City Center, NY
By Stephanie Wolf
American Ballet Theater is best known for its masterful presentations of full-length ballets. But, every fall, the company treats New York City to an array of more intimate repertoire at Midtown’s City Center. This year’s Thursday evening performance showcased the work of two iconic modern dance choreographers, some virtuoso dancing, and a world premiere.
The evening opened with Merce Cunningham’s Duets, appropriately named for its successive appearances of male/female pairings. With eclectic music, bare bones costumes, and angular movement, Cunningham’s work can sometimes be difficult for a ballet audience to digest. But Duets ended up being a pleasant start to the performance.
Set to the composition of Cunningham’s longtime collaborator John Cage, the highly technical and precise choreography translated well to the ABT dancers. At times, it was slightly mechanical, as if the dancers were individual cogs in a machine, which made the exactitude of the movement serve a greater purpose. The choreography involved a lot of fast footwork with arms held in a Bournonville-esque demi seconde and the most interesting movement was within the partnerships. There were several compelling moments of partnering such as an assisted jeté that landed in a penchée.
The Garden of Villandry, a pas de six for three dancers, a pianist, a violinist, and a cellist, was the next ballet on the program. Featuring the choreography of Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett and Felix Blaska, the piece mimicked a mini ballet soap opera. Veronika Part, Roddy Doble, and Gennadi Saveliev gave the impression their characters were caught up in some type of social entanglement. Was it a love triangle? Was there hostility? The audience had some artistic license in deciding for themselves.
The ballet was sleepy at times, but had merits; the live music was divine and the dancers executed the sometimes cumbersome partnering exceptionally well. It left me a bit indifferent, neither disliking it nor loving it.
From there, the evening took a change of pace with Twyla Tharp’s quirky and mischievous Known by Heart (“Junk”) Duet, set to Donald Knaack’s “Junk Music”. Tharp is notorious for her unyielding choreography and this duet was no exception, but the piece worked. Gillian Murphy and Blaine Hoven were an ideal pairing to tackle the difficult movement.
Known by Heart made me feel like a ‘ballet nerd’. I giggled along with the rest of the audience as the two dancers entered into a playful competition. There were a few cheap ploys for laughs – at one point Murphy tap dances on pointe – but all and all, I liked the ballet’s light, jazzy attitude.
I was most curious about the world premiere of Demis Volpi’s Private Light. Unfamiliar with the young choreographer’s work, I had no idea what to expect. The ballet opened with all ten dancers onstage. With the ladies’ backs to the audience, the five couples ‘danced’ exaggerated kisses and embraces. The ballet then evolved into an exploration of human gestures and the need for human touch, utilizing the sound of the dancers’ breath and the ladies’ pointe shoes. Misty Copeland took to the movement beautifully and breathed life into every step she danced.
Volpi’s ballet had an effect on me, but I’m unsure how to identify these exact emotions. I feel compelled to see it again, needing more time to process what I saw. It’s possible the more I watch it, the more it will register with me.
Rounding out the evening of dance was Paul Taylor’s always fun Company B. It’s a crowd pleaser, full of well-known tunes and stylized movement. There were a few standout dancers. Daniil Simkin, who is smaller in stature when compared to other men in the company, moved as if he was seven feet tall in the “Tico-Tico” solo. Simone Messmer was expressive and expansive in “There Will Never Be Another You”. However, several moments could have been stronger. Isadora Loyola is a lovely corps de ballet dancer with great potential, but she could have connected more with the gentlemen in “Rum and Coca-Cola”. Because the characters in Company B are just as important as mastering the Taylor technique, an occasional flirty glance would have gone a long way.
It was nice to see some favorites such as Company B, but it was even more exciting to see ABT showing New York audiences something new and different. The company has a lot of up and comers, both in dancers and choreographers. It will be interesting to see how the company evolves over the next several years, especially when it comes to its City Center repertoire.
Photo: American Ballet Theater performs Company B. Photo by Gene Shiavone