Is it Gal-la?
Is it Gay-la?
Is it Gaw-la?
What's the difference?!
Does it matter what ya caw-ll it?
So might Mel Brooks sing in a funny musical about opening nights filled with polished, fabulous, entertaining dancing. There was a point in tonight's ABT Fall Gala program when Haglund wished that Mel had been there and that he and Muffie what's-her-name and some of the other society folk who were over-dressed but wearing less than they should have been, would have jumped on stage and started dancing. At least it would have been good for a laugh. Or Nina Ananiashvili, looking lovely seated in the Orchestra, could have jumped on stage with Robert La Fosse or Robert Fairchild, both of whom looked handsome in the Orchestra, for an impromptu Pas de Trois. Or Mr. Franklin could have pulled up a chair on the stage and told some funny stories about really dancing in the real Gardens of Villandry.
Tonight's program just made Haglund weep. If it hadn't been for the Stompers from In the Upper Room and Frank & Ava gloriously swirling through "My Way", it would have been a night to forget before it destroyed anyone's sleep.
After the customary speeches, the program opened with The Garden of Villandry by Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett and Felix Blaska to music of Franz Schubert played live on stage by a pianist, violinist, and cellist. Two men and a woman walk-dance through the gardens and we're supposed to guess which of the guys is really the third wheel in the relationship as they politely pull away at the woman who clearly admires and has good use for both of them. Julie Kent, Roman Zhurbin, and Julio Bragado-Young did everything they could with what they were given. This is a novelty piece to see once, smile about what's beneath the quaintness, and then cross it off your list forever.
Next came Tharp's Sinatra Suite danced by Luciana Paris and Herman Cornejo. Their shoes were slick on the floor, and there were a couple of bad slips, but the performance was more than okay. Luciana glams up like Ava Gardner. Herman has plenty of suave, but a little too much respectability. Together they made it all work nicely - very romantic with just a tinge of antagonism.
Demis Volpi's new Private Light took us to the intermission. During the second presentation of last month's Guggenheim's Work & Process program which previewed the ABT Fall Season, Demis Volpi rehearsed Cory Stearns and Simone Messmer in a section from his new work. In one difficult PdD movement, Volpi instructed Messmer to "just relax and let yourself be manhandled." She was compliant and the end result satisfied Volpi. In the New York Times recent preview piece, Volpi is described as rehearsing two dancers in a kiss by telling the man “You’re a rough guy giving a really rough kiss,” he explained. “She’s a thing. She’s not a person you have to take care of." Those two instances pretty much sum up the tenor of his new piece. It's manipulative with men aggressively handling women - sometimes lifting them by their heads and putting them into their proper places.
There is almost no dancing per se in Private Light but for bourees and some solo center barre work (tendu, coupe developpe, etc.) for Joseph Gorak who apparently stepped outside of the sect's activity to act independently. The other dancers then approached him with scorn and snatched him back into place within the sect. Let's see, what else. There's a lot of angst - over what, we don't know. But when you're in your twenties, there's angst in everything, even in a loaf of bread. Let's see, what else. Oh yeah, couples do a lot of kissing to a mish-mash of solo guitar music performed by, ahem, Christian Kiss. Two women do some kissing - most likely inserted to pander to Alastair Macaulay. The men slam themselves to the ground a lot. They are shirtless and dressed in little shorts. The women wear similar shorts with flesh-colored leotard tops which are probably supposed to suggest that the women might be shirtless. Would anyone be surprised if Volpi lobbied for a little topless costume for the ladies? Imagine how famous it would make you as a choreographer if you could be the first one to get ABT to embrace nudity on stage. Perhaps another time, Demis.
After the intermission, we welcomed back Tharp's In the Upper Room, 25 years young. The problem tonight was some miscasting and missing cast. You can't omit Gomes, Cornejo, Hallberg, and a few other veterans and not have it hurt. The stompers saved the day. Sascha Radetsky led this piece the way Stiefel used to - keeping everybody's energy high, making sure nobody let up. He was phenomenal tonight. The guy is so ripped that when he pirouetted, your own eyes would go a little cuck-coo trying to follow the image of his spinning torso muscles. Blaine Hoven and Patrick Ogle kept up the pace well and really danced fabulously. The lady stompers - Kristie Boone, Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, and Luciana Voltolini - embraced the cardio-dance like they were in heaven dancing it.
The bombers were where all the problems were tonight. Most notably, Isabella Boylston, while looking lovely, was also in her own world musically, messing up not only Maria Riccetto but also Luciana Voltolini (she both stomped & bombed) and the group pointe work by dancing ahead of the others or holding a renverse or arabesque just a little bit longer which made the other dancers look bad. If this were an isolated instance, it wouldn't be worth mentioning. But Isabella has badly marred ensemble work in Bright Stream, as one of Giselle's peasant friends, in Thirteen Diversions, and now In the Upper Room - just to name a few instances in the past year. Her penalty: McKenzie awards her with four principal debuts in the Spring Season including two lead principal roles while the long-time, ultra-talented soloists who rarely miss a step and are consummate team players are made to stand down. Why should Isabella even care about the quality of her ensemble work? Also miscast tonight was Gennadi Saveliev. He is not a Tharp dancer in any way, shape or form, and much of the time it looked like he was marking his way through the steps. Arron Scott and Craig Salstein danced very well, and either of them would have been a better choice for Paloma Herrera's partner in the central PdD than Saveliev.
This fall season is not selling well for ABT. It's not the economy. If people have money to go to the opera and to the philharmonic and to Carnegie Hall, they have money to spend on dance. They just don't want to see these kind of poorly designed programs out of ABT. Everyone expects better. No pump bump award for this evening.