(November 5, 2011) American Ballet Theater performed four different mixed-bill programs at the Fisher Center at Bard College this weekend, previewing their new season before an upcoming gala at New York City Center. ABT has received much press as of late for star principal dancer David Hallberg’s upcoming move to the Bolshoi, a pioneering step for an American, but the performances at Bard showed that even without Hallberg (who will continue to perform with ABT on a more limited schedule), the company excels.
Program I (Friday evening) opened with the revival premiere of Merce Cunningham’s Duets, an exploration of the ways in which the duet form may be used to create varied and dynamic movement. The six unique pairings demonstrated a thorough attentiveness to shape and line, but noticeably absent was any sort of relationship between partners—a clearly intentional but nonetheless odd and somewhat unsettling choice. The only sort of character development took the form of the eerie way in which the men physically manipulated the women (never the other way around, disappointing in its accordance with gender stereotypes) from one image to the next. Duets was rescued by strong performances by the dancers, although some of them—the luxuriously graceful Julie Kent in particular—cannot help but look like lyrical ballerinas dancing Cunningham. Veronika Part brought a grounding focus and steadiness to her duet with Vitali Krauchenka, while Adrienne Schulte and Sean Stewart were pleasantly articulate and buoyant.
Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite, performed by Luciana Paris and Herman Cornejo, was an abrupt shift from Cunningham’s abstract take on duets. Though not devoid of technical difficulty, Sinatra Suite’s focus is the narrative progression of a passionate relationship, from romantic courtship to resolute separation. “Narrated” by the five songs it uses, all sung by Frank Sinatra, it allows these two dancers the liberty to explore a more theatrical, exuberant side of performance. Their performances are admirable, but it’s worth noting that while Cornejo’s technical mastery is phenomenal, he occasionally lacks that same fullness in more subtle moments of choreography. However, his solo is jubilantly airy, full of spring, recalling a hopefulness and vigor that makes for a heartening conclusion.
A sort of snapshot of an encounter, The Garden of Villandry was premiered in 1979 by collaborative team and original cast Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett, and Felix Blaska. Garden reflects a diverse range of influences, and a glance at Clarke’s background illuminates a few of them: her time spent at Juilliard under Anthony Tudor and Anna Sokolow gave her both a technical background and a postmodern sensibility, one that set her up to work with Dance Theater Workshop (then a progressive choreographer’s collective) as well as Pilobolus. All of these traditions peep out in this trio, which plays on the elegance in carriage of its performers as well as the use of innovative, subtle partnering maneuvers in which they appear to become one being. The conversational tone of the work is framed by the mirrored beginning and ending images, and its lightness is welcome after the high drama of Sinatra Suite.
The program concluded with Tharp’s In The Upper Room, a veritable masterpiece of contemporary ballet. The casting was superb—Paloma Herrera anchored several sections with a taut control which did not prevent grace and fluidity. Most exciting was the trio of Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, and Kristi Boone; while they moved almost entirely in unison, their different interpretations of the choreography gave them an air of independence and intelligence that was especially welcome in this more classical work. Murphy’s refinement, Copeland’s attack, and Boone’s earnest jubilance contrasted very satisfyingly. The work would not be the marvel that it is without a musical score of the same name by Philip Glass, exquisite lighting design by Jennifer Tipton which gave the illusion of dancers materializing from the back of the stage, and simple yet inventive costume design by Norma Kamali. The dancers of ABT were, for the first time in this program, given the opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their abilities. It was tremendously exciting to watch, and unfortunate that they were not given more chances to do so in the otherwise somewhat flat repertory.