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Venturing Into the New

November 13, 2007

American Ballet Theatre, fresh from its fall season in New York City, brought two programs of mixed repertory to Zellerbach Hall last week, presented by Cal Performances. This was in itself reason for celebration. That the ballets were set to richly varied music proved to be the icing on the cake. The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra played for both programs.
Program A, which ran Wednesday and Thursday nights, offered a frothy, gala-style workout: Ballo della Regina, the glorious George Balanchine toe-buster, set to excerpts from Verdi's Don Carlo, conducted by Ormsby Wilkins; excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire, both conducted by David La Marche; and Fancy Free, with Wilkins again at the podium.

Thursday night, Ballo della Regina offered local audiences a close-up of one of the brightest ballerinas in the firmament, Gillian Murphy. The ballet's fanfares, beautifully played, all point to the adoration of the queen. In light of this performance, nothing could be truer to life.

Red-haired and blessed with tensile strength and physical daring, Murphy is almost too perfect. The most taxing moves, the fastest fusillade of hops onto pointe, the slowest unfurling of a leg in attitude, as if in stop-motion — nothing fazes her. Her partner, the heroic David Hallberg, appears chiseled in blond, even when airborne. If they weren't so fabulously entertaining, the duo's perfection would be grievously annoying.

And there was no relief from the soloists either, glinting in their azure costumes as they defused their precision with glowing smiles, gentle port des bras: Melissa Thomas, Kristi Boone, Simone Messmer, Leann Underwood, supported by a thoroughly admirable corps de ballet. Grrrr.

If there was anything to pick on, it was probably the Rose Adagio, an excerpt from The Sleeping Beauty in which Princess Aurora greets and is promenaded around by four suitors, whose only job is to enable her to remain exquisitely balanced on one pointe shoe as she moves from prince to prince. Based by ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie on Marius Petipa's original choreography, the Rose Adagio appears mighty peculiar without its set.

The princes' costumes made them look like Halloween leftovers — here a kilt like a tablecloth, there a pair of shoes with the toes pointing up — and it just didn't work, though ballerina Paloma Herrera's Aurora, charmingly composed in pink ruffles and flawlessly poised in arabesque, almost made you forget her klutzy-looking retinue.
Dazzling Leaps, and Music to Match
This is where the music comes in. When ballet companies run old favorites like this and the next one, the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, all too often the orchestra murders the music, leaning into it as if to say, "Now watch this!" In Berkeley, it never happened. The music remained musical, the cymbals never banging, the horns never shrilling, not even in Corsaire when the amazing Herman Cornejo launched himself into an arc of approximately his own height (he's 5-foot-6, but think of that jump) and followed that with a series of barrel turns at an impossible angle.

This piece is a warhorse par excellence, saved by the orchestra's restraint and the charm of Cornejo's partner, Xiomara Reyes, who, with dazzling fouettés and poetic grace, emphasized in her dancing the existence of a relationship between the two characters. It's a rarity; even Nureyev and Fonteyn didn't display that. Cornejo is being unduly touted as the next Baryshnikov, when he could be the first Cornejo. He needs to work on making the moves a continuous dance rather than a series of tricks. It would still be fun to watch.

Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free, created for Jerome Robbins' 1944 ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York, was played beautifully. The orchestra drew forth the score's elegiac tones, sweet and apprehensive, a reminder of what the boyish bons vivants might have to face on their return to the war. Craig Salstein, Sascha Radetsky, and Marcelo Gomes were antic, frantic, totally precise, and utterly winning. Julie Kent, guarded but yielding, innocent yet all-knowing, was the perfect Passer-by, in company with the spicy Stella Abrera.

Program B, seen Sunday afternoon, included Twyla Tharp's Baker's Dozen, set to Dick Hyman's transcription of songs by Willie "The Lion" Smith, played in the pit by Barbara Bilach. The baker's dozen, then, is 12 dancers plus the pianist. Dressed in Santo Loquasto's white playsuits shining against the dark backdrop, these Tharpists rise and leap, make connections, separate, rejoin, all to Smith's jazz rhythms. It's so fluid, so easy. It's so precise, technical, intensely focused. There's nothing like evanescent movement to concentrate an audience's attention.

Danced to a recording, there was Tharp's pas de deux Sinatra Suite (not to be confused with her Nine Sinatra Songs performed the preceding week by the Miami City Ballet). Sinatra Suite, created for Baryshnikov and for Elaine Kudo, who staged this as well as Baker's Dozen, is tough and tender, and, as danced by Misty Copeland and Cornejo, hard to forget.
A Close Challenge
Also on the second program were two local premieres. The ultimately inarticulate C. to C. (Close to Close), a tribute to artist Chuck Close choreographed by Jorma Elo and set to piano music by Philip Glass, a longtime friend of Close, was played onstage by Bruce Levingston, who is credited with the "original concept." The music's rippling chords had points of identity with In the Upper Room, choreographed, incidentally, by Tharp.

In C. to C. the dancers are at first wrapped in heavy skirts, hampering their lower bodies; they move with twisted torsos and crabbed arms that seemingly refer to Close's own challenges when he became wheelchair-bound. Close's face, from forehead to below his nose, looms on the backdrop (he is credited with the design), becoming gradually more visible, and in the last act, in which the dancers seem to transcend their earlier immobility, it turns red. The dance fails to resolve itself. Perhaps it's too hard to match the heroics of Close himself, learning to paint once again and better than ever, despite his quadriplegia.

Faring better was From Here on Out, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied and set to music composed for it by Nico Muhly, played by the BSO with Wilkins conducting. It was fresher and livelier, if overlong, spilling over with the youthful enthusiasm of the lithe and intense unitard-clad cast, backed by the spot-on orchestra. Millepied at this point is a try-everything dancemaker, with gestures, actions, and reactions flying into the responsive bodies and psyches of the dozen dancers. You don't know where to look first, or next, or last.

True to the title, there's a literal winding outward, a lead-up into a big pas de deux, and a retraction back to where it all began. According to Muhly, Millepied likes Bach, so he gave him repeated chords as a basis for the piece, which includes music for bassoon, piano, marimba, and "an insectlike rustling of strings." It's a big adventure, and I'm curious to see where it will lead a composer like Muhly, and a choreographer like Millepied. Cheers both to ABT, a company often accused of hiding behind the popularity of its full-length ballets, for venturing into new work like this, and to BSO for playing it.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.