The Magazine

Coming Attractions

A changing of the guard at the American Ballet Theatre.

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By PIA CATTON
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I DO NOT APPROVE OF fantasy football as a topic of conversation: With all the real-life sports out there, why noodle over make-believe match-ups? But now, I sort of get it. And it's because of American Ballet Theatre's fall season at New York's City Center. These days, the company is so loaded with interesting, versatile dancers that it's a kick to imagine them in very different roles and on improbable "teams" in ballets to come.

This struck me while watching Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, a modern-dance version of a Saturday rodeo set to Aaron Copland's music. Erica Cornejo and Craig Salstein sizzled with such youthful, vibrant chemistry that I'm sure they would make a heartbreakingly potent couple in Romeo and Juliet. David Hallberg lent so much drama to the plotless Les Sylphides that I mentally cast him in Onegin. Also in Les Sylphides, Kristi Boone fluttered her arms like a woman bound for Swan Lake.

What's exciting is that these dancers are still soloists or members of the corps de ballet. Which means the next few years should be thrilling for ABT. The ranks are swelling with fresh talent just as several of the big names of the last generation have retired (Susan Jaffe, Amanda McKerrow) or cut back (Julio Bocca). And because the repertory is so vast, these up-and-comers can do it all.

The more senior dancers do not necessarily possess the same fungible talent. This was made quite clear over three performances (with different casts) of George Balanchine's 1928 masterpiece, Apollo. The work calls for a leading man who is willing to look off-kilter on stage, one who can enjoy exploring the angles and unexpected, spare movements. Apollo is born on stage, then learns the arts of poetry, mime, and dance from three muses: Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore.

José Manuel Carreño's Apollo was careful at best, uninspired at worst. The choreography simply did not suit his strengths. He was a romantic prince whose every move was pure and dignified. His pirouettes are the current gold standard. But Apollo does not need a splashy tour de force. He needs a creative soul. Maxim Beloserkovsky succeeded more in this regard, but he lacked gravitas. Or rather, his many facial expressions precluded him from creating gravitas. On his thin frame, the sharpness of the steps was clear and clean. What was needed was a slower, firmer tempo and more depth. Ethan Stiefel emerged as the best, giving a mesmerizing performance. Though guilty of overacting, he chose to dance with intensity and passion. And it paid off. He made clear that Apollo is born naive and ignorant, but becomes a master of music and movement. When Stiefel led the muses in the end, he was no longer uncoordinated and silly; he became Apollo.

As for the muses, Paloma Herrera danced a sublime Terpsichore with minimal coyness and maximum confidence. That was a pleasant change. In her classical roles, she often looks nervous, and can seem to lack musicality. But in Apollo she appeared to be a different dancer entirely. Veronika Part handled Terpsichore sexily, with a gentle expression and lush phrasing. Julie Kent, in the same role, faced the problem that Carreño did: No matter what she does she'll look beautiful, but sometimes that is not enough.

A few other performances were notable only because they were cringe-worthy. Michele Wiles and Irina Dvorovenko were both too hammy as Polyhymnia. Melanie Hamrick was totally miscast as Calliope. She is too green for the role; throughout the ballet, her nervous eyes skittered to check out what the big girls were doing.

But things do improve with time, which happened in the case of Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides. Last year, it was ho-hum. This year, it became dreamy and magical. Maria Riccetto floated through hauntingly; her feet were so pliable that my guest, who had seen little ballet, couldn't stop talking about it afterward. While there were a number of individual successes, the credit goes to the ensemble for creating a misty, beautiful mood. In a stab at politics, ABT presented Kurt Jooss's The Green Table. This 1932 ballet begins and ends with suited diplomats posturing and gesturing around a green table. The intervening scenes show soldiers, lovers, and innocents suffering. It is heavy-handed and obvious. Death is in almost every scene--and death wins. But it was danced from the heart, much more so than Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies, set to music by Mahler. The dancers needed more time to search their souls and learn how to make the audience cry.