American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center

American Ballet Theatre in dress rehearsal on Tuesday, performed weakly overall, though there were some engaging moments.
American Ballet Theatre in dress rehearsal on Tuesday, performed weakly overall, though there were some engaging moments. (Gene Schiavone)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

Times may be tough, but you can't accuse American Ballet Theatre of skimping. The company practically shoveled the goods at us Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with George Balanchine's seductive dazzler "Allegro Brillante"; Vasily Vainonen's aggressive showpiece "Flames of Paris" pas de deux, and Twyla Tharp's breakneck fantasy in flannel, "Brief Fling."

Even the contemplative side of ballet had a place, in a studious but incomplete attempt at Antony Tudor's clenched drama, "Pillar of Fire."

"Allegro Brillante" was incomplete, too, and in a similar way. Both it and "Pillar" suffered weaknesses in the ballerina department, which had more to do with coaching and casting decisions than with the dancers themselves -- Gillian Murphy in "Allegro," Michele Wiles in "Pillar," both of whom are exceptional in many ways.

The company as a whole looks healthy enough. Along with the fundamental strengths we expect from ABT, there was a feeling of relaxed pleasure in the dancing. But grandeur doesn't just happen, no matter the pool of talent. For all the fireworks on the evening's roster, there wasn't always conviction.

This was ABT's first performance of "Allegro," which Balanchine created a half-century ago as a concentrated dose of Russian classicism, glammed up with a spritz of French perfume. Certainly, Tchaikovsky's Third Piano Concerto was having a wonderful romp (with Barbara Bilach skittering up and down the keyboard, and David LaMarche conducting the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra). The four secondary couples danced as if they had just tasted champagne. But Murphy and her partner, Cory Stearns, haven't claimed this ballet for themselves yet.

Stearns's effort felt like a work-in-progress; he was consistently out-jumped by the men dancing behind him. Murphy's issue wasn't technique -- it never has been. That moment when she turned triple pirouettes to each side? She might have whirled off half a dozen if she'd had more music. She had everything the role demanded but a personality. It's not that she was too cool -- who doesn't love a ballerina with a sense of mystery, or an air of superior remove? And nobody's looking for winks and grins. But Murphy neither played to the audience nor relinquished herself to the music. She indulged in a bit of emollient softness now and then with those creamy shoulders; she thought to smile at us on occasion, and at one point even craned her head around to Stearns from an awkward position, as if she had just remembered it's good to beam at her partner now and again, too. But the whole display felt like she was ticking items off a checklist. What does she have inside to give us? We won't know until someone on the coaching staff draws it out of her, unlocks whatever lies beneath her comfortable grasp of perfection.

Whoever solves that puzzle ought next to work with Wiles. Here is another dancer with impressive technique, and mild as milk. Granted, "Pillar of Fire" is not easy work for any dancer. The ballet, which Tudor created for ABT (then known as Ballet Theatre) in 1942, requires a dramatic dancer -- the leading role of Hagar, a young woman whose inner disturbances drag her into an emotional abyss, was made for the great Nora Kaye, a dancer of legendary acting skill. ABT doesn't dance the work much lately, but it revived it last fall in honor of the late choreographer's centennial. Former ABT dancers Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, who had worked with Tudor, staged it. Accompanied by the stinging turbulence of Arnold Schoenberg's "Verklaerte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night"), it's a ballet of intense emotions worked out in restricted steps. Even 60 years later, its musical phrasing and the look and feel of the dancing remain sharply unconventional.

With its story of dangerous sex, buttoned-up repression and emotional cruelty, it's a challenging ballet to put over, and while there was a seriousness of purpose in Tuesday's cast, the production felt undercooked. Wiles is not a natural Hagar. She doesn't have the dramatic inclination, and playing high-strung and desperate is not her style. A tall dancer, she gave the sharp, quick thrust of the steps an entirely different look. David Hallberg, as The Friend whose steadfastness finally calms Hagar, had the right sense of unembellished solidity, and he drew out the best in Wiles; she was vulnerable and deeply moving with him. Hagar may not be so far from her grasp if she were given more attention under expert eyes.

It was rather sly of ABT to pair "Pillar" with the "Flames of Paris" pas de deux: This was just the sort of empty flamboyance that Tudor reacted against. Danil Simkin and Sarah Lane delivered all the fanfare you'd expect, and then some. Simkin threw in a few of those whizzy airborne leaps -- I think the formal French term is "le whatchamacallit avec le twist." But I fault him for failing to include a triple axel as well. "Brief Fling" would have been better had it been briefer, but it was quite flingy. A recurring motif had a couple of the men flipping their partners over. It succeeded for one reason: Xiomara Reyes, who was delightful to watch, and made you enjoy it with her. Isaac Mizrahi's costumes (he was once known as "The King of Tartans") appeared to have taken their cues from L.L. Bean's pajama offerings. I could have done with less volume on that infernal recording of Percy Grainger and Michael Colombier; or was that just a mouse that got into the speakers?

This program repeats tonight. ABT performs "Swan Lake" Friday through Sunday.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company