American Ballet Theatre’s Fall Season: Take Two

The week-long fall repertory season plows ahead, at an inexorable pace (through Sunday). All one can say is that a week is not long enough to enjoy the company of these dancers. They shine especially brightly on the stage of the newly renovated City Center, where they feel almost close enough to touch. At this range, and in works that show their individual qualities, we begin to feel we know them.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen several dancers in a new light. The soloist Sascha Radetsky, for example, who never quite seems to ascend from supporting roles the sexy Von Rothbart character in ABT’s “Swan Lake,” for example, or Hilarion in “Giselle”), came out of his shell as the Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor’s “Company B.” He was masculine, playful, and full of bluster (and excellent timing), but with a layer of innocence and a crooked smile. There was actually whooping in the theatre during his solo, something I’ve never seen. (Aaron Scott, in “Tico Tico,” was pretty swell too; with his frank, unfussy delivery,t he comes closest to the Paul Taylor style.) Or Christine Shevchenko, in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas”: seemingly overnight, this dancer has turned into a luminous presence onstage with lush lines that radiate throughout the theatre. And her technique! She’s becoming one of those dancers who give the feeling that nothing could ever go wrong (like Teresa Reichlen of N.Y.C.B.). Another dancer that opened my eyes this week: Misty Copeland in the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” number in Paul Taylor’s “Black Tuesday.” She’s always been a strong dancer, and a beautiful woman, but I’ve never seen her really take ownership of her beauty and sensuality onstage, or fully lose herself in a character. Here, as a sultry femme fatale chewed up by life, she went for broke, unfurling her lovely legs voluptuously, only to reveal a burning vulnerability in her gut, or running her hands down her body in a gesture of sensuality and desperation, crumpling into a heap on the floor only to pick herself up again with dignity and hope. Best of all, none of this was overplayed. And Gemma Bond, usually a delicate, precise dancer, was unrecognizable as a mean little whippersnapper (a street urchin) in the same ballet. Surprise!

Not to speak of Veronika Part and Paloma Herrera in Merce Cunningham’s “Duets,” their first foray into this wholly alien style. Both gave themselves fully to the choreography, offering a keen, lucid readings of Cunningham’s steps, resisting the urge to interpret or editorialize. They shone all the more brightly. They may not look like Cunningham dancers—or convince the purists—but they certainly made a convincing case for the power of his torqued, architectural coordinations of the body. Herrera was all clean lines (highlighted by a blinding fuchsia unitard) and rapt concentration in her duet with Eric Tamm; Part exuded otherworldly calm and stretchy legato in her more elastic duet with Vitaly Krauchenka.

Besides the dancers, there is, of course, the choreography itself. The season has an American theme, with a few variations. The Paul Taylor works (“Black Tuesday” and “Company B”) are period pieces built around relevant topics: the Depression, war. At his best, Taylor has a way of capturing aspects of American culture that are not easy to look at, or accept. The optimism born of denial, the willful blindness, the violence and capacity for meanness. But he doesn’t preach. In “Company B,” social dance and the catchy tunes of the Andrews Sisters mask the omnipresence of death (a woman dances with the ghost of her lover, the Bugle Boy is cut down in a volley of bullets). In “Black Tuesday,” the jollity of the jazz steps is paired with bitter words about financial ruin (“when the moon is up above, nobody’s unemployed”). Dancing is a way of forgetting the poverty all around. In “Sitting on a Rubbish Can,” Nicola Curry dances with a huge pregnant belly, full of rage, kicking at the cute couples gazing at the moon. Created in 2001 for the company, “Black Tuesday” doesn’t pack the same punch as “Company B,” but still, it works. The dancers look wonderful in both.

“Duets,” by Merce Cunningham, is the biggest stretch. Essentially a sequence of six duets, with a busy finale for the whole group, the choreography is playful and complicated, and filled with odd, surprising juxtapositions. The partnering is egalitarian and clean but also convoluted, like a series of equations with elegant solutions. A woman curves her leg around her partner, revolves around him, and then leans on his back and is lifted up off of the ground. She does it again. Another man flips his partner around and around by the leg, like a roulette wheel. A man and a woman kneel and face each other, hollow their stomachs and bow, then tilt away. Meanwhile the music, “Improvisations III,” by John Cage, rattles on, thumping and clattering, irrelevantly. The eye is constantly engaged; one is almost afraid to blink. There is too much to see. The dancers, too, watch each other intently, for cues—they are timed to each others movements, not the music (which, in any case, they never hear during rehearsals). At the end, they all d run around doing bits of the material they did before, all at once. It’s a miracle they don’t crash into each other. The brightly-colored costumes—all unitards, sometimes with little skirts for the women—are bracingly bright. Some of the dancers (at least on Nov. 9) were a bit too smiley, and at least one (Gillian Murphy) was too intent on “interpreting” the steps and telling a story. But it’s a great piece and I hope they will do it often, and perhaps other Cunningham works as well.

Then there’s the Tharp contingent: “Sinatra Suite,” “Known by Heart (Junk) Duet,” and “In the Upper Room.” None of these are new to the company. Marcelo Gomes dances “Sinatra” with more suaveté than is really decent. On Nov. 9, Paloma Herrera, dancing the female role for only the second or third time (and for the first time in New York) was tense at first, but then relaxed into it by the end. The “Junk” pas de deux is a trifle, filled with mugging and coy jokes. “In the Upper Room” has seen tighter performances than it had on Nov. 8, but still packs a punch.

And finally, we come to Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” last seen in 2009 (it was created for the company’s abbreviated season at Avery Fisher). It is one of this choreographer’s most beautiful, most abstract ballets. The sextet, set to Scarlatti’s limpid keyboard pieces, proceeds from a quiet, reflective beginning, through a series of virtuosic solos and contrasting duets, to a section of trios, and a meditative, somber finale. It grows with each viewing. Little leitmotifs are carried through from one section to the next, and blossom in the final section, passed from one dancer to another and then picked up by the whole ensemble. Each of these isolated gestures seems to signify something, but its quality can also change from one moment to the next: In a light, happy duet, a man sticks out his arm and blocks his partner’s passage. It looks like a game. But in the last movement, when all the men stick out their arms, the gesture feels urgent, like a warning: danger! There is an edge of darkness throughout: in the very first section, the men kneel on the floor and look down, but then rise up again. The cloud passes. In one of the pas de deux, both the man and woman kneel and bow their heads, but then grind their fists into the ground and push themselves up. And in the final moments of the ballet, all of the men slowly ease their partners to the ground and then lower their heads to rest them on their partners’ sides. Ashes to ashes. As usual, Ratmansky doesn’t shy away from virtuosity: the solo originally created for Herman Cornejo (and danced by Cornejo on Nov. 9 and by Joseph Phillips on Nov. 10) is full of fast cabrioles and brisés, but they fold so neatly into the fast patter of the music that they feel tossed off, not showy. The arms are free, the footwork fast and constantly changing direction; the possibility of messiness is always just over the horizon. Ratmansky likes to play with speed, to push it right to the edge of what the dancers can pull off. There’s no space for faking. But he also knows when to pull back and let something resonate, as when the central female figure stands and does a choppy, portentous port de bras: up, down, down, down, and out, as if flicking away an enormous weight. Everyone stops to watch her. This gesture, too, becomes a theme, done in reverse, and in different combinations. Nothing is left unused and everything returns, just as it does in Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas: the theme is repeated, developed, and returns again. Ratmansky has created a real gem of a ballet, one that will serve the company for many a season.

Performances continue through Nov. 13.

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Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N more


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