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American Ballet Theater - Elegant wit, ephemeral moments, exhaustion

by Richard Penberthy
October 24, 2006
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
212.247.0430

Featured Dance Company:

American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre (office)
890 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
212-477-3030
www.abt.org

October 24, 2006 program, Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Meadow, and In the Upper Room
The dancers of American Ballet Theater performed magically on Tuesday night, with ballets by Mark Morris (Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes), Lar Lubovitch (Meadow), and Twyla Tharp (In the Upper Room). City Center is a smaller auditorium than the Metropolitan Opera House, affording everyone a closer encounter with fine dancing than is possible in such spaces as Lincoln Center offers.

Drink to Me… is from the late 1980's and well, yes, it's a piano ballet. But it is not self-consciously artsy â€" no concert grand piano appears onstage, surrounded by women on demi-pointe. Instead, it is a fun mix of bravura dance (the men excel, and Angel Corella soars and bounds as if there is no gravity). Morris's dances always give the audience an "Aha!" moment â€" force them to see a classical pose or an anticipated sequence differently. For instance, one difficult figure demands of a trio of men that they pirouette at top speed, then, extending the left leg a la seconde, continue the turn in very slow motion. It is remarkable that such a turn can even be controlled.

The dance celebrates variation â€" as when two couples engage their own duets parallel to and synchronized with each other, yet as one couple continues a gesture and style, the other spins off, as it were, to engage more dancers. The dance is set to Virgil Thomson etudes for piano, bright and perfectly constructed pieces finely played by Barbara Bilach. Thomson's mid-century playfulness â€" toying with dissonance, sudden changes in tempo â€" has clearly inspired Morris's own playfulness.

For this ballet, the stage is brightly lit. The ivory costumes, by Santo Loquasto, reflect their fashion moment, with both men and women in batwing tops. The men wear pleated front trousers in silky fabric and the women are in short, mid-thigh, loosely gathered skirts of the same fabric. The result is that the dance is appreciated for the sake of the dance, rather than for the musculature or articulation of the individual dancers' bodies, and that suits the complexity of the dance very well.

Meadow, a Lar Lubovitch dance of 1999, serves triple helpings of warm romance in modern painted costumes, in lifts that pretzel Julie Kent around the shoulders of Marcelo Gomes so that their recurring duet seems effortless, all cyma curves and grace, and in lighting effects that mimic the clouds of dawn. The dance opens with (mercifully little) stage smoke billowed, cumulus like, over the stage and lighted gray-blue. (Lighting is by Brian MacDevitt.) The stage remains dimly lighted, mysterious, as dancers gradually enter dancing to the choral music of Franz Schubert's Die Nacht, which is oddly mewled at and altered by Pentimento, "a tissue of string effects to precede and accompany the Schubert piece" by William Brohn. The dancers come together and dissipate, coalesce again, and again swirl apart. Other music includes Gavin Bryars' Incipit Vita Nova and Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse Elegiaque, and throughout the effect is at once familiar and eerie.

This is tight, close-by dancing, stirring to watch. Pirouettes and lifts, with broad and high-reaching port de bras, are fast moving, each dancer only a fraction of an inch from another. Costumes appear at first to be exactly the same for men and women â€" sheer flesh-tone bodice, opaque autumn-tone, brush-stroke painted midriff, and pale nearly-opaque teal-green skirts that darken to ink blue at mid-calf. The men's skirts are in fact full, billowy culottes. That and the women's slightly higher opaque midriff are the only differences. As in the previous ballet, emphasis is on the dance rather than the body. Costumes are by Ann Hould-Ward, executed by Barbara Matera and painted by Michelle Hill.

The draw to make one's own narrative is strong in this ballet, what with atmospheric cloud effects and nighttime dark meadow colors hand painted on the costumes…the early, early dawn perhaps. When the corps leaves the stage, the spotlight gradually brightens on Marcelo Gomes cradling Julie Kent in his arms stage rear, behind a scrim. And as the scrim lifts they fill the stage with a brilliant duet. They are both in painted tights and sleeved tops, costumes celebrating their bodies, his mostly blue, hers mostly amber as sunlight. He partners her perfectly, his muscularity foiling her slender buoyancy. En pointe, as she leans away from him, it seems impossible that she hasn't leaned too far, that she risks losing the floor, but they hold and stretch and fold into one another without mischance. Their lifts seem effortless, and at times she simply makes of herself a circle, right hand gripping left toe-box, and she drapes her weight over his shoulder, a freed port de bras carrying the line, he in arabesque and she in mid-air.

The cloud effect brightens with lavender light, and the corps returns to the stage. Their dance involves the couple, revolves around them, celebrates them. As the stage brightens further, the couple returns to stage rear. As the dance ends, the corps, spaced across the stage, lie supine with their teal-green clothed knees bent, slowly inclining left then right as Ms. Kent leaves Mr. Gomes' arms and is raised toward the sky.

The final ballet of the evening is Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room, from 1986. It is almost twice as long as each of the preceding dances. Costumes are by Norma Kamali, and in each of the 9 parts of the ballet there is a different variation of her vertically striped black and white shirts and pants worn with bright, bright red elements â€" shoes, ankle socks, leotards, shorts. The variation is most welcome in this long piece.

Choreography here is led by the Philip Glass music â€" repetitive arpeggios, minor thirds and driving, driving, driving rhythmic figures. The music has been called "motoric", and it is authentic and unique to the composer. The music world found it fascinating, as it undeniably is. In collaboration with director Godfrey Reggio, Mr. Glass created the film Koyaanisquatsi (said to mean "life out of balance" in the Hopi language). But to take a point from the film vis-à-vis this ballet: although the film was fascinating â€" with repeated images of buildings collapsing then reverse-the-tape images of the same buildings un-collapsing and the like, again and again, to the score of driving, motoric music â€" it was also absolutely exhausting to watch!

The lighting for this dance was bold and effective, bright light streaming in from above and from all sides, as if the stage were the top floor of a factory with skylights and tall windows. (Original lighting by Jennifer Tipton.) But the amount of stage smoke used for the effect of depth and to screen entrances and exits is truly oppressive. Many orchestra seats were vacated during the dance â€" this is way, way too much.

The dancers perform flat-out throughout this long ballet, and they meet the challenges of the still-wonderful choreography. Tharp choreography is not a strict repetitive sameness, and there is variation from element to element, but it seems not enough. Interest wanes long before the ballet ends. An audience member observed, "Gillian Murphy was the only one who didn't break a sweat." Perhaps it is a competition after all. Applause was generous â€" reward for the marathoners.

The music here is clearly the choreographer's hard master, and the choreographer becomes a hard puppeteer: Do it again! Do it again! Do it again! One can never have a wish in a ballet. "If only it were shorter" just doesn't wash. But, well, if only it were shorter!
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