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Ballet Diary No. 9

Ballet Diary No.9: American Ballet Theatre: All-Classic [Masters] program; ABT Premieres program; Natalia Osipova dancing Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (ABT’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NYC, closed on July 10, 2010)

Note: This is No. 9 in the series “Ballet Diary”–comments on the 2010 spring seasons of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, along with related performances. To read previous pieces in the series, click here: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3; No. 4; No. 5; No. 6; No.7; No. 8. The completed “Ballet Diary” series will comprise nine essays.

ABT’s Gillian Murphy in Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations

Photo: Gene Schiavone

June has given way to July as I write this and I’m beginning to think I’ve taken up residence at Lincoln Center, along with a dozen or two of my dance writing colleagues. Those camp cots parked in the subterranean corner of the Metropolitan Opera House where you can borrow a booster seat (covered in dark red plush, of course) for a small child you’re introducing to high-end singing and dancing? That’s what we sleep on between one day’s performance and the next. Showers? Did you think those were nymphs and satyrs you glimpsed frolicking in the plaza’s spectacular fountain?

New York City Ballet has finished its eight-week season at the David H. Koch Theater and departed to Saratoga Springs for its annual summer stint, while American Ballet Theatre is in the penultimate week of its eight weeks at the Met.

One of my colleagues asked if, after completing my nine “Ballet Diary” essays on the spring seasons of the two companies, I was going to write a round-up. Well, no. I will already have said all I have to say, but, for anyone who needs a quick condensation, here it is.

Both troupes offered some spectacular dancing–all through the ranks, from newbies to reigning stars. Both companies disappointed when it came to repertory, influenced more by commercial concerns than aesthetic ones. This, despite City Ballet’s proud claim to be an institution bent on producing new choreography to new music–a strategy that regularly yielded fruit only when the new work was by Balanchine and, if you will, Robbins.

City Ballet put a name to its season, “Architecture of Dance,” and commissioned seven new ballets along with five scores, hiring a celebrated architect, Santiago Calatrava, to provide décor. In my view, all this looked more like a marketing ploy than an artistic vision. The results, at any rate, proved to be an artistic failure, since only one of the ballets–Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna: A Grand Divertissement–is worth keeping. Again in my view, of course, but what other view can I offer?

Ballet Theatre settled for a less fancy, less chancy way of selling tickets: Figure out what the public wants and serve it up, enhanced by stars. This resulted in week-long stints devoted to program-length ballets of varying artistic merit. A couple provided nothing more than easy entertainment (Don Q, for instance, hardly speaks to your soul); another two (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) were wretched versions of classical ballet’s 19th-century linchpins. Programs of several shorter works were arranged under titles like “All-Ashton” (which was OK as a demonstration of the company’s faith that here was a topnotch choreographer whose style was worth the effort needed to learn it) and “ABT Premieres” (ballets that had been created on the home team), which was plain silly. After all, to quote Gershwin, who cares?

So the delight to be had at performances lay in a few ballets (Ashton’s Dream, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, to name two) and in the majority of the nearly 200 dancers the companies harbor between them.

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The penultimate week of ABT’s season took me first to what was originally advertised as the All-Classic program. Leaving it to scholars with higher brows than mine to debate what constitutes a classic (well, how about “a work that continues to be compelling after the era in which it was made”?), I can report that the evening–shorn of its title in the house program–was pleasurable in part because the five choreographers represented knew and used their heritage while inventing a world according to their singular vision. Equally important was the fact that the dancing ranged from very good to sublime.

In Balanchine’s 1956 Allegro Brillante (which opens with its eight-member ensemble already circling the stage at a run), Gillian Murphy, dancing the female lead, embodied the speed and dazzle the ballet’s title promises. “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes,” Balanchine said of the piece, and Murphy met and luxuriated in its challenges.

Acting Becomes Her: Xiomara Reyes and Gennadi Saveliev in Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet

Photo: MIRO

A scene choreographed by Antony Tudor, tactfully termed “Romeo’s Farewell to Juliet” (it’s the aftermath of the young lovers’ wedding night), conjured up memories of the most wonderful Romeo and Juliet of them all–Tudor’s one-act version, created in 1943 and set to music by Delius. As a vehicle for Xiomara Reyes, the least compelling of ABT’s ballerinas, the piece is a godsend. Reyes, who is belatedly adding drama to her dancing, lends herself to the demands of the choreography from the first moment. With Romeo still asleep in her bed, Juliet sits up and strokes the inside of one thigh, remembering, then moves toward the early light streaming into the room and shields her face from it, knowing that her new husband, exiled for murder, must leave her with the coming of dawn. Tudor makes every gesture in the pair’s plangent interaction not simply a dance move but a phrase spoken–about a love that both partners fear will be lost to death.

Another Point of View: Hee Seo and Sascha Radetsky in Ashton’s Thaïs Pas de Deux

Photo: Gene Schiavone

Earlier I wrote about Ashton’s evocative Thaïs Pas de Deux, with Diana Vishneva’s being about as good as it gets in the musk-scented title role. Now I’ve seen Hee Seo making her debut in the part. Seo’s a corps de ballet dancer who has lately been fed one prominent role after another. (Note: On July 6, ABT announced–to no one’s surprise–that Seo would be promoted to soloist rank in August.) She has a soft dewy quality, astonishingly beautiful feet, and formidable technique that was coupled in the Thaïs duet with the modest demeanor of a dancer who doesn’t yet “own” the choreography. It seems that, with this piece, made in 1971, Ashton created a situation in which sensuousness can be conveyed in markedly different ways.

On the same program, Vishneva, sympathetically partnered by Jose Manuel Carreño, danced the Act I pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon. Her portrayal had just the right mix of girlish love and wanton lust, and she gave a perfect account of the scene’s mounting passion. I’ll never really succumb to MacMillan’s exaggerated (and often morbid) theatricality and his near-obsession with seemingly impossible lifts meant to express the peaks of emotion, but he clearly knows how to excite a large audience to fever pitch, and Vishneva is aptly cast as the ballerina to help him do it.

I also wrote about The Dream earlier this season, when ABT’s best-realized achievement with the Ashton repertory was danced by Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg as Titania and Oberon, Herman Cornejo as Puck, and Julio Bragado-Young as Bottom. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine another American cast doing as well.

Another Part of the Forest: Julie Kent in Ashton’s Dream

Photo: Gene Schiavone

As it turned out, the team of Julie Kent, Marcello Gomes, Craig Salstein, and Isaac Stappas revealed different dimensions of the choreography. Kent’s rendition of Titania was more conventionally fairylike, given the ballerina’s personal beauty and the delicacy and crispness of her dancing. Gomes’s signature authority was put to splendid use in his interpretation of Oberon. While he couldn’t equal Hallberg’s lightness and fluidity in the role’s pure dance passages, he brought unmatchable clarity and force to the mime. Craig Salstein overplayed the mischief-making Puck with his self-conscious cuteness, but Isaac Stappas gave the most natural–almost Stanislavskian–rendition of the Bottom’s Dream solo that I’ve ever seen. The bevy of fairies scurried more deliciously than ever and the two pairs of human lovers did much to make their botanical drug-induced adventures intelligible in their change-partners-and-dance thread of the plot.

The climactic duet of Titania and Oberon was exquisitely performed. Oberon allows Titania to stray from him thus far and no further, the sequence of release-and-retract moves seeming to occur on the spur of the moment. Soon the partners are twisting and flickering, as if to reveal that they are two of the same breed. Titania runs away (knowingly, not very far) and Oberon pursues her, both of them visibly aware that she has no plans to go astray. And, indeed, she soon flies, literally, into his arms. He supports her at arm’s length as she darts into an arabesque–poised for flight yet again–but then she melts back against his body as if acquiescing to the idea that this is her home. The choreography is tricky, to put it mildly, but Kent and Gomes made it look like a natural extension of their unique dance temperaments.

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Panorama: ABT dancers in Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations

Photo: Gene Schiavone

In the same week, I saw the ABT Premieres program. Twyla Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations, created in 2000, was the curtain raiser, as it was for the All-American program, and I wrote about it here. Even so, since there’s always more to see in this ballet, there’s always more to say.

On this showing it was danced with such assurance and calm that its constant contrasts were particularly clear: a pair or two of dancers alternating with a crowd of them, each player confident of his or her place in the choreographic scheme; pure classical form set against impulses that rippled through the entire body, tipped it askew, or turned it upside down; minuscule jokes–about ballet, about myriad ways of dancing, about moving through space in general; celestial harmony juxtaposed with the very different beauty to be found in awkwardness.

Every time I see Brahms-Haydn again, I think that it’s finer than I realized it was the time before. My only quibble with the piece is that it seems too complex to grasp fully on an initial viewing, while because of the hours and dollars that going to the ballet consumes, more spectators than not will be content with a single sighting.

On the Dnieper
, made for ABT in 2009 to the eponymous Prokofiev score, is the most deeply Russian of the Alexei Ratmansky ballets that have been performed in the States. Its chief characters–a soldier returning from the front, the fiancée he’s pledged to, and the girl he now finds he wants to marry–are beset by wrenching emotions, and they express them accordingly, like figures in a Dostoevsky novel. In some 40 minutes Ratmansky depicts love, desire refusing to be quelled, confusion, jealousy, regret, selfless resignation–and an unspecific promise of joy.

The choreography is enriched by references–just hints in passing–to landmark Russian ballets, such as the female ensemble’s forming patterns borrowed from Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. Ratmansky is the sort of dance maker who keeps the history of his art in mind and makes it a living element of his own work. Simon Pastukh’s scenery suggests a long-ago rural Russia, a bleak landscape softened by spring’s blooming cherry trees that, all too soon, scatter their petals on the earth.

Late Spring: ABT dancers in Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper

Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Having seen and reviewed the first cast of the ballet at its premiere (with Marcelo Gomes as the soldier, Veronika Part as his old love, Paloma Herrera as his new), I chose to see the second cast this season. Gomes remains irreplaceable, but Maria Riccetto, whom I’ve always thought of as a dry, inexpressive dancer, blossomed as the fiancée and was truly touching. Simone Messmer was fascinating as the most innocent “other woman” in ballet history except, perhaps, the Sylphide. In every role I’ve seen her perform, she has looked different–and remarkable. Here she made me wonder how ABT thinks of her: as a character dancer? a dramatic dancer? I’m fairly certain she’s not on the tiara-type ballerina track, but, if the company provides intelligent, steady mentoring, might she not become tomorrow’s Nora Kaye? Or, more likely, more fully and clearly herself?

Jerome Robbins’s 1944 Fancy Free (perfectly matched with its vivid Leonard Bernstein score and its nifty Oliver Smith set) is pure Forties, yet it has remained a favorite to this day. Telling a tale of three sailors on shore leave, hopefully trolling for pick-ups, it maintains a mood typical of American optimism, all the while closely observing realities of individual temperament.

The sailors in the performance I saw were Craig Salstein (as the brash virtuoso, jumping from the corner saloon’s bar to land in a split), Marcelo Gomes (as the guy who does a sexy rhumba partnering an imaginary chair), and David Hallberg (as the wistful fellow, who gets the duet with the loveliest girl). Gomes and Hallberg seemed to be having the time of their lives, freed from the restraints of playing princes. The women were the duly lovely Julie Kent, whose smile can light up a 4,000-seat theater, and Kristi Boone, as the spirited, street-savvy gal with a red shoulder bag, who won’t take any nonsense. Karen Uphoff was a more than plausible choice for the impossibly pretty walk-on.

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Then, on July 10, the final day of ABT’s season, there was Natalia Osipova, a phenomenon if not yet a great ballerina, as Juliet, in Kenneth MacMillan’s grand-scale version of star-crossed teenage love.

Fatal Attraction: Natalia Osipova as Juliet

Photo: Gene Schiavone

This was Osipova’s first Juliet ever. She had been resident with ABT for the entire season, learning the role in addition to giving a few spectacular performances in other ballets. The celebrated dramatic dancer Alessandra Ferri taught her the role and she was coached by Irina Kolpakova, the legendary Kirov ballerina, now an ABT ballet mistress, who understands that, in narrative dance, feeling and form must fuse.

Osipova’s interpretation of Juliet will grow with experience, but it’s already on the right track. The young star has proved her mettle by shaping Juliet’s story as a powerful arc that moves inexorably from the last moment of the girl’s childhood, rambunctiously playing with her nurse; through her developing awareness of love as it flowers by stages into unquenchable passion; to her suicide, which becomes the only possible response to her beloved’s.

Osipova also wisely suits her portrayal of Juliet to her own stage appearance and temperament. Abandoning the familiar aspect of Juliet that derives from Margot Fonteyn’s unforgettable portrayal–which makes the spectator feel that the terrible aspects of the tale should not be happening to so lovely a creature–Osipova judiciously abandons any attempt at “being beautiful.” She opts for realism.

This Juliet begins as a hyper-spirited youngster. Slowly, she’s tamed a little by experiencing routine gestures of admiration from Paris, the suitable suitor her parents have chosen for her, and her own shy, then slightly tender response, when she realizes it’s pleasant to be pleasing. This softening is immediately succeeded by her love-at-first-sight for Romeo–an enemy of her household. Once this sudden attraction (and his to her) becomes the sole focus of her being, she embraces its ecstatic fulfillment, which inevitably hurtles her toward death.

Stage by stage, Osipova spells out this evolution from child to adolescent to full-grown woman who makes her own choices and embraces the choices that are dictated by her heart. (Which is just as well, since her father and Paris finally try to bend her to their will with brute force.) Osipova presents Juliet’s trajectory in clear detail, even when events render her grotesque with horror and pain. Every gesture has a reason behind it. She does not–cannot, perhaps–weave a romantic spell, but her interpretation suits her in its boldness and reach. With time and luck, it could make her Juliet a genuinely tragic figure.

© 2010 Tobi Tobias


  1. costas cacaroukas says:

    Hello, Tobi —
    Too many thoughts about your thoroughly fascinating overview to write them to you, being someone who cannot type. Except for one:
    I recently saw a Noh play –part of the Lincoln Center Festival–at the David H. Koch Theater and thought that Ratmansky’s “On the Dnieper” would have benefited from the stage effects the Japanese could command. For example: the very fine mist that looked utterly natural, trees that moved as if the wind was blowing through them, the magical manipulation of the scenery. I greatly admire Ratmansky’s work and believe he deserves the best.

  2. George Dorris says:

    Since you mention [Margot] Fonteyn’s Juliet, it should be remembered that the role was made not on her but on Lynn Seymour, with Christopher Gable as her Romeo. Unfortunately I never saw Seymour in the role, but she was reliably said to have been wonderful in it, including the moment when Juliet sits on her bed wondering what to do. No one has ever made it work for me, but apparently Seymour showed the emotion without apparently doing anything.

  3. Ms. Kaori Kitao says:

    Thank you for this nine-part ballet diary. I love all your writings, but your dance reviews are unsurpassed in clarity and depth of analysis; they are incisive, often witty, and beautifully crafted; and they make the reader see (and remember) the performances more vividly and intensely, as any good criticism should. I learned so much from you, and will continue to learn more.

  4. Elizabeth Kendall writing for Irina Kolpakova says:

    Dear Tobi,
    Eiizabeth Kendall is writing you at my request, because my English can’t accommodate everything I want to say.
    I am so grateful, not only for your generous words about me and about Osipova’s Juliet in “Ballet Diary No. 9,” but also for sending me and my husband your articles via email. For me it’s always interesting to read them. Even if I don’t understand everything, I always ask about words I don’t know, so I can learn something new. I think you are one of the most interesting and deep critics that I’ve met in my time.
    This “Romeo and Juliet” was a very important moment for me, and not an easy one. Alessandra Ferri taught Natalia the role, from scratch. But then she had to leave, and I took over the coaching of Natalia’s Juliet.
    I looked at Natalia Makarova and Margot Fonteyn on tape, so I could unearth the qualities of MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” when I’m used to the Leonid Lavrovsky version of the ballet. Knowing the Lavrovsky version also helped me understand the MacMillan. I also watched and thought about each of the eight ballerinas (I think eight) who perform the role now – each one differently. I tried to understand those differences, and to think deep into the role for myself. Really, it wasn’t easy, but it was very interesting and moving work.
    Also, I remembered Georgia Parkinson as I was preparing Natalia for this role. She used to be always near. We worked twenty years together. Especially working on this “Romeo and Juliet,” I felt how much I missed her.
    Irina Kolpakova

    Thank you for remembering Lynn Seymour, one of the greatest dramatic dancers we’ve ever seen. I didn’t have the luck to see her Juliet, but I did see Margot Fonteyn’s. I can still conjure up the image of Fonteyn sitting on that bed, ostensibly doing nothing, and making us spectators believe that her whole life to date, as well as her fear and fragile hope for the future, were rolling before her, along with the surging music. t

  6. Leo Greenbaum says:

    I–and some of my ballet friends–strongly disagree with you about Xiomara Reyes. Personally, I like neither verismo opera nor verismo ballet, so I don’t too much like “On the Dnieper” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but I would like very much to see the entire Tudor “R&J.”

  7. Jane Remer says:

    Fabulous summary, awesome.
    I have seen many R&J’s; this is the first one that captures Shakespeare’s intentions to perfection, and in some ways, makes the play heavier and less appealing. I have never seen a couple as committed, convincing and abandoned as Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg as “teenagers”–lost in the powers of young lust and love. I’ve seen Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev and so many others, but this was it for me.
    What was most impressive was how these dancers’ chemistry and urgency sent them sailing into the deeper passions and ecstasies. These feelings were perfectly reflected as they swept into the vast audience of the Met. You could have heard a pin drop when this pair was on stage.
    Masterly! Graceful, precise, and clean; wholehearted and almost reckless. They were exhausted and a little stunned at the curtain calls, but their hugs and kisses completely sealed the love that was radiating back at them from the audience. A couple of kids, yes, with stunning talent and actors of the first order.
    The crowd leaving the Met that afternoon couldn’t stop talking– stranger to stranger, out the door, in the street, on the bus home. The performance had been amazing, one for the ages.

  8. Martha Ullman West says:

    I wish to add my voice to the chorus of praise for TT’s beautifully written, thoughtful diary of a performance marathon I couldn’t have done to save my soul.
    And to comment on some Comments: I never saw Lynn Seymour dance Juliet, but I did see her in a not very good MacMillan ballet called “Anastasia” in which she was a dramatic knockout, even though she was at the end of her career. As for Costas’s Comment about Japanese stage effects, some years ago I saw a “Swan Lake” in Tokyo (Asami Maki’s second company, it was) followed by a Kabuki performance and came to a similar conclusion: a melding of Japanese stage effects with Western story ballet would be extremely interesting to see and likely to be quite beautiful.
    I was also interested in what TT had to say about “Fancy Free,” particularly Robbins’s expression of “the realities of temperament” and the piece being “pure Forties.” I beg to differ, slightly at least. “Fancy” is a wartime piece. When I saw it performed in ABT’s City Center season several years ago with Marcelo Gomes in the same role he does now, I thought about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because, through all the frolicking, including the rumba with a chair (which Robbins had seen a sailor doing in a bar while ABT was on tour), there is an undercurrent of awareness that these sailors, out for a good time, are headed back to the front and its dangers. So despite the Forties costumes, the ballet’s music and movement give it a timelessness that I think accounts for its continuing popularity. Paul Taylor’s “Company B,” of course, has the same feeling.

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