It was a perversely inspired bit of casting to star Carla Fracci -- tender Giselle and playful Sylphide -- as the ax murderer Lizzie Borden. Her performance Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House in American Ballet Theatre's production of Agnes de Mille's "Fall River Legend" differed from that of all other Lizzies. In the first flashback scene she didn't merely observe another dancer (Shawn Black) portraying the young Lizzie; she herself became a child. She transformed the duet with her pastor (Victor Barbee) from a dance of courtship, confidence and compassion into one of sexual culmination. This Lizzie loves pleasure, and passages throughout the ballet in which she's gratified were richly human. When thwarted, though, the character grows larger than life. While Fracci's body remained balletic, her face became a series of tragic masks and her gestures expanded to a Sarah Bernhardt scale. Acting of such magnitude isn't idiomatic de Mille, and may be a mistake, but if so, it's one of grand proportions.
Martine van Hamel's Lizzie, on Saturday night, also had individual features. However, she expressed desire, frustration and pain not so much facially and gesturally but in the familiar modern way -- with agony arising in the abdomen, sexual longing in the thighs, and horror clamping onto the whole body. Van Hamel showed Lizzie behaving at times in a trance and on other occasions brusquely, with realistically detailed impatience. In the ax solo, the emphasis was on dancing strongly. It was a thoughtful interpretation, especially in the way Lizzie related to her father (Kevin O'Day made him ancestrally stern) and the pastor (likable as portrayed by Ethan Brown), yet one in which her own interpretive elements remained atomized; in future performances there's no reason why van Hamel's naturalism, expressiveness, shock and power couldn't fuse.
Cynthia Gregory, who's had a splendid season, on Saturday night reintroduced David Blair's edition of "Swan Lake" Act 2 into the ABT repertory. Her Swan Queen, nobly partnered by Fernando Bujones, wasn't consistently of the caliber of her performances as Lizzie and in "Coppelia" earlier in this run. Through the adagio, her phrasing was too smooth for her bold line. For the big solo, though, Gregory's dancing became proudly emphatic. With this acceptably traditional version of the "heart" of a classic and focus on individuals like Fracci, van Hamel and Gregory, ABT's directors have indeed taken a step to bring back "good old times." There's good new blood too, though, as shown by both untiring Saturday casts of the ultimately disappointing "Sinfonietta."
In Ashton's "Birthday Offering," which Marianna Tcherkassky led graciously but not brilliantly at the matinee, the other newly cast roles were danced without affectation by Guillaume Graffin and Deirdre Carberry.