American Ballet Theatre: Live review
Unfortunate but understandable, only one of ABT’s eight performances in Chicago this year isn’t Swan Lake. Serious ballet fans will be able to compare seven pairs of prince and fowl, but we’ve been brought just one cast each of The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Company B and Fancy Free. Furthermore, most of the company’s principals are being saved for the weekend. The soloists and corps de ballet members that carried this “All-American Celebration” did fine work nevertheless; even the greenest ABT dancers are world-class.
Company B (Paul Taylor, 1991) was, as always, a joy to revisit; when I said it was “one of American dance’s finest achievements,” I meant it. Patrick Corbin’s staging is more elegant than the sharp, heavy take I was taught by Constance Dinapoli; as a result, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” (danced superbly by Craig Salstein) and “Rum and Coca-Cola” gained subtlety at the expense of carnality, and “Joseph! Joseph!” was as pristine as I’ve seen it but its brilliant ending, in silence, was lost. (That “Phooey!” is funny, but the other two ladies are just as important.) Nicola Curry’s “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” felt unsure of itself, but Joseph Phillips and Arron Scott made strong choices in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)” and “Tico-Tico,” respectively. (Company B is set to Andrews Sisters songs.) I was moved to tears, as usual, by the piece’s closing moments, as one dancer after another is submerged back into the drift from whence they came with a final snap of their fingers. Who knows where humankind will be 500 years from now, but I wager this dance will still be performed regularly, and able to speak no less clearly or eloquently about life during wartime.
The shenanigans of sailors on shore leave is the frame for Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944), another dance that can safely be deemed a masterwork. It asks three male dancers to show off chops both pyrotechnic and pantomime, with competition to be our favorite built right into the plot. Sascha Radetsky was outstanding if trigger-happy with his smirk; joining him were Daniil Simkin, a puckish blonde with effortless buoyancy, and Carlos Lopez, able enough with the ballet’s short straw (a solo not nearly as flashy as the other two and exceedingly difficult because of it). Ormsby Wilkins conducted Leonard Bernstein’s score–neon bouncing off a wet sidewalk—with a keen eye on the stage. Each tonal shift and moment of smart visual punctuation, which comprise the ballet’s heart, sang under his baton.
Odd out in all ways was The Brahms-Haydn Variations (Twyla Tharp, 2000), which featured five lead couples all stars now or in the making. Even they couldn’t make it interesting. Julie Kent and Radetsky had the most fun saddled with the least-awful steps, but what this ballet is trying to say—and why it needs thirty dancers to say it—is a question that never left my mind. Rather than lending this plotless neoclassical exercise structure, its many recurring motifs made its brief sections indistinguishable from one another; it’s a wash of entrances and exits over-seasoned with gruesomely awkward partner work that shows no interest in Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn despite Tharp’s otherwise-deserved reputation as a choreographer of musical wit and complexity.