American Ballet Theatre Successfully Returns to Its Roots

Michele Wiles performs in a leading role in Antony Tudor's
Michele Wiles performs in a leading role in Antony Tudor's "Dark Elegies." (By Gene Schiavone)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

As promising as it looked on paper, American Ballet Theatre's opening-night program at the Kennedy Center Opera House was even better in performance. From the first unwavering steps in the "La Bayadere" excerpt that launched Tuesday's show to the triumphant kiss that sealed "Rodeo" at its close, the company sailed through widely differing styles and technical demands, knitting them all into a moving panorama of American ballet at its peak.

ABT's strong showing is especially significant since this particular program, which also included Antony Tudor's "Dark Elegies," represents precisely what the company was born to do back in 1940 -- and what audiences have too rarely seen in recent years. Ballet Theatre, as the troupe was originally named, was conceived to master venerated classics ("Giselle" and scenes from "Swan Lake" were early successes) as well as brave New World reinventions of ballet. The latter include "Rodeo's" ranch romp, a blockbuster hit for Agnes de Mille in 1942, and works by the introspective Tudor, who was among Ballet Theatre's founding choreographers.

But with a shift in emphasis to full-length story ballets -- dependable ticket-sellers, particularly when it comes to filling the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House, ABT's longstanding home -- a mixed repertory program of such bedrock quality and enduring historic power as Tuesday's is unusual. Even scarcer is the unflinching confidence with which it was danced.

Not a thigh wobbled as the corps of ballerinas snaked down the zigzagging ramps in Act II of "La Bayadere," staged by Natalia Makarova after the original by 19th century master Marius Petipa. This is a notoriously difficult entrance that winds on for many minutes in slow procession, meant to evoke a vision of grace in an opiate haze. It is a drug-induced dream of the underworld -- where the hero Solor has gone to find his slain beloved, Nikiya -- and on Tuesday night death was truly beautiful.

There were no opening-night jitters in sight. Jose Manuel CarreƱo brought his customary class and gentle bravado to the role of Solor. Classical purity is not Paloma Herrera's strength, but her Nikiya was affecting nonetheless; she brought out the tenderness of a fatally interrupted love story. But aside from the corps' glowing performance, what completed this work were the three Shades: Misty Copeland, Stella Abrera and especially Veronika Part, whose slightly mournful and ethereal quality sets her apart on a stage full of dozens of look-alike dancers.

Just what accounted for "La Bayadere's" awe-inspiring polish? The dancers looked to have been drilled like Marines. Their drill instructor was none other than Makarova, the grande dame of Russian ballerinas and former ABT diva who ran rehearsals last fall. Makarova's thickly accented voice -- a voice from a glorious past -- no doubt still rings in the ears of the corps.

Experiencing the suppressed passions of "Dark Elegies" after the emotionally overt "Bayadere" was a lesson in how radically Tudor reshaped ballet technique, and in what made him great. He gives us pain -- doesn't tell us about it, doesn't sob, but simply shows the bone-deep agony in a simple, straightforward but stunningly new way. A way that still feels new 70 years after its premiere.

Tudor's subject is a community in mourning; the work is set to Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"). Everything about this piece is grim: the backdrop of a bleak seaside under stormy clouds, the plain, homespun costumes, and the songs, performed onstage by Troy Cook. Yet, even amid all this grayness and sorrow, the dancing was luminous. The movement was severe and pared-down, with arms frequently held to the sides and quick, scared footwork like uneven heartbeats, but it held a taut, economical and to-the-point beauty.

With head scarves and no makeup, the cast of 12 danced the work as if this barren world were all they knew. In the leading roles, Michele Wiles brought a poignant weightedness, like resignation, to her dancing, while Julie Kent made you believe she was halfway in the spirit world with her departed children. In the crisp staccato of her feet, stabbing like stakes, and the way she would suddenly, rigidly sink into the arms of Isaac Stappas, her partner, one saw a woman winded, struggling with the will to live. In the end, Tudor gives her, and the rest, a reason to go on: simply to fill out the circle, to take their places in the community. It is as poetic a notion as any romantic could offer.

Stretching ballet in yet another direction, de Mille conceived a resolutely American vocabulary for "Rodeo," which she originally created for dumbstruck Russian dancers -- flummoxed at the notion of dancing like bowlegged bronco riders -- in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It's a work of everlasting enchantment, the story of a lovesick tomboy Cowgirl (the note-perfect Xiomara Reyes; who knew she was a comedian?) trying to lasso a fella (the sturdy Stappas, as the Head Wrangler).

Sascha Radetsky gave a breakthrough performance as the Champion Roper who sees the true charms of the boot-wearing Cowgirl; he had spunk, tenderness and a pretty hot timestep. Leave it to de Mille, who went from this to Broadway fame with "Oklahoma!," to make tap dancing as much a part of the look as roughed-up arabesques. And leave it to ABT to dance this work, as it did the other two, as if it were a birthright.

The company performs "Othello" tonight through Sunday.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company