be overlooked is that at the root of the whole enterprise is Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, whose recent decisions have been resoundingly farsighted. With "Birthday Offering," at its heart a suite of charming solos for seven ballerinas, led by the silken steeliness of Gillian Murphy, McKenzie adds to ABT's cache of Ashton's works (along with his "Sylvia" and "The Dream"), with their distinctive sweeping use of the upper body and filigree footwork.

What I've always loved about Ashton is the way he paints characters with his choreography. Ashton's personages tell you about themselves with every move. This was luminously apparent in "Birthday Offering," even if its challenges were not always easily surmounted. Along with Murphy, Isabella Boylston, Hee Seo and Leann Underwood were also fluent in the quick turns and intricate steps, unspooling them like expressions of bright, gracious personalities. Ormsby Wilkins conducted the Opera House Orchestra in buoyant waltzes and mazurkas by Glazunov, a master of sparkling, light-filled orchestral sound.

McKenzie's landing of Ratmansky as artist in residence is an achievement of another order. With every new work he unveils, this young Russian makes you want to see more. Washington audiences have seen a fair amount of his output, though doled out so slowly that some might not realize just how much: Last year there was the New York City Ballet with his exhilarating "Concerto DSCH" and the Bolshoi Ballet's rough-and-tumble "Le Corsaire," which Ratmansky, once that company's director, restaged after the 19th-century original by Marius Petipa. (Dare I say, it was even better than Petipa -- at least, than most current renditions of "traditional" Petipa.) In earlier years, the Kirov -- now Mariinsky -- Ballet performed Ratmansky's uneasy "Cinderella" set amongst clubby fashions and corrugated metal, and back in 2003, we saw some of his work in that same company's dark, edgy "Nutcracker." (Ratmansky started it, but it was finished by others.)

"Seven Sonatas," with its cast of three couples (Stella Abrera and Gennadi Saveliev, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, and Julie Kent and David Hallberg), stands out as markedly different. First of all, there's the music: true to the title, seven "Keyboard Sonatas" by Domenico Scarlatti. As played onstage by the exquisite Barbara Bilach, these lovely melodies are all nearly weightless, with the fleeting substance of a trail of smoke at times, a darting firefly at others. To the subtle emotion in Scarlatti's watercolors, Ratmansky matched dancing of extreme musical sensitivity.

In a recent phone interview, Ratmansky spoke about his preoccupation with the music -- he had been listening to it for a long time before creating the ballet -- and about the particulars of making the work. He created it for ABT's fall engagement at Avery Fisher Hall, where there is no orchestra pit, and the angled stage shape forced him to choreograph in diagonals rather than circles. What results is a lot of gushing forward motion but also a good deal of dancing backward, the dancers flowing upstage whence they came. This is something one hardly ever sees in ballet -- and I would never have realized that without seeing this piece.

But Ratmansky's idea about how to use the music is most interesting of all.

"I asked the dancers not to dance in response to the music," he told me. "That the music sounds because of the movement. Almost like them being a pianist, being responsible for the music being born. As opposed to portraying people who come together and start dancing."

It is an artful notion, and the miracle is that Ratmansky and his excellent dancers make it happen. There is a strong sense of capture and release here. At one point, Hallberg stretches toward the wings as if yearning to fly away into them; at another, the group's forward motion seems roped in and redirected. The music, rippling and snagging behind them, echoes their interrupted progress.

Every dancer had standout passages here, but my eye was drawn to the statuesque Kent, a peerless ballerina who also happens to have two young children (and still looks like a goddess in her wisp of a costume) and in this work, reaches new heights of unforced but emphatic delicacy.

The evening concluded, somewhat oddly, with Twyla Tharp's "Brahms-Haydn Variations," which had its moments -- especially the soft, musical dancing by Kent -- but was marred by awkward lifts and a sense of crowdedness. Ballet isn't truly Tharp's medium, and this work didn't have the natural elegance of the two that preceded it.