I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conductor plant a hearty kiss on a ballerina’s cheek before, but that’s what happened Tuesday night on the Opera House stage, at the opening performance of American Ballet Theatre’s engagement at the Kennedy Center. It’s safe to say Charles Barker bestowed that smooch for all of us who were similarly smitten by Xiomara Reyes, after her dazzlingly witty, deeply felt portrayal of the Cowgirl in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.”
Reyes has made this role indelibly her own, a part created in 1942 and a staple of ABT’s repertory since 1950. The Cuban-born ballerina will retire from ABT later this spring, but she looks far from the sunset of a career. I’d say she’s at more of a high noon. She can create, through supple body language and corporal emphasis alone, a whole lonely world of dust and heat and space, one in which invisible, unbroken steeds sent her careering around as if the stage were erupting under her boots. Reyes so completely embodied the gawky, tenderhearted tomboy that you wanted to shake the thickheaded cowboys for ignoring her.
Barker led the Opera House orchestra in a sparkling account of Aaron Copland’s score; he was perhaps as high on the sheer freedom of the rhythms and the dancing as we were. De Mille’s ballet blends play and formality, and Reyes, Roman Zhurbin’s Head Wrangler and the rest of the cast caught that spirit.
There was no end of pleasure in this program, which included an incandescent production of Antony Tudor’s “Pillar of Fire” and a shining if slightly blurred “Theme and Variations” by Balanchine. These works, with “Rodeo,” formed the core of the company’s repertoire in its early years in the 1940s and ’50s. “Pillar of Fire” was a corker at its 1942 premiere for its depiction of a young woman’s sexual fears amid the suffocating judgment of a small town — fresh, contemporary territory for ballet. It remains a masterwork of style and emotional breadth, told economically, without tedious explanation.
Former ABT dancers Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner staged it beautifully for the company, and with clarity. I saw images in it I’d not noticed before, such as the moment when all the characters surround Hagar (danced with fine distillation by Gillian Murphy) in her post-deflowering shame and their gathering is so well-coordinated with Schoenberg’s darkening music you can feel the simmer of condescension though there is no visible expression of it.
There was so much to absorb and savor in this production, from the smoldering lighting to the period costumes. Murphy used her long lines and the planes of her body to stand out from the others, who circled about in more natural shapes. As her steadfast, loving Friend, Alexandre Hammoudi had the Apollonian moral energy of Greek sculpture.
“Theme and Variations” had its charms, but while Daniil Simkin, in the leading male role, possessed an impressive range of motion, the Tchaikovsky got the better of him in spots. Isabella Boylston has an appealing, soft physicality and a lovely elastic quality in the carriage of the arms; the only thing she lacks is the quality of emphasis. Her movements lack accent. This ballet requires grandeur, sharpness, authority, and we only sense that when we see an artist actively shaping her dancing before our eyes, rather than smoothly passing through it. That may come for Boylston, who seems so promising. She has only to look at what Reyes and Murphy delivered.
From Thursday through Sunday, ABT performs Frederick Ashton’s full-length “Cinderella.”