American Ballet Theatre almost overwhelmed us with balletic profusion at the Kennedy Center this weekend, demonstrating once more that no other company in the world today can rival it for sheer dance bounty and variety. Saturday's two programs alone offered works by five different choreographers, including two revivals and a new production, and they resulted in a pair of absolutely superlative performances.
The twin pinnacles were Antony Tudor's "The Leaves Are Fading," with Gelsey Kirkland and Ivan Nagy, and Agnes de Mille's restored "Fall River Legend," with Cynthia Gregory and John Meehan.
The matinee audience for "Leaves" wouldn't stop cheering even after the house lights were up, and this for a quietly reflective ballet with no obvious pyrotechnics. They had good cause -- when Kirkland dances as she did on this occasion, abetted by Tudor's subtle intensities of design, one thinks that no dancer in history ever can have been more of a dream incarnate, more poetically sensitive in line, more imbued with feeling in every move. And Nagy's deferential partnering was on the same elevated plane.
Gregory's immensely trenchant performance as the Lizzie Borden figure in "Fall River Legend" brought the full power of De Mille's dance dramaturgy into focus, with excellent support from Meehan and the whole cast. Martine van Hamel was radiantly secure in the other revival, that virtuosic potboiler "Etudes," in which Patrick Bissell continued to show brilliant but uneven promise.
Desmond Healey's Karinska-like, gaudy new costumes didn't do much to enhance George Balanchine's superb "Theme and Variations," in a respectable but flawed performance on the matinee. Both programs included Ashton's charming "Les Patineurs," led with stylish spirit by Warren Conover in the afternoon, and with equal verve but less polish by Kirk Peterson in the evening.
Last night's "Bayadere" had a lot going for it, including Gelsey Kirkland's fey purity as Nikiya; Antony Dowell's ardently patrician, if technically shaky, Solor; excellent dancing of the Shadows' variations by Rebecca Wright, Yoko Ichino and Janet Shibata; splendid ensemble work from the corps de ballet; and firm projection of orchestral rhythm and phrasing by conductor John Lanchbery. This might seem to be all one needs, and yet the performance as a whole was oddly remote and unmoving -- it lacked a vivifying emotional spark somewhere along the line.
The revival of Antony Tudor's "Undertow" was an almost opposite situation -- the ballet has three strikes against it from the outset, but the performance winnowed formidable impact from it despite this. The casebook banalities of this Freudian study of sexual repression, dating from 1945, are an almost insuperable obstacle. But Tudor's masterfully resourceful treatment of the trite material provided part of the redemption, and the conviction of a fine cast, led by Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Gregory, did the rest.
The evening ended with an extravagantly brilliant performance of "Etudes"; Natalia Makarova, Ivan Nagy and Kirk Peterson headed the powerhouse ensemble.