ABT conquers Australia with three American stories

No ifs or buts, American Ballet Theatre’s triple bill in Brisbane was a five-star show.

On opening night, 5 September, the dancers broke free from the restrictions of a week’s performances of Swan Lake into a new stratosphere in a way that revealed both their individual personalities as well as their apparent enjoyment in the choreography of Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, and Jerome Robbins.

From the very first movements in Tharp’s Bach Partita, the audience was completely on side in their empathy with the six leading couples, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal.

This was a night to remember in many ways – for the theatricality of the dancers, the well balanced choice of the works, and of course the choreography of the program, titled Three Masterpieces.

The word ‘masterpiece’ can be off putting in itself, an over-the-top marketing addition to an OK kind of show. But not this time.

The company brought with them the Juilliard graduate, Charles Yang, described by the Boston Globe as a musician who “plays classical violin with the charisma of a rock star”.

We saw him on stage only at the end of the performance when he took a curtain call with the entire cast. Yes, he looks like a rock star and he plays like an angel.

In a Q&A after the Saturday matinee performance, with ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, we discovered that Bach Partita had been warehoused for decades and only revived last year because the company had found Yang, who could replicate the way that Jascha Heifetz played Bach Partita in D Minor many years ago and who was available to play live for every performance.

When Tharp choreographed the work in 1983, the dancers had rehearsed to a recording by Heifetz.

For the dancers, the six principals, the seven soloist couples and the 16 women in the corps, the pace is relentless, with many quick changes of direction, and with the poses and steps of classical ballet, (among them attitudes, arabesques and pas de chats) interwoven with flexed feet, legs tucked up in a parallel position, drags, turns on flat feet as well as on pointe, and hip thrusts, with the whole resembling a tapestry in the making.

At times the pure classicism of the three principal female dancers seemed to represent a late 20th century interpretation of the muses in Balanchine’s Apollo.

The costumes by Santo Loquasto were both simple and elegant, with cream coloured short dresses for the leading women and shorts and tops for the men.

The female soloists wore caramel-toned dresses while the corps wore longer, silky grey dresses that gave the impression of moving shadows that appear all of sudden in a dream.

Earlier last week I had missed Gillian Murphy’s performance as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and although I’ve seen her dance before, and admired her performance with the Royal New Zealand Ballet as Giselle, I was unprepared for the extraordinary presence she brought to the stage in Bach Partita, partnered by Marcelo Gomes.

Misty Copeland, the poster girl of the Australian season, and James Whiteside were equally impressive.

But with this cast, it’s not possible to name a few dancers who stand out beyond the others, as each contributed to a stunning performance.

On 6 September, at the matinee, the principal dancers in Bach Partita, Paloma Herrera and Isabella Boylston, were joined by soloists Joseph Gorak and Craig Salstein and corps members April Giangeruso and Eric Tamm, but these rankings were insignificant. The artistry of each dancer was equal to the others.

It was good to see ABT’s Australian dancers, Stephanie Williams and Duncan Lyle, performing soloist roles.

Williams danced on the opening night of the triple bill and was also cast as one of the princesses in Swan Lake Act III.

Of the ABT men, soloists Joseph Gorak and Alexandre Hammoudi seem destined for principal status and both impressed in the second ballet of the triple bill, Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas.

McKenzie and his ballet staff appear to be giving opportunities to corps’ dancers with the charismatic Calvin Royal partnering Stella Abrera in Seven Sonatas on opening night and Luciana Paris and Arron Scott, dancing in the Saturday matinee performance of the ballet.

Choreographed in 2009, Ratmansky’s 30-minute ballet is danced to seven of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, but how did he choose these seven from Scarlatti’s hundreds of keyboard sonatas?

It was a question asked by a musician I know who was in the audience on Saturday.

The exactitude of selecting these seven sonatas indicates Ratmansky’s immersion in classical music and how deeply he knows many composers’ work.

Unlike Bach Partita, in Seven Sonatas we see the musician on stage. The pianist, Barbara Bilach, begins to play just before the dancers enter.

One piano and several ballet dancers on stage is hardly a new concept (Hans van Manon, Balanchine, Robbins) but in this case, the dancers had little connection with the pianist except for one brief moment in which they appeared to acknowledge her presence.

The difference between this ballet and the other choreographers’ work is I think, Ratmansky’s uncanny selection of music. The seven sonatas so precisely represent the mood and motivations of the three dancing couples, whether their interplay is tense, uncertain or playful, as they also tell of their underlying story, a never ending search for connection and love.

Gestures dominate – a man’s hand in front of a woman’s torso as if to say ‘stop!’, a woman’s arm pointing to the distance, and the final image of the three men encircling the bodies of the three women who descend to the floor as if they have vanished.

The edginess of Bach Partita and the gentleness of Seven Sonatas gives way to Robbins’ Fancy Free, a ballet for three sailors, one bored barman and three women on the town, one that so neatly blended the reality of the times (New York City, sailors on shore leave) with its representation on stage (Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan, 1944).

With Oliver Smith’s simple set, a bar in New York in the wee small hours (a little bit like Edward Hopper’s best known painting, Nighthawks) and Leonard Bernstein’s score that predates and predicts his West Side Story, Fancy Free has more than stood the test of time.

The three competitive solos of the sailors, first danced by John Kriza, Harold Lang and Jerome Robbins, were danced on opening night last Friday by Daniil Simkin, Cory Stearns and James Whiteside and at the Saturday matinee by Herman Cornejo, Eric Tamm and Marcelo Gomes.

Perhaps for the dancers it’s slightly annoying that their physique determines the way they are typecast as a pocket rocket, a languid romantic, or a slinky, hip swiveling seducer, but each of the dancers, Daniil Simkin and Herman Cornejo (first solo), Cory Stearns and Eric Tamm (second solo) and James Whiteside and Marcelo Gomes (third solo) so suited the roles that they may well have been created on them 70 years ago.

As one of the passers-by, Gillian Murphy gave the audience that little bit extra in terms of the depth of her acting that showed her commitment to every role she plays.

The only downbeat in ABT’s first ever Australian season is the way in which these three works took such a back seat (number of performances, box office success) to McKenzie’s 2000 production of Swan Lake.

While the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, and the promoters of its international ballet series, Leo Schofield and Ian McRae, have carried the banner for ballet in Brisbane for so long and so well, the question remains: how can audiences in Australia’s biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, enjoy a triple bill such as Three Masterpieces in the future?

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Calvin Royal and Stella Abrera, Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Darren Thomas

James Whiteside, Luciana Paris, Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin, Fancy Free, photo © Darren Thomas

Calvin Royal and Stella Abrera, Seven Sonatas, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Darren Thomas

Joseph Gorak, Seven Sonatas, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Darren Thomas

James Whiteside, Cory Stearns and Daniil Simkin, Fancy Free, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Darren Thomas

Gillian Murphy, Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Darren Thomas

James Whiteside and Misty Copeland, Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Darren Thomas