Sunday, 2 June 2013


     May and June are high ballet season in New York with American's premier ballet companies, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, playing next door to each other at Lincoln Center. We like to pig out on ballet during this spring dance feast.
     The two companies have different personalities even when performing the same ballets. American Ballet Theatre's annual Spring season at the Met, is a parade of star turns. Like the Met, the company showcases an international roster of leading performers (few Americans, lots of former Soviet bloc and South American dancers). The leads, particularly the men, are spectacular. The audience cheers wildly for the leaps and spins of Ivan Vasiliev (athletic but not elegant), David Hallberg, Marcello Gomes (intense), Herman Cornejo (the best leaper and twirler -- like a coiled spring), Daniil Simkin and Denis Matvienko (amazing in DON QUIXOTE last week). For the most part, the ballerinas are excellent, but since the defection of Nureyev and Barishnikov a generation ago, male dancers have generated the most excitement. The corps is solid and there are lots of gifted soloists waiting to move up to principal. During the Met season, the bread and butter of the ABT are the big story ballets. Unlike the Royal Ballet, for instance, they don't do much new work, though this past week they unveiled a trilogy of non-narrative ballets set to the music of Shostakovich by their Artist-in-Residence, Alexei Ratmansky. The choreography was always inventive and witty, particularly in Ratmansky's handling of groups. Different groups on the Met's large stage are dancing different steps. There's almost too much to take in. Ratmansky was wise to take full advantage of the starry cast at his disposal. The third ballet, to Shostakovich's first piano concerto, pitted Ivan Vasiliev's narcissistic flashiness against Cory Stearns' grace. Ditto Natalia Osipova and Julie Kent. The second ballet to the Chamber Symphony was a vehicle for David Hallberg, star of both the ABT and the Bolshoi, with three of the company's leading ballerinas. Earlier in the week we saw a brilliantly danced DON QUIXOTE with veteran ballerina Gillian Murphy and Matvienko. Their dancing was nothing short of spectacular. That's what the audience came for and the cheers went on and on during the many curtain calls.
      The ABT's new production of LE CORSAIRE had some spectacular dancing, but was a mixed bag. LE CORSAIRE must have the worst musical score among ballets in the standard repertoire. Depending on the production, five to eleven composers are represented, but there is no musical interest in any of it. The story is supposedly based on Byron, but it is a silly mixture of harems, drug-induced dream visions of ballerinas as flowers, a bit of swashbuckling, a shipwreck (very tacky in this production). I have never understood why this ballet is done as often as it is. Nonetheless, for some reason, we attended the opening of the ABT's supposedly new production, though the choreography was the same as its last production. The production is actually borrowed from Buenos Aires. Osipova and Vasiliev were the leads. He is now so bulked up that one is always aware of the effort in his defying gravity. Yes, his leaps are still impressive, but it's a hefty body to move around -- like watching an NFL linebacker dance ballet. The audience's favorites among the male dancers were Daniil Simkin and Herman Cornejo. Simkin stopped the show with his virtuoso airborne solo in the second act pas de trios with Osipove and Vasiliev. There was no question who was the audience favorite. All the intermission talk up in the balcony - family circle lobby was about Simkin. Cornejo was superb in his first act pas de deux with Isabella Boylston. Osipova did some brilliant work, particularly in the silly flower dream. Everyone danced well, but after seeing four performances of LE CORSAIRE over the past few years (two from the ABT and two from the Bolshoi), I'm swearing off this ballet for a long time.
     Next door, the New York City Ballet is much more of an ensemble. The leading dancers are all very good, but they don't try to wow the audience the way ABT dancers do. There's not the sense of "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" that you have at ABT. There's more of a sense of dancers working together to achieve a mutual goal, even in a flashy work like Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Suite #3", that concluded last night's mixed bill. The last time I saw its final movement, "Theme and Variations", performed by the ABT, I was wowed by Daniil Simin's spectacular dancing. This time I was thrilled by the totality. Everything was as close to perfect as one can expect of a live performance. No one was trying to get the most attention, as Vasiliev does at the ABT to the cheers of the audience, yet the dancing is equally good. On June 5, Robert Fairchild executed the difficult solos in Peter Martins' angular "Calcium White Light", then wowed everyone with his leaps and whirls in Balanchine's "Western Symphony." Over the past week, we have seen two casts dance Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto", both excellent. What is also most impressive about the New York City Ballet is their versatility. They specialize in evenings of short ballets that showcase the dancers' mastery of different styles. Since it is more of a stable company than the ABT, and many of the dancers have trained at the company's school, they know the core repertory (George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins) from their student days and are good at learning new work together. Their performance, for instance, of Christopher Wheeldon's "Dance a Grand Vitesse" is much looser, jazzier and more effective than the Royal Ballet's version.
     I grew up on Balanchine's choreography for his company, the New York City Ballet, at their old home, the New York City Center. Seeing the work again, I am still amazed at how varied Balanchine's dances are. The contrast last night between his witty, angular setting of Stravinsky's violin concerto and the elegance of his setting of the Tchaikovsky suite is impressive. I can't help but be equally impressed at Balanchine's showmanship. He created great ballets that are also great entertainment. Every major company dances his work, but there is something special in seeing the company Balanchine founded dancing his work.
      We go back and forth between the two companies and wouldn't want to have to choose between them. What a joy to have them both! At the same time, I have to say that one of the things I miss about spending a lot of time in London is the Royal Ballet. I went to everything and really felt invested in their dancers.
        Yes, as the song goes, "Everything is beautiful  .  .  ."

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