It would be easy to go overboard with the analysis of ABT’s Gala performance. We’ll do a little of that. But first let’s summarize at the top by saying that while the evening had its merits, the overall impression was one of a company struggling to breathe. When Kevin McKenzie appeared before the curtain to give a brief speech, he struggled to convey enthusiasm. He even struggled to make his thanks to supporters sound sincere and not simply desperate and obligatory.
The program – Mark Morris’ After You, Frederick Ashton’s Monotones I and II, and Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations – were all danced well but with little impact. The redeeming feature of this collection of work was its high level of musicality – unforced musicality in the first two pieces while somewhat forced in the last.
After You, a new commission from Morris to lovely music composed by Johan Nepomuk Hummel in 1829, was a surprisingly seriously-crafted effort. Throughout, Morris showed a fondness for the use of trios - which is actually a well-known Ashton characteristic, e.g., Monotones – and a tremendous respect for the shape of classical port de bras – also a huge aspect of Monotones. Morris frequently had his dancers deeply bend to the side with arms in fifth en haut (over the head) in a manner quite similar to Ashton’s dancers in Monotones. Did it look like Morris was copying or quoting? No, it looked like a shared language being spoken, perhaps with a different accent, but nevertheless, a shared language.
The dancers in After You, men and women alike, were draped in loose jumpsuits in vivid shades of orange and pink designed by Isaac Mizrahi. They didn’t look exactly like his ready-to-wear line, but clearly were influenced by it. The gentle gathering at the waistlines gave them a hint of Victorian era styling which connected nicely to the 1829 music and to some of the concepts of manners and politeness within the choreography which was overall quite tidy.
Twelve dancers of equal billing – with Stella Abrera and Gillian Murphy being slightly more equal – danced ebulliently in mostly trios but also pairs, quartets, and ensemble. Dancers’ phrases would come to an end by feeding into other dancers’ phrases with shared texts – also a characteristic of the Tharp piece which closed the evening. Throughout After You, dancers marched off or on to the stage (Hummel’s music is known as “Military”) and cavorted in basic ballet terminology without resorting to extremes. It was an example of doing more with less.
Calvin Royal and Sterling Baca were the main partners to Stella and Gillian. The other members of the cast included Lily Wisdom, Skylar Brandt Catherine Hurlin, Devon Teuscher, Joo Won Ahn, Jeffrey Cirio, Craig Salstein, and Arron Scott. Jeffrey Cirio, ABT’s newest imported soloist, had a featured solo. He’s a competent technician, barely tall enough to partner Skylar Brandt. The reason for his hire remains a question mark - like so many before him.
An overall impression of this new Morris piece is that it could eventually function like Balanchine’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. It would be a nice piece to turn over to the corps de ballet.
Monotones I and II will settle into the repertory after a couple of performances. Monotones I with Stella Abrera, Isabella Boylston and Joseph Gorak was the more ready of the two this evening. While Isabella’s arms and hands were under control, the rest of her did not match the tight classical line in the adagio of the other two dancers. As the more earth-connected trio in green unitards and caps, the Monotones I cast was more floor-bound than the celestial-connected trio of Monotones II (Veronika Part, Cory Stearns, and Thomas Forster in white unitards) which saw lovely, lengthy Veronika frequently elevated. Both parts of this ballet are equally lovely to watch but leave the viewer wanting more, like maybe a Monotones III that involves all six dancers.
The evening concluded with Tharp’s complicated response to Brahms’ response to Haydn. Things looked a little messy in places. (Twyla is on tour.) Standouts were Gillian Murphy, Christine Shevchenko, Joseph Gorak, Sarah Lane, Sean Stewart, Luciana Paris, and Blaine Hoven. Why in the world McKenzie cast Maria Kochetkova instead of Luciana Paris opposite Herman Cornejo is a real headscratcher. Luciana and Herman have danced a lot together outside of ABT, and she was marvelous tonight - a real Tharpster. There are some people who just “take” to the Tharp style, like Luciana, Blaine, and Sean Stewart and then there are others who don’t, like Daniil Simkin and Roman Zhurbin. This isn’t a ballet that a company can put together in a couple of weeks. Even though its style is loose and kinetic, it becomes quite apparent when people are unsure what they are supposed to be doing.
The HH Pump Bump, which covers the spectrum of Mizrahi's costumes, is bestowed upon Mark Morris who surprised us with his serious effort in After You: