The revival of Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita rejuvenated both dancers and audience. The first cast led by Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, and Stella Abrera flew through it like a sleek Acela whistling toward Washington whereas the second cast was more like the Tesla Hyperloop: full of good intentions but with ambitions way outside the scope of expertise – the exceptions being Sarah Lane and Sean Stewart who made their PdD the highlight of the second cast's single performance. They are an engaging pair who deliver high caliber dancing whenever on stage. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to count for much at ABT these days.
Three gripping performances of Jose Limón's all-powerful masterpiece, The Moor’s Pavane, hammered home why we come to the theater to see dance. Roman Zhurbin as Othello, Veronika Part as Emilia, and Cory Stearns as Iago pummeled, schemed, and slithered their ways through this domestic tragedy. Hee Seo as Desdemona took some risks in the final performance in an effort to rise to the level of the three dramatic heavyweights, but she still portrayed the character like 14-year-old Juliet – more the daughter of the Moor than his wife. What she did or did not do was completely eclipsed by the high drama moments delivered by Part’s Emilia cavorting with the white hankie, Stearns’s Iago wrapping himself around Zhurbin’s Othello igniting the Moor’s rage and wrath, Iago's near murder of Emilia when she proclaimed that she would not be silenced, and Zhurbin’s revelatory characterization of the weakness within the Moor’s brutal strength. There was superior dance drama in all three performances with the intensity of the final one nearly off the charts.
Just throwing this out there: how about Zhurbin, Part, and Stearns as George, Martha, and Nick in a one-act distillation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Stanton Welch’s Clear made a few things clear:
- fluted jazz pants are God’s gift to dancers because they hide everything that could go wrong from the waist down;
- fluted jazz pants don’t matter when all the men are hunky and shirtless;
- slapping one’s bare chest looks stupid and pointless even when done by one of the greatest theatrical dancers on the planet;
- ABT needs to dance this piece more often, but –
- all the men in the company need a daily mega-dose of single pirouette/double tours in order to bring their technique up to the minimal levels required by this ballet and by Balanchine's Theme and Variations.
Theme and Variations wasn’t a disappointment simply because the men couldn't manage clean sequences of single pirouette/double tours. While Gillian Murphy excelled in the ballet every moment that she was on stage, most of the other principals mushed and wandered and struggled. Not only did Daniil Simkin previously brag that he wanted to be the first person ever to do the whole tours sequence as double pirouette/double tours, but he made an ass out of himself while trying and failing. His show-off-at-all-costs habit finally wrecked a performance that was in trouble from the git-go because of Isabella Boylston’s bland, oddly-mannered, energy-vacant dancing. And what happened Sunday during Paloma Herrera’s performance of Theme and Variations? Answer: the same bland, oddly-mannered, energy-vacant dancing that we saw from Isabella Boylston and Polina Semionova. Apparently, this ballet no longer matters to Kevin McKenzie. And apparently, few who dance its principal roles at ABT have bothered to watch NYCB’s thrilling performances year after year and probably haven’t even watched the tape of Kirkland and Baryshnikov from the PBS broadcast. It’s been a long time since Balanchine has looked so quaint and unimportant at ABT. And why isn’t the company’s only other Balanchine ballerina besides Murphy, Stella Abrera, dancing the lead in this ballet?
Instead of rushing over to the Koch Theater to see Maria Kochetkova at every opportunity, McKenzie should think about stopping by during the NYCB season to see how the home company excels in Theme and Variations, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in C before he decides to put his own misguided, sluggish, and often odd-looking versions on the New York stage.
To be fair, the demi-soloists were consistently very good. The more time that Melanie Hamrick and Leann Underwood spend on stage, the better for all of us. Add to the list Eric Tamm, Gemma Bond, Joe Gorak, and the sparkling footwork and elegant port de bras of Sarah Smith and Adrienne Schulte who added great beauty to Les Sylphides.
We had Veronika Part to celebrate in the Prelude of Les Sylphides. Her magical, radiant, other-worldly, seamlessly beautiful classical dancing is at a level rarely seen on the New York stage. The disappointment expressed by many that she did not dance the PdD was justified considering the unspecial performance delivered by Polina Semionova and Cory Stearns. While Stearns clearly is growing in dramatic roles, his classical work is still more utility- than show-quality. Unspecial and utility-bred is also how Semionova’s dancing comes across. Haglund continues to see nothing about Semionova’s dancing that seems either fresh or beautiful. It’s competent and dutiful, and works like Pepperidge Farm white bread works for a sandwich.
Most offensive of all was ABT dumping Isabella Boylston into the Les Sylphides PdD opposite Joe Gorak. Homely dancing + handsome dancing does not average out to acceptable dancing. Complete absence of musical sensitivity and a Sylph making faces like she smells a wind biscuit are not the kinds of beauty one goes to the ballet hoping to see. And since when are the Sylph’s grand jetes supposed to shoot the front leg higher than the waistline and allow the torso to sink? ABT’s future certainly looks dark. It won’t be helped by the insert in Sunday's Playbill that appealed to new donors by featuring a dreadful picture of Boylston that represents so much of what is wrong with ABT.
Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1 received vibrant performances and gave a lot of dancers opportunities to get their blood going. Debuts by Gillian Murphy, Skylar Brandt, Eric Tamm, and Gabe Stone Shayer were spirited. Calvin Royal and Christine Shevchenko have built confidence into their performances from the Met season. Haglund enjoyed watching Royal in this ballet as well as in Clear and Bach Partita, but was bothered by his lack of plié and the bouncing out of landings from tours and assembles and especially tours assembles.
A Month in the Country was mostly a disappointment and didn’t come close to the impression left by Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell that is available on YouTube. Did Julie Kent decide that half of what Seymour did wouldn’t look good on her, so she muted it? Obviously, this ballet was brought into ABT for Kent's benefit (and to try to justify her $200,000+ compensation package) but her performance lacked the energy, range of expression, and nuances of Seymour's. ABT is quickly running out of repertory and partners for this principal who, like Nureyev, doesn’t seem to know when enough is enough.
Haglund always enjoys Guillaume Cote’s dancing, but did not find his interpretation of Dowell’s role to be very satisfying, humorous, or genuine. Gemme Bond and Stella Abrera shone brightly in their supporting roles as Vera and Katia, which came as no surprise and seems to count for little at ABT. Here we had two potentially heart-shattering Giselles backing up the corticated one who can’t let go.
The H.H. Pump Bump Award for the season is bestowed upon the many supremely talented artists at ABT toiling dutifully in the shadows of lesser dancers who satisfy the poor and declining tastes of management.