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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 21, 2011
Category: review

ABT in a Modern-dance Mood

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — American Ballet Theater looked on Nov. 9 like a ballet company camouflaged as a modern dance troupe. This wasn’t a bad thing. In the New York City Center program, featuring three out of four works by modern dance-makers, ABT members shed much of their classicism. They soft-shoed in Paul Taylor’s “Black Tuesday” and curved their spines in Merce Cunningham’s “Duets.” Principal dancer Marcelo Gomes channeled Twyla Tharp’s vaudevillian slapdash in “Known by Heart (‘Junk’) Duet.” The dancers slid, swiveled and self-satirized with flair. The result was a program full of variety and surprises. Only occasionally did ABT’s dancers look more like they were eating their vegetables than feasting on the delicious movements of three towering figures of late 20th-century American modern dance.

Focusing its full, fall season (through Nov. 13) on non-balletic movement wasn’t entirely atypical for ABT. Though it is most identified with full-length 19th-century story ballets, it began as a repertory troupe specializing in ballet choreographers who were unafraid to borrow from other dance forms. ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie went further than his predecessors this season: Only two out of the eight works were made by ballet choreographers (Alexei Ratmansky and Demis Volpi). Furthermore, the six modern dance works don’t stretch classical ballet so much as deconstruct it.

The most demanding piece for these dancers was Merce Cunningham’s “Duets” (1980). The 12 performers, presented in pairs, tilt their upper bodies and heads sideways like cubist sculptures and curve their spines like rubber bands. Their commitment to forge these foreign shapes was laudatory, even though principal dancer Paloma Herrera looked like she was out for blood. Modern dance is deadly serious stuff for this principal dancer. In brightly colored leotards and tights alongside John Cage’s “Improvisation III” (recorded), “Duets” was a tropical vision. At one point, Herrera jumped and straddled Eric Tamm’s back like a tree-hopping lizard.

When ABT premiered “Duets” (1982), McKenzie was one of the featured dancers. Back then Cunningham needed money, so he gave ABT his work. Today his company is in an entirely different position; it will cease to exist in January 2012, folding, at Cunningham’s behest, two years after his death. McKenzie’s decision to let Patricia Lent—the Cunningham Foundation’s director of repertory licensing—stage the work was a savvy one. Will ABT become a repository for the avant-garde choreographer’s repertoire? It’s an odd idea, but judging from the audience’s enthusiastic reception of “Duets,” not a bad one.

Following “Duets,” Marcelo Gomes and Mario Riccetto performed an excerpt from Tharp’s “Known by Heart (‘Junk’) Duet” to selections from Donald Knaack’s “Junk Music,” in which an assortment of percussion instruments create a pulsating, metallic atmosphere. Made in 1998 for ABT, “Known” is about extroverted competitors. It requires showmanship — something Susan Jaffe easily pulled off when she originated the work, by stabbing the floor with her points and looking down haughtily on her male consort. Gomes rose to the occasion, sauntering and shadow boxing in between executing soaring jumps and multiple pirouettes. Though lithe and lovely, Riccetto didn’t convey the blind-inducing brilliance that led Gomes several times to shield his hands over his eyes in her presence. In other words, Riccetto’s performance of the femme fatale was rather tame. Perhaps she was unclear about who she was playing.

The last modern work on the program was Taylor’s “Black Tuesday.” Made for ABT in 2001, with recorded music from 1930s ballads, the work for 14 dancers has just the right atmosphere for a closer. Santo Loquasto’s pork pie hats and variants on dark mottled clothing say “The Great Depression.” The work interpolates comic ensemble dancing with two dark solos, which express the desperation of poverty and the anger of disappointment. In “Black Tuesday,” the choreographic tone turns on a dime. One moment the dancers are joyously lindy hopping, the next they’re a mortal wreck, hurling or sinking their bodies downward.

Word has it that ABT’s dancers didn’t rehearse Taylor’s work together much. It showed. Though they projected the notion that “Black Tuesday” is good fun, they failed to demonstrate that it’s about people living on the edge. When Daniil Simkin, a phenomenal technician, performed his solo to the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” he looked more like Prince Albrecht in Act I of “Giselle” than a bloke headed toward the gutter.

Because five out of the six dancers originated their roles, Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” (2009), the only classical offering of the evening, looked fully fleshed out. Movement filled the dancers’ bodies in waves of seamless energy. Onstage, pianist Barbara Bilach essayed Scarlatti sonata excerpts with delicacy, matching Ratmansky’s intimate, quasi-abstract story about three couples. At times, the choreography recalled Balanchine because of the speed and complexity with which the dancers embraced the music. At other times IT brought to mind Jerome Robbins’ “Dance at a Gathering” because of the lightly sketched stories of male-female relationships in all their youthful exuberance.

Musical America


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