ABT in Etudes, taken from their Facebook group profile
The last show that I saw during my recent trip to LA ended with the last performance of American Ballet Theater’s worldwide tour that took them from Asia to Orange County. Due to my packed schedule, I wasn’t able to catch the first cast (I especially wanted to see the cast that Tharp choreographed R&R on), but I found myself at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon. Watching this show with my mom gave me a great perspective, as she has always been one of my favorite seatmates.
One of the few advantages to watching a program long after it’s been playing in NY is that I went in with a set of expectations, thanks to reading blog reactions to these pieces, such as Tonya‘s and Philip‘s take (as well as Alastair Macaulay‘s bewildered take on the audience’s positive reaction to it and Joan Acocella‘s insightful take). I’ve seen ABT tackle Tharp before with wildly varying results; I feel spoiled to have seen Tharp dancers dance Tharp, and compared to that, ABT really was no comparison. With these reservations, I couldn’t resist going to see them and getting my ABT fix.
The program opened with Harald Lander’s Etudes. What I really liked about this piece is that it’s a light whimsical piece with a darker haunting undercurrent. The music is a fanciful take on Czerny’s piano exercises, by Knudaage Riisager. No one knows how many times I’ve played these monotonous Czerny exercises over and over on the piano, but the orchestration brought these normally repetitive exercises to life as fast passages were tossed off from one instrument to the next at breakneck speeds with a lightly propelling bass line. Mirroring the warmup exercises in the orchestration, the ballet highlights class exercises that every ballet dancer will recognize, starting with little girls in the basic ballet position to more complicated exercises with dancers on a barre. Towards the first half of the piece, the dancers are shrouded in darkness with a spotlight highlighting the dancers’ legs. This isolation adds to the whimsy as legs are spinning en l’air in perpetuity, yet in a darker way, it also shows these dancers as machines. Able to pull off athletic feats with no effort, their individuality is hidden, as I tried yet failed to identify the dancers in the dark. The dancers were shown for what they could do, and not for who they were. It reflects the darker side of ballet in a subtle yet sinister way. The nature of the exercises progresses, as does the lighting. The piece seems to move from class to what seems like a dress rehearsal or performance, as the costumes glittered and the steps get more complicated. The transition from class on a darkened stage to performance is a unclear, giving this piece a feeling that it’s made up of two separate pieces, especially to an nondancer eye. I was able to pick out the across the floor exercises that are commonplace in class yet just as commonplace in performance, especially indistinguishable without the presence of a barre. Group numbers were led by Xiomara Reyes, Corey Stearns, and Jared Matthews. Xiomara Reyes has a gentle quality in her flowy arms, but there’s an air of caution in her dancing as her movements feel a little restricted. My mom even picked up on this. Reyes came more alive in the quick footwork, and her swift turns were featherlight. Stearns and Matthews, replacements for Sascha Radetsky and Mikhail Ilyin amidst rumors of injury, stepped in admirably into two very difficult roles, yet it was a precarious experience as some turns were noticeabely off center resulting in near falls. I couldn’t help but to feel that the lead male parts were unnecessarily hard; it doesn’t really add to the piece nor advance its terms. The ensemble were crystal clear in their uniformity, and it was an awesome sight to see the stage crowded with that many stellar dancers. Despite its hazy big picture, I was charmed by this whimsical Etudes that had a haunting layer of harsh reality of the dance world that gave it that unexpected ingenuity.
ABT in Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor
The afternoon concluded with Twyla Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue. A little bit into the performance, my mom leaned over and whispered, “I don’t get what this means”. I told her to watch it for its energy and its reflection of the music. The music by Danny Elfman was an unabashedly commercial yet raucously so – a riotous romp. The dancing had that typical Tharpian energy, a thrilling rollercoaster that twists and turns at high speeds that engaged, yet it was not without its limitations. Different ensembles come in and out with a jolting ebb and flow and a randomness with no clear direction. There is a literal plot with a competitive nature between the Rogue and the Rabbit; a general competitive spirit rather than detailing a specific relationship between the two might have been less confusing as audience members are left guessing at what the gestures mean. Despite moments of randomness, the interplay between the two leads had a fun sense of play. The corps work was visually interesting, and I realized that Tharp’s strength doesn’t come from crisp unified corps work as some other choreographers like Balanchine because her choreography has a raw unfinished edge that doesn’t necessarily fit into clean steps or 90 degree angles. The best corps moments came when the eye is overwhelmed with differing movement, canonic or otherwise. This piece showcased ABT better than any other Tharp piece I’ve seen (Baker’s Dozen, Sinatra Suites), which was a huge sigh of relief for me. Marcelo Gomes danced as the Rabbit with an electrifying stage presence, as he took over the stage with majestic power. Sascha Radetsky, in his last performance with ABT, danced as the Rogue with a fierce intensity and a depth of maturity. Maria Riccetto’s lines were clean as half of the Gamelan Couple, yet Jose Manuel Carreno as her partner wobbled visibly with simple balances. Carreno has a langorous luxurious quality in his dancing where he seems to stretch time as he floats in the air in his jumps or sensuously melts into his pirouettes, yet this quality doesn’t fit naturally with Tharp’s lightning quick choreography. Craig Salstein’s role seemed tailor made for him, with crackling dry humor in his dancing and his acting. It was an electrifying ride coupled to the fun music, yet it went a tad long especially without a clear sense of direction – when Craig Salstein points to his watch, I was thinking the same thing. Overall this piece showcases ABT’s best strengths in modern ballet, with razor sharp feet and equally intense power onstage. It was a satisfying fix that should carry me over until my next ABT performance.
I went into this performance with low expectations because of the mostly negative online reviews and I feel like nothing holds a candle to ABT performing ballet classics (my favorite was watching Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Malahkhov in Giselle). It’s interesting how I was pleasantly surprised, despite my misgivings. Isn’t bias a scary thing?? I wonder if I had high hopes, I would have had a more negative experience?
For some reason, this review was really difficult to write. Maybe it’s because I haven’t reviewed a ballet piece in a while. It’s also been a while since I saw this performance as well, but I feel like I was left with the distilled version of my thoughts, which eliminated the tenuous details but left with general impressions.