BWW Reviews: American Ballet Theatre's Triple Bill
I was looking forward to American Ballet Theater's triple bill on May 21 with anticipation, because I had seen one of the ballets, Frederick Ashton's A Month in the County, years ago, and always held it in warm esteem. I remembered how moved I was as the curtain fell on the dancer (was it Lynn Seymour?) portraying the heroine, Natalia Petrovna, alone on the stage with nothing but a loveless and frustrating future awaiting her.
Sometimes memories can be deceiving, and maybe age plays a part in it. As a very young man, a Russian romance, whether a movie, play or ballet, was always an opportunity to indulge myself in thoughts of what might have been had I lived in certain periods-and isn't it so for many of us when we have the notion that every other time, but the present was better. But then the maturation process began, and we learned more about the cultural environments that nurtured us, and other countries around the world. Maturity can prove to be a devastation of sorts, especially when dealing with a cherished memory.
Thus, I write this with great trepidation. A Month in the Country failed to move me in any way. Why? Certainly it has the highest pedigree both in authorship and choreographic talent. Ashton based this 45 minute ballet on Ivan Turgenev's 1872 play of the same name, which tells of Natalia Petrovna, a bored, self-indulgent woman, residing in the Russian countryside with her older husband Yslaev, her young son Kolia, and her ward, Vera. Life on the serene and loveless estate is disturbed by the arrival of a handsome young tutor, Beliaev, who sets off emotional fireworks in Vera, and Natalia.
While this sounds like the perfect vehicle for an Ashton ballet, not to mention a night of lovely reverie, either the ballet, or I, failed to ignite. The sets and costumes were, for the most part, tasteful and sumptuous, the staging by Anthony Dowell and Grant Coyle "spot-on," and the dancing and characterizations excellent. Yet, the feeling of love lost, of emotion's burned embers at the end of an affair, was just not there. Can it be that the affirming beauty and satisfaction I expected to find in this Ashton ballet does not exist anymore, or is it that I have grown immune to those very things that ignited my very core in youthful passions and pursuits? I tested myself: I watched a recently released DVD of Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee and was exhilarated. No, it's not a Russian epic, but its' light and deft touch of a country romance made me smile, and even want to clog dance along with the cast. I then put on a 1960 DVD of the Royal Shakespeare production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. For some reason unbeknownst to me, the ballet prompted me to watch the play. They're worlds apart, but, to me, they both suggest the ardor and suppression in each work. And what a cast! Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin and Judi Dench. Chekhov labeled the play a comedy. I see more gloom than laughter, but who am I to question the author's intentions. While I hate to admit it, I was bored by the production. While once a great favorite, it does not hold my interest any longer. I'm still working on this question, but have not come up with any satisfactory answers.
The performers in A Month in the Country could not be bettered. Julie Kent as Natalia, Roberto Bollo as Beliaev, Daniil Simkin as Kolia, Victor Barbee as Yslaev and Gemma Bond as Vera were all vivid in their dancing and acting. Before writing this, I read other reviews where criticism of Kent and Bollo ran high. Some critics complained that they were not suited for their roles. I say, not so. If there is any problem, it is with the ballet itself. As a historical curiosity it is fine; as a testament to a great choreographer and a fixture in the permanent repertoire, I don't see a place for it.
The Mark Morris ballet, Drink to Me only with Thine Eyes, is a funny, but sincere parody of the "white" ballet. Morris is a very clever fellow; he knows that even a classical ballet can take on a comic guise when it is, literally, turned upside down. Set to music by Virgil Thomson, the twelve dancers seem like anonymous entities to the audience, but they have a hidden agenda of their own. They can move with a cool grace and then open up with aplomb. Once they come together as a group, they take on an identity that is witty and shot through with powerful imagery. Although I laughed and found the ballet smart, I soon grew weary of its overt attempt to deconstruct the classical ballet style.
Symphony in C brought the evening to a strange close. Why strange? Because the style is alien to most of the ABT dancers. They're fine dancers, but to dance a really good Bizet (as Symphony In C is usually referred to in the ballet world), you have to be seeped in the style that Balanchine, if not invented, extended though his vision of twentieth century classical dance and form. I think the ABT dancers are going to need more time with this, and any other Balanchine they essay.
The ballet is a dance feast for the women; the men don't have much of a chance to show off, with the exception of the third movement. In the first movement Paloma Herrera was behind the music, which is strange because the orchestra played it at an unusually slow tempo that should have kept her on the music's beat, but was lost as she executed the very taxing steps.
Veronika Part was, to be gentlemanly, totally off kilter for the second movement. Here the ballerina is not only the muse to the music, but the ballet's heart and centerpiece as well. Part can be maddening to watch: depending on the ballet, and the music, she can be too slow, too pushy or too anonymous, as if her only thought is to leave the stage as quickly as she entered. If she had more time, she might stand a chance of growing into the part, but this iconic role takes repeated dancing, and it does not seem that Ms. Part will get that luxury.
Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo zipped through the third movement, while Sarah Lane was underpowered in the last movement. Unfortunately, once the fourth movement ended and each section returned to the stage for a final reunion, the structure of the ballet really began to fall apart and utter chaos set in. The corps dancing was sloppy, and the four ballerinas could not keep up with each other or the music. The ballet ended, for me, not in triumph, but in frustration. Why perform such a complicated ballet with only limited rehearsal time. I know that this true for the New York City Ballet dancers as well, but, again, they are familiar with the style the ballet needs and deserves.
The great ballerina Merrill Ashley, and the wonderful soloist, Stacy Caddell, whom I remember from the 1980s, did a valiant job. But working with dancers who do not face the challenge of continually performing Balanchine, the ballet came off as a misfire. I don't want so sound churlish and stay "stick to what you know"; bur from what I saw of the Bizet, it might be wise of ABT to heed this advice.
Photograph: Marty Sohl