American Ballet Theatre
October 19 – 30, 2016
It’s been a surprisingly good year for female ballet choreographers. It could be a side effect of the political climate, or simply numbers—that half the population just might be able to create noteworthy dances as well as the other half, given the chance. In any case, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) commissioned Jessica Lang to create Her Notes, which had its world premiere in the company’s brief fall Koch Theater season. The ballet is a paean to the composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sibling to composer Felix, in whose shadow she worked due to societal pressures (her work was even published under his name at times). Lang set thirteen sections to excerpts from Das Jahr, one for each month, plus a postlude played live and skillfully by pianist Emily Wong.
Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in "Her Notes." Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Lang places an emphasis on visual settings. Here, she designed a floating square scrim containing an offset square aperture—illuminated in brilliant icy hues by lighting designer Nicole Pearce. The portal serves at times to frame Gillian Murphy, who stands in for the composer. She is partnered by Marcelo Gomes; they are joined by eight principals and soloists. Using fairly traditional ballet language, Lang creates coursing passages that end in picture-perfect formations. Three women raise their arms and intertwine elbows like a triple human Venn diagram. Murphy repeats a high back attitude, arm curved to create a long, uninterrupted arc. A trio of men collectively rushes to lie down, grab her ankle, and rotate her like a music box ballerina. Each phrase is elegant, put together like a Swiss watch, and simply lovely—an abundance of beauty.
The other season company premiere—Daphnis and Chloe, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied—is a large-scale collaboration which falls short of its ambition. The dance is not helped at a fundamental level by Ravel’s music, which offers shimmering chords and atmospheric note clouds, but does not quite support the action. The ballet encompasses the better part of an hour—a lot of time to fill with lightly sketched characterizations and wispy plot points. Another major drawback, if a commendable risk, is the set by abstract artist Daniel Buren, known for his vertical stripe paintings and sculptures. The opening downstage scrim is filled with such projected stripes; a dark object blooms at the center, growing and morphing until it subsumes the expanse in black.
The ballet’s set pieces are various geometric shapes of transparent, colored plastic set within striped frames; these hover, lower, rise, and at times threaten the dancers with their impending descent. A few brief phrases danced behind a panel—or overlapping panels producing a new combined hue—imbue the action with some chromatic emotion, but it’s fleeting. Holly Hynes’ costumes—creamy halter gowns for the gals; clamdiggers for the guys—plus Brad Fields’ fair-day lighting suggest a beachside setting. The dance was created on the Paris Opera Ballet in 2014 while Millepied was artistic director there. On paper, no doubt it seemed a terrific package, but its realization demonstrates that an abundance of resources isn’t a guarantee of artistic quality.
Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns in "Daphnis and Chloe." Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Daphnis and Chloe did, however, grant a handful of dancers some prominent stage time. A captivating Stella Abrera and ardent Cory Stearns danced the title roles. Cassandra Trenary, a recently appointed soloist, danced the minxy Lycenion, who attempts to lure Daphnis with her wiles. And Blaine Hoven, another new and deserving soloist, danced the role of Dorcon with great power. On one program, Hoven was featured in all three dances on the bill; it’s rewarding to be able to see him in prominent roles after so many years. James Whiteside danced the brief role of the pirate Bryaxis (in black, naturally). He seems to relish such bad guy roles, and his swashbuckling, athletic style perfectly suits them.
The intent of this review was to focus on the season premieres, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning the return of Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, which premiered earlier this year. When I watch ballet (like during Daphnis and Chloe), I sometimes wonder what it’s all about—the 17th century genre with its stringent (albeit versatile) technique, dogmas, and often predictable gender-based movements. But Ratmansky’s piece for seven men (plus a woman in a brief appearance) has propelled the genre forward in a subtly anarchic way. It’s not about breaking the form apart and trying to reinvent it, or making it look alien or punk. It’s about using the fluency of the language, in the body, to communicate.
Each man’s solo puts forth a different danced “argument” about love. The passages are organic, lush, and incorporate virtuosic moves that read as passionate expressions rather than demonstrations of prowess. Each man has his own style, and he implores his case to the others, who pay rapt attention. Some of the most moving performances come from corps members, such as Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, and Jose Sebastian. It’s a dialogue in the spirit of Socrates, and it envelops the audience in this conversation. The ballet is about nothing and everything, but most importantly the choreography is never lazy or boring, even if it has moments of serenity. The piece joins the ranks of its choreographer’s oeuvre: some of the most successful recent full-length story ballets, both traditional and iconoclastic, in the last decade. Serenade After Plato’s Symposium is the proverbial crack that lets the light in, to quote Leonard Cohen. Plato would be proud.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.