It takes one heck of a man to overcome a tutu disaster. Luckily for ballerina Xiomara Reyes — whose skirt trailed a loop of torn tulle during a “Don Quixote” pas de deux Tuesday — her partner, Herman Cornejo, was more than equal to the task. His solo was so physically astonishing, so unbound, effortless and soaring, that he just about lifted the whole evening into that sparkling heaven he visited with each jump.
This was fortunate not only for Reyes and the Kennedy Center Opera House audience, but for the American Ballet Theatre, too. It was odd enough for the company to program the “Don Q” excerpt, as it is known. The bravura display is perfectly fine as the happy ending of the full-length ballet. On its own, taken out of context and plunked onto an empty stage, it’s a straight-up showpiece and nothing more, which is why the duet is a familiar staple of student competitions. This is the way the ABT presented it, a banal choice for what is arguably the troupe’s second home.
Add to that the black trim drooping off Reyes’s scarlet costume like a sagging gutter, and we seemed to be in amateur hour.
Wardrobe malfunctions happen in dance, and hers was repaired by the time Reyes reemerged after Cornejo’s solo. I mention it only to illustrate the fizzled hopes Cornejo was battling when he took the stage alone, and how far the performance rose with his eagle’s flights to the rafters. It was not only his athleticism but his warmth that impressed. No bravado, no hauteur, just the sense that his dancing was a pleasure to share. When Reyes rejoined him, tutu intact, she had caught his buzz and set about equaling it with her own. Bless whoever tacked down the tulle well enough to withstand the force of her whipping turns.
Thankfully, Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes had no such setbacks to overcome in the evening’s other excerpt, the Act I pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon.” Kent, from Potomac, has deep roots here: She was recently in town to celebrate the 90th birthday of her teacher Hortensia Fonseca, director of Silver Spring’s Maryland Youth Ballet. But the ovation that capped her performance went beyond cheers for a local favorite. Marking her 25th year with the company, Kent seems to grow more luminous as an artist, as evidenced in her melting abandon in this scene, and the pulsing vibrato effect of her steps on pointe.
So much for the duets. What of the meatier works on the bill? Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions,” which premiered in New York in May, and Paul Taylor’s “Black Tuesday,” which premiered here in 2001, rounded out the program. Both are competent, but they do not represent the best of either choreographer. The music was the chief pleasure of Wheeldon’s work: Benjamin Britten’s muscular “Diversions for Piano and Orchestra,” featuring Barbara Bilach on piano. (Ormsby Wilkins’s energetic conducting of the Opera House Orchestra was an asset throughout the evening.) Wheeldon’s treatment was straightforward and unsurprising — grand, playful use of the men in the heavier movements, and female delicacy in the lighter ones. No new territory uncovered here, although Bob Crowley’s costumes were especially charming: for the women, sheer skirts in black or dove gray, with a flash of color on the interior hem.
Taylor’s paean to those who lived through the Depression, “Black Tuesday” has a host more connections with today’s reality than it did a decade ago, but its vagrants in tattered elegance, bravely trying to dance their way out of the blues, still seem only half-realized. Its crowning moment, however, is a male solo performed to the song ‘‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’’ that ranks among the most piercing and poetic in the canon.
Here is the trademark Taylor hero: the overlooked everyman, in this case a World War I veteran, whose musical weariness and unforced grace deliver a moral blow to an inattentive society. It was danced with beautiful simplicity Tuesday by Jared Matthews, a talent to watch.
In its second program, the American Ballet Theatre will perform the full-length “La Bayadere” through Sunday.