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MAY 8-JULY 1, 2000

Sprightly, even sexy, American Ballet Theatre celebrated its sixtieth birthday on May 8, setting off its annual eight-week New York spring season. For the most part, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie stressed the company's illustrious present rather than its illustrious past, scheduling no guest artists and relying instead on his company's own remarkable star power--classical ballet's pick of the crop. Despite incredible displays of male bravura from Julio Bocca, Angel Corella, Vladimir Malakhov and, on this occasion particularly, Jose Manuel Carreno, the biggest audience applause still went to a woman. This was the great Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, dancing with consummate adequacy the old audience-anodyne and crowd-pleaser, the Maya Plisetskaya version of The Dying Swan.

The gala ended with the first New York showing of Twyla Tharp's Variations on a Theme by Haydn (later in the season renamed The Brahms-Haydn Variations), the only completely new creation of this season. This piece to Brahms's St. Anthony Variations, cast to the gills with some of the company's biggest fish (although through injury Carreno dropped out) was elegantly danced but proved disappointingly bland. Tharp has actually created more ballets for American Ballet Theatre (sixteen) than any other choreographer, including Antony Tudor. Tharp, clearly an original modern dance choreographer of genius and flair, too often, as here, uses classical technique in an awesomely competent, but uninteresting, paint-by-numbers fashion.

The most important new production of the season was McKenzie's recension of Swan Lake, which took its first New York dip on May 19. This sumptuous new Swan Lake proved an attractive blend of the borrowed and the rethought, the traditional and the original. Tchaikovsky's popular ballet, telling of love and illusion, and the hard-learned moral lesson of not judging every swan by the color of its plumage, exists in many versions but most--like McKenzie's--derive from the 1895 St. Petersburg staging by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. David Blair's 1967 full-evening spectacle for ABT was quite closely based on that 1895 original. McKenzie, who was often its Prince Siegfried, retained part of this staging, including the celebrated Lakeside Act, Petipa's First Act pas de trois, and his Czardas, Spanish Dance, and Mazurka in the Third Act, as well as a standardized version of the Black Swan pas de deux. The rest of the choreography was McKenzie's. The innovations gave the Prince more character and dancing, while also trying to make the story of this mysterious swanlike Odette and her wicked lookalike a little more comprehensible and audience-friendly. Thus, following the example of Vladimir Burmeister's 1953 staging, performed by the Stanislavsky & Nemirovich-Danchenko Ballet in 1998 at Washington's Kennedy Center [see review in Dance Magazine, April 1999, page 90], McKenzie gave a brief scene during the overture showing Odette abducted by the magician and changed into a swan. That magician, Von Rothbart, is now played by two dancers--the first 'a wily and half-naked spirit of the lake, the other a nattily dressed courtier, full of charisma and dance skills, who turned up in the ballroom scene with his fake but glittering Odile, and helpfully seduced (metaphorically) the four (not six here) would-be fiancees of the Prince, each one attached to a national group. McKenzie, following a precedent already set by Erik Bruhn and Peter Martins, also cut out two intermissions--which certainly sped up the action but must play hell with the bar sales. The new, over-busy choreography, particularly in the regrettably lame last act, was serviceable rather than inspired. The deliberately old-fashioned and Romantic designs by Zack Brown are a marked improvement on their predecessors.

The dancing was generally superb. McKenzie clearly wanted to pull out all stops to show off his company--and he did. His first three Odette/Odiles, Susan Jaffe, Ashley Tuttle and Ananiashvili (only the latter among them successfully negotiated the traditional "Lagnani" thirty-two fouettes) had their various virtues. The flashing Ananiashvili proved the best of this opening trio, just as her partner, Bocca, had the edge over the two alternate, also brilliant but less-experienced, Prince Siegfrieds--Carreno and Corella. Later in the season were four other Odette/Odiles, and the three I saw also had their individual qualities--and those pesky thirty-two fouettes. Amanda McKerrow, partnered by an ardent Corella, proved crisp and correct, as both the Swan Queen and her wickedly coruscating counterfeit, Odile; Julie Kent, with a pale yet magically airborne Malakhov, contrasted a gracious Odette with a surprisingly forceful Odile. Possibly the best pairing of the three was a confident and powerful Irina Dvorenvenko, partnered by her real-life husband, the equally confident and powerful Maxim Belotserkovsky. The couple well deserve their recently announced promotion from soloists to principals. The company, including the smoothly rippling corps de ballet, was at peak form. Malakhov offered a compelling Von Rothbart, yet Belotserkovsky was also fascinating, as were Marcelo Gomes and Sascha Radetsky, both up from the corps de ballet. The men were outstanding here, and young Herman Cornejo gave some extraordinarily stylish virtuoso dancing as Benno (who dances both the pas de trois and another little trio in the ballroom scene), later more or less matched by subsequent Bennos--Joaquin De Luz and, again, Gomes and Radetsky.

The other major production was the late John Cranko's full-evening comedy, Taming of the Shrew, with a cast exuberantly led by Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca. It is almost thirty years since the original production was danced at the Met by Cranko's own Stuttgart Ballet. This new production, staged by Cranko expert Reid Anderson and Benesh choreologist Jane Bourne, featured scenery and costumes by Susan Benson that were borrowed from the National Ballet of Canada and never before seen in New York. These designs proved a lot more cheerful than the dowdy originals, and the performance matched the Stuttgart's, even though Cranko had cast and created that original with exceptional care and flair.

The choreography is at its best in the duets--marvelously suggestive of the changing face of love--but although the rest is essentially unsurprising, it was always dramatically apt. Ferri revealed a madcap brilliance as Katherina, while Bocca's Petruchio buckled his swashes with rare comic flamboyance. Both danced with style, gusto and magic. They are huge dance personalities and go together like jigsaw pieces. The season also revealed an admirably hoydenish Jaffe matched with a charming, brilliant but slightly nervous Carlos Molina, another of the corps de ballet standouts in his first leading role. At other performances, Kent and Corella made a fighting, yet ultimately sweetly affectionate, pair of lovers; while finally, there was Dvorovenko as a positively termagant Katherina rightly dominating the impressive dance-acting of a young and promising Canadian guest Petruchio, William Marrie. Happily, the ballet's multitudinous wealth of characterization brought out a lot in the entire company.

Although Bournonville's La Sylphide (1836) was not a new production, it had been absent from the repertoire for some years and its restoration was welcome. All three casts, most of them making their debuts in the ballet, had their virtues, although none quite caught the pluperfect Danish style once personified by Erik Bruhn himself. The first cast, Ananiashvili and Corella, acted skillfully and danced vigorously, but like the appropriately delicate Kent and the buoyant Malakhov, they missed that essential air of the Romantic lithograph. The best of the three was the pairing of the somewhat bland Yan Chen and a cheerfully flamboyant Belotserkovsky, who together measured out dancing, drama and style in decent proportion. All three Madges (Martine Van Hamel also gave a much-praised performance that I, unfortunately, missed) were splendidly malevolent--with a subtle Guillaume and a broader Victor Barbee doing fine, although the palm must go to 86-year-old celebrated star of the old Ballets Russes, Frederic Franklin.

The most rewarding and important revival was Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas, the season's one work that was a carryover from Ballet Theater's first season in 1940. It was here expertly reconstructed here by ABT Tudor specialist Sallie Wilson. Kent had all the right trembling fragility for the reluctant bride-to-be, Caroline. Here is a ballet with depth and texture--they don't come around like that very often.

ABT's male component is stronger than its women, although this season it was functioning with the distinct disadvantage of having both Ethan Stiefel and Giuseppe Picone sidelined throughout with illnesses, and Carreno, plagued by injury. McKenzie had to ask New York City Ballet, which was dancing just across the Lincoln Center Plaza, to lend male superstar virtuoso Damian Woetzel. Making his unscheduled debut with ABT, Woetzel not unexpectedly did splendidly in Balanchine's Theme and Variations, which is also in his company's repertoire. Partnering the luminous Kent, he was as smooth as silk.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:HIP-HOP ROLLS.
Next Article:TAP EXTRAVAGANZA 2000.

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