Review – American Ballet Theater mixed rep program 2 (Theme and Variations, Jardin aux Lilas, Tchai Pas, Company B) – Sadler’s Wells

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The big star of Sadler’s Wells winter/spring season is American Ballet Theater’s two mixed reps taking place from Tuesday February 1st through Sunday February 6th. It’s importance could be seen in the pricing structure alone: at £70 for stalls seats, it’s the single most expensive event in the season. Fortunately, a late-arriving two-fer Metro offer reduced the pain of top priced seats, and with my own members discounted seats clutched in my hot little hands, I eagerly made my way to Islington last night to see what joys the second rep would bring.

The curtain raised on a very dusty-looking Balanchine: “Theme and Variations.” Gah, his “let’s do homage to the Russian Imperial Style” ballets tend to make me yawn, and I’ve seen this one before to boot, and it just all looked so … bleah, so “grandma’s bedroom circa 1950” with its moribund color scheme. The corps dancers were sloppy, too, suffering to reach unison, looking drab in grey and purple tutus, and generally giving the impression that they were City Ballet castoffs who hadn’t managed to capture the Balanchine style. Was this somehow supposed to be acceptable? Our male lead, David Hallberg, appeared, and he looked like a steer stunned for slaughter. Was everyone suffering from jet lag? I had a bad feeling about the evening to come.

Then a woman in a pink tutu, our prima for this piece, started to bubble up through the smotheringly poor corps work and make herself noticed. With her gorgeous red hair, she would have been hard to miss; she looked like Moira Shearer redone as a California girl, with gorgeous, strong arms, high cheekbones, and stage presence to die for. This miracle, Gillian Murphy, proceeded to give a performance that kept my skin going in goosebumps for the rest of the evening. Everything was perfect: the way she held or tilted her head, the arch of her back, the smiles she gave at the right time, the eye contact with her partner … it was like watching a movie, a recording of “and this is how you should execute this perfectly, as it was meant to be.” The way she ran her foot up her (standing) leg before making a great extension was like she was praying; I lost all sense of time during the pas de deux. I stopped looking at the corps altogether (making it easier to not notice their shortcomings); Murphy glowed like a gold nugget and I couldn’t be bothered to waste our precious time together staring at sand.

After a break to catch our breath, we returned to “Jardin Aux Lilas,” a remount of a 1936 ballet created by Anthony Tudor for Ballet Rambert (and taken by ABT in 1940). It had a dreamy, Southern feel, like Kate Chopin’s “Awakening” or some Tennessee Williams play, all stoppered passion and disappointment and duty under moon-lit, moss-covered trees. While I can say I enjoyed the scenery and atmosphere, I found the dancing itself not very interesting and wholly narrative: man and woman are to be married, his mistress wants him back, her true love wants a last kiss. They all end frustrated. Ah well, it was enjoyable as a historical frippery but not really very exciting.

That was delivered almost immediately following in the “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” in which we had Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo running through an eight minute long “missing duet” from Swan Lake that Balanchine created in 1960. It started out slow and pleasant, giving us time to examine our principals; Xiomara had a strange build, very short waisted with a round face; Cornejo with a comical mop of curls. Once he was left to dance solo, I forgot all about his hair; his leaps had a height and “air” that seemed unreal coming out of his small body, and his solid spins … it was the embodiment of “con brio.” Xiomara was light enough but not really airy in her solos; I was contaminated by having seen Ashley Bouder do the same piece in October, and Reyes simply couldn’t match her. This was most painfully obvious in the big finale, in which the ballerina leaps into the arms of her partner and is caught and swept to the ground so her chin nearly brushes the stage. Bouder did this with such enthusiasm my hair stood on end; I thought for sure she would hit her head. Perhaps it was Cornejo’s fault, as he clearly caught her while she was still upright and then swept her down; but somehow before it looked just like a dive to the floor arrested at the last minute before, and there was none of that tension (and excitement) here. Still, this was very enjoyable.

We finished with “Company B,” one of those ballets done to popular music that tends to send the audience home with a smile. I didn’t expect it to be deep; but it managed to be pretty and somewhat complex in its mostly illustrative movements (telling the stories the Andrews Sisters’ songs lyrics conveyed), a real improvement over something like the weak “As Time Goes By” done by Northern Ballet Theater (not too surprising given Paul Taylor’s stature). I loved Arron Scott’s body-jerking in “Tico Tico,” and the comedy of a flock of girls hovering of nerdy David Sedaris clone Craig Salstein in “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” with his hips stuck forward about a foot gave me good laughs. I’m willing to take it light sometimes and get away from all the bravura for a little fun, and I do enjoy seeing ballet engage with the pop music vernacular (even though the 1940s isn’t particularly modern!), so I just let myself relax and watch the company present itself well (although I was creeped out by “Rum and Coca-cola,” has anyone actually listened to the lyrics of that song recently?). All in all, the evening was really good, and I can’t wait to go back on Friday and see the first rep – and see Gillian Murphy perform again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday February 2nd, 2011.)

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