By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK – New works by three of the ballet world’s most in-demand choreographers were among the calling cards on American Ballet Theatre’s “From Classics to Premieres” program, May 25 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon were represented by world premieres, Benjamin Millepied (a.k.a. Mr. Black Swan) by a local premiere and Christopher Newton by a restaging of Antony Tudor’s “Shadowplay,” not danced by ABT since 1979.
“It’s boy night!,” proclaimed one observer of the evening fare created by male choreographers, male designers and male composers, with males as the featured dancers in the Millepied and Tudor works. (Ironically, women occupied the majority of the seats.) But while the company could be accused of gender inequity, it should be commended for presenting a mixed-bill program, for four performances. New and unusual work never spells a box-office bonanza; opera house audiences prefer evening-length story ballets. Those they will get for the rest of ABT’s season, all magnificently performed, no doubt, but all already viewed, ad infinitum.
At 26 minutes, Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions” was the longest and most ambitious offering, his second work for ABT. Complementing the emotional stridency of Britten’s “Diversions” for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra (Ormsby Wilkins presided in the pit), Wheeldon boldly sets 24 dancers surging through Brad Fields’s film-noir-lit space, where a triangle grows to the height of the rear stage wall. Something big is going to happen, the effect seems designed to say. But nothing really does -- aside from some highly articulated, virtuoso dancing.
“Diversions” looks sharp, thanks to Bob Crowley’s black and opalescent costumes, which show off the men’s muscular torsos and highlight the women’s turns as the interior of their skirts blossom with color. But its tone is ambiguous. When Marcello Gomes and Isabella Boylston perform their stunning pathos-infused duet, it feels completely out of sync with the work’s cool ensemble work. In the ballet’s final moments, they reappear to reprise the most athletic moment of their pas de deux, where Boylston is flipped and twirled above Gomes’ head and they look into each other’s eyes. Then Gomes strikes his arm to the heavens as if to say, “That’s it folks!” Such an abrupt ending may be a sign that a choreographer didn’t know how to end his work.
In his decade-long career making dances, Wheeldon has consistently demonstrated a stunning ability to create duets of hushed longing that expand the range of how women are partnered on pointe. In this case, however, the emotional impact of the dueting is essentially lost amid the non-stop whirling of 13 couples, each one as technically adroit as it is devoid of human engagement.
For his fifth work on ABT, Ratmansky, the company’s choreographer-in-residence, delivered something simple: dancers swirling through space in concert with music that sharpens the senses -- specifically Stravinsky’s Chamber Concerto “Dumbarton Oaks.” In sweeping phrases, dancers grouped in tens move contrapuntally, creating multiple lines of motion that keep dispersing, gathering and cresting like waves. ABT dancers can do almost anything, but Ratmansky doesn’t turn them into show horses. His high flying, direction-changing, rhythmically complex choreography stays true to ballet’s core aesthetics of lyricism and flow. “Dumbarton” epitomizes Balanchine’s famous phrase, “See the music, hear the dance.”
By contrast, Millipied’s “Troika,” for three male soloists, is a series of virtuoso stunts set, rather unfittingly, to J.S. Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, Nos. 2 and 3. Daniil Simkin, Sascha Radetsky and Alexandre Hammoudi, who originated the work at its premiere in Moscow in March, gave it their all with punches, pirouettes and lasso-like lifts of the elfin Simkin. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-choreography is rendered even harder on the eye by the boy-casual costumes -- T-shirts and slacks in shades of green, orange and brown -- and the men’s volatile playfulness rarely reflects the complex elegance of the Bach’s music. Indeed, “Troika” would be better served by a pop tune. Cellist Jonathan Spitz, posited stage left and barely audible, occasionally looked up at the dancers like a sparrow in fear of being mowed down by eagles.
The “Classics” portion of the program was Tudor’s 1967 “Shadowplay,” an exotic spoof, referencing the British Empire’s historic love of the exotic Far East. (Tudor, who comes from London working-class stock, once described it as his “British ballet in disguise.”) His inspiration was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” a series of morality tales in which animals behave like errant humans. Dressed in quasi-Cambodian temple-dancer gear, Tudor’s animals are called the Arboreals (nine dancers) and the Aerials (six dancers). Designer Michael Annal creates a fantasy world with his tight, colorful costumes, conical helmets and gargantuan Bodhi tree.
Set to a polytonal score by Charles Koechlin, “Shadowplay” mostly moves in slow, Zen-like motion, as the Celestial (Xiomara Reyes) floats over the Boy with Matted Hair (Craig Salstein) like a winged goddess (thanks to two male partners). The ballet begins with the Boy with Matted Hair balancing on one leg and then slowly rising onto his toes. This moment is all about the purity and simplicity of his relevé. Videos show the original dancer, Anthony Dowell, pulling it off without a quiver. Salstein, on May 25, was shaky, which was a shame since his character hinges on remaining unperturbed by the elements.
In a tattered shirt, Salstein is confronted by two exotic-looking figures, the Celestial (Reyes) and the Terrestrial (Cory Stearns). They are both intent on deflowering him, but he evades their humorous, aggressive seductions and, toward the end of the ballet, returns to his favorite spot below the tree, taking a Buddha-like pose. In the final moments, however, all Zen is interrupted as Salstein swats his cheek as if a fly landed on it. Then he makes ape-like scooping motions under his armpits. Tudor must be saying something about the monkey in all of us; we wish to imitate the gods, but we always return to our baser instincts.