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MOZART AND SINATRA, DE MILLE AND THARP SPARK ABT’S NEW SEASON

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on October 17, 2006.

Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) — A visitor to American Ballet Theatre’s rehearsal quarters during the company’s run-up to its City Center fall season is greeted with a startling sight.

Women spin across the space so fast that the pink satin of their pointe shoes registers as a blur. Men maneuver women through lifts that resemble satellite launchings or catch them as they plunge toward the floor, head first.

Arms and legs lash the air. Fingers twitch as if galvanized. A small dynamo of a guy thrusts his body straight into the air and then, for a microsecond, leans off the vertical like the Tower of Pisa.

All of this is happening simultaneously, at breakneck speed and with energy ratcheted to the highest pitch. Only the dancers’ uncanny precision, it seems, prevents sudden death.

“Glow-Stop,” the ballet in view, set to music by Mozart and Philip Glass, is the latest creation of Jorma Elo, the Finnish resident choreographer at the Boston Ballet who is in demand everywhere.

Audiences are likely to respond to this thrill-a-minute dance with shrieks of delight, just as they did to Elo’s “Slice to Sharp,” commissioned by the New York City Ballet for its Diamond Project back in June.

Nevertheless, the backbone of ABT’s season (which begins tomorrow and ends Nov. 5) remains a bunch of time-proven classics — dating all the way back to the 1930s — from the troupe’s rich and varied repertory.

Political Dance

Kurt Jooss’s 1932 antiwar classic, “The Green Table,” fills a perpetual need. It holds diplomats and politicians accountable for the destruction they engender.

In a series of vivid scenes, Jooss shows how war delivers everyone, from soldiers and partisans enflamed by their cause to innocents old and young, into the grasp of an all-devouring Death.

Staged for ABT by the choreographer’s daughter, Anna Markard, the ballet is now coached (on the day I saw rehearsals) by Victor Barbee, a memorable dramatic dancer high on ABT’s roster of senior artists passing on their wisdom.

In sneakered feet, Barbee stalked the imposing man cast as Death while he closed in on a young woman playing the virgin prostituted as one of the spoils of war. “Be soft,” Barbee whispered, “and then vicious.”

Antony Tudor’s 1937 “Dark Elegies” illuminates another perennial theme: a community’s loss, in one fell swoop, of its children. The ballet tells no specific story. Yet it is devastatingly eloquent in charting the bereaved adults’ differing modes of grief and the catharsis of their shared resignation.

Cowgirls, Cowboys

Further repertory treasures come from the 1940s, among them Agnes de Mille’s upbeat “Rodeo” (1942). The tale it tells is deliciously outdated: A wannabe cowgirl yearns to join the guys, riding and roping on the dusty plains. Proper gals in her prairie town are given to frills and flirtation.

Her happy ending comes when she forsakes tomboy ways, dons a dress and succumbs to romance. Somehow, whatever your feminist convictions, you’re rooting for her at every turn.

In the style-shifting that’s an ABT specialty, the horse- breakers and their hoedowns are likely to give way, after a brief intermission, to a flock of svelte women in white tutus creating images of sublime classicism.

George Balanchine choreographed this immaculate vision, “Symphonie Concertante,” in 1947 for the group that would shortly become the New York City Ballet. The high point of the piece has the lone man in the dance — an archetypal noble cavalier — inventively partnering a pair of ballerinas, each ravishing in her own way.

Male Adoration

Finally, turning his back to the audience to gaze at his idols across the full distance of the stage, he kneels in reverence. If you’ve ever wanted to know how Balanchine felt about women, this is your answer.

Skipping to an equally rich decade, the 1980s, ABT’s repertoire this season provides a pair of ballets that originally starred Mikhail Baryshnikov. They were created by Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, who have remained the most remarkable choreographers of their generation.

In the rehearsal studio, I saw Susan Jones, ABT’s invaluable ballet mistress, instructing three of the four couples who will alternate in Tharp’s 1983 “Sinatra Suite.” Not only was Jones on top of every single step, she was also able to show the dancers the texture of each phrase, which makes all the difference.

The choreography is a kamikaze form of social dance, so the women were in high heels. That makes the daredevil partnering all the more risky, but the dancers appeared to be having a genuine good time.

Morris Revisited

Tina Fehlandt, a striking member of the Mark Morris Dance Group in its formative years, is staging the revival of Morris’s 1988 “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” Standing in the dancers’ hectic midst, she genially supervises a kaleidoscope of motion that teeters on the edge of becoming a traffic accident.

Only crackerjack classical dancers could bring off this choreography. It asks them, and their viewers, to relinquish hidebound notions about how ballet steps can be put together.

It also harbors a little in-joke. The seemingly impossible-for-anyone-else solo created for Baryshnikov is immediately echoed by the choreography assigned to another man who joins him.

In retrospect, that passage in “Drink” seems to mark the birth of a cadre of sensational male virtuosi at ABT. Along with the company’s formidable cache of ballets, this feature ranks as one of ABT’s present-day glories. But that’s another story.

American Ballet Theatre performs at New York City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, Oct. 18 through Nov. 5. Information: (1)(212) 581-1212 or http://www.abt.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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