The end of American Ballet Theatre’s spring season brought a trio of farewell performances for the soloists Sascha Radetsky, Yuriko Kajiya, and Jared Matthews. Each led a cast of Coppélia; two were débuts. Quietly, Joseph Gorak also débuted this week as Franz. Recently promoted to soloist, Gorak is a young danseur noble in the making. So it goes in ballet, an art for the young, ambitious, and blindly devoted. Here’s my review for DanceTabs.
Dance Theatre of Harlem is currently wrapping up its second season since its return under the steady leadership of Virginia Johnson. (You can read more about here here, in this long and wide-ranging interview from last year.)
Like last year, the dancers’ warmth and directness are a pleasure. Ashley Murphy is a knockout. Chrystyn Fentroy radiates joy. But the dancing is still uneven, and especially in the more classical works, it shows some strain, some sloppiness. Then there is the question of repertory, which Johnson is molding with an eye to the company’s history and identity. It’s a difficult job. You can read more about the season here, in my review for DanceTabs. Here’s a short excerpt:
“The opening and closing of Gloria are explosions of joy, in which toe-heel taps and shimmying shoulders feel organic, like part of a misa criolla. Several passages leave vivid after-images, as when Ashley Murphy hovers in profile, her strong feet shimmering like hummingbird wings. As she bends forward or arches toward the sky, she alternates between atonement and elation.”
Last week I caught a single performance of Coppélia at New York City Ballet, with Sterling Hyltin in the role of Swanilda and Gonzalo García as her wayward beau, Frantz. It’s easy to see why this comic ballet has remained in the repertory for so long. Délibes’ music is enchanting from start to finish, and consistently danceable. The little pause at the top of the phrase in the “wheat dance”—during which the girls listen to an ear of grain to test whether their boyfriends love them—is so lilting, so charming, and, as an added bonus, gives the dancers a perfect opportunity to perch, ever-so-gracefully, in a balance. And who can resist the rousing mazurka? (If only the NYCB dancers were a bit more lusty in their execution of this folk dance. In their ribbons and boots, they look like very well-mannered and slightly embarrassed kids.)
It was my first time seeing Hyltin in the role of Swanilda. She is a natural comedienne, with big eyes and a long, girlish face that she is not loath to scrunch up into funny expressions. Unlike many ballerinas, she’s not overly attached to the idea of looking beautiful at all times, no matter what the situation. She’s terribly light on her toes; her jumps have a wonderful sparkle. With her extraordinarily linear frame, she can create marvelous angles with her elbows and knees, handy when dancing the role of a girl imitating a doll. But she can also be soft, lyrical, even sexy (as in Rubies and Stravinsky Violin Concerto). Her Swanilda is playful and sweet, without the edge some dancers bring to the role. (I remember thinking Natalia Osipova was screaming at the audience when she danced it.) Meanwhile, García’s Frantz is a handsome, seductive dolt, warm and easy to forgive. And he’s so pretty that one is reminded that this role was once danced by a woman, en travesti.
For the first two acts of his 1974 production, Balanchine enlisted Alexandra Danilova, a famously mischievous Swanilda, to help him create a version close to the one she had danced for many years. But he remade the final act, replacing the allegorical dances (dawn, prayer, the hours) with more abstract solos and ensembles. These are lovely, but I do miss the notion of each dance representing a particular idea, which one hears clearly in the music. The dances for the dolls in the second act, too, are somewhat uninspired, though Austin Bachman managed to make a vivid impression as the melancholy acrobat.
But the best thing about Balanchine’s third act is the fact that the corps de ballet is replaced by twenty-four adorable little girls from the School of American Ballet, a garland of perfect Petipa ballerinas in miniature.
This summer, I spoke with Virginia Johnson, the longtime star of Dance Theatre of Harlem, who is now the troupe’s Artistic Director. You can see the interview, on DanceTabs, here.
Under Johnson’s tutelage, the company has returned from the brink for a successful first season. This fall, her dancers will perform at Fall for Dance in New York. In our interview, we talked about her life in dance, the rise, fall, and rise of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the very real challenge of diversity in ballet. Here’s an excerpt: “I look at these dancers and I see that they’re not being corrected. There are some very basic things going on that reveal that they’re being ignored. And we see changes in them so quickly because they are finally getting corrections. The schools need to not only embrace the fact that ballet doesn’t have a color but actually work with the material in the room.”
The question of diversity in ballet is finally coming to people’s attention. Benjamin Millepied mentioned it in an interview related to his upcoming directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet, in comments that pissed off the French media. (He said, “I can’t run a ballet company now, today, and not have it be a company where people in the house can relate to, and recognize themselves in some ways.” Shocking.) ABT has just announced a new initiative whose mission is to reach out to minority communities through Boys and Girls Clubs across the us. (ABT’s Misty Copeland will be the ambassador for the program, which is called Project Plié.) Meanwhile, DTH will be there.