Mixed Bill at ABT -- Actually Mixed

There are times when the ABT can seem like an excellent overall company. It can do some more modern works by Twayla Tharp or Mark Morris very well. The program started off with a spirited rendition of Morris's rather pretentiously named Drink to Me With Thine Eyes Only. I didn't like the ballet, but that doesn't mean I didn't appreciate the dancing. ABT is also often absolutely wonderful in smaller narrative ballets. Ashton's A Month in the Country is a perfect example. It's a 40 minute ballet slice of life ballet about a family: a vain and lonely married woman (Natalia Petrovna), a flirty ward, a rambunctious son, and a clueless and much older husband. There's an "admirer" that the family views as a joke. Then a handsome tutor named Belieav arrives, and feelings rise, tempers flare, and hearts break. The ballet is filled with little Ashton motifs like the sideways "walking" lifts and the fluttering legs. The music (three pieces by Chopin) are heart-tugging.

This is the kind of ballet ABT absolutely nails. There are enough demi-soloist parts for the woefully underused ABT soloist/corps ranks, who are always chomping at the bit to have their moment in the spotlight. The night I saw the ballet, Sarah Lane as Vera the ward was an absolute delight -- a perfect blend of teenage flightiness and flirtatiousness. Her brief pas de deux with Belieav was pitch perfec. The poor young girl was infatuated, and when the jealous Natalia slapped Vera -- again, ABT can do this sort of thing to perfection. Arron Scott flew around the stage as Natalia's son. Simone Messmer also made the very most of her brief part as the household maid, as did Roddy Doble as Natalia's admirer. The ABT dancers are often excellent actors, and I was impressed with how many character details they were able to infuse into a 40 minute chamber ballet.

Natalia herself was danced with grace and sensitivity by Hee Seo. Seo is maybe not the most dynamic dancer, but she's always impressed me with her beauty and lyricism. The role was originated on an aging Lynn Seymour, and there exists a telecast which shows Seymour's dramatic gifts. Seymour was an odd dancer -- she had one of the most gorgeous lower bodies in ballet combined with a rather stocky torso that prevented her from ever breaking into the "classics." But her dramatic instincts were incredible. Month in the Country emphasizes all of Seymour's strengths -- the supple back, the expressive arms, the gorgeously arched feet. Seo is more reserved than Seymour, but she understood the ballet and Natalia's character -- the desperation, the infatuation, the unhappiness -- it was all there. David Hallberg (ridiculous costume aside) was absolute perfection as the tutor Belieav. His perfect turnout and line reminded me of Anthony Dowell (the role's originator), and his handsome face and striking presence were enough for everyone to understand how the whole household could be thrown into chaos. The duet between Seo and Hallberg was an understated yet irresistible tome to infatuation -- at one point, Hallberg lifted Seo and Seo's legs began to flutter. A motif was how their arms intertwined repeatedly -- it's the kind of realistic gesture that Ashton was a master of choreographing. The ending to the ballet tugged hearts in a way only Ashton could. The tutor is banished from the household, Natalia is alone and crying. The tutor returns and caresses the ribbons of Natalia's dress and drops a flower by her side, and then departs forever. Natalia sees the flower, and is left alone as the curtain falls.

There was an intermission, and the ABT then showed every single weakness it had with a horrifyingly misguided attempt at Balanchine's Symphony in C. I say "attempt" because I can't say it was an actual performance of the masterpiece. So many choreographic details were deleted or ignored that the whole ballet looked like a lumpy mess. The famously underrehearsed, underappreciated corps de ballet danced as if there had been zero coaching or guidance. The curtain rose and they were already behind the beat. Their arms were a mess, and the famous moment when they rise on pointe repeatedly, they ignored that wonderful detail where they also heaved their shoulders and flapped their wrists to the music. Stella Abrera was fine in her individual dancing but she fell out of sync with the corps from the first entrance and never coordinated herself with them again. The second movement was not an improvement. Bizet's adagio is considered one of the most iconic moments of Balanchine choreography. Polina Semionova charged through it with a cold, hard angularity -- gone was the famous balance to knee-grazing penchee, the lunges backwards went for nothing, and she ignored the luxurious 180 degree penchees. Marcelo Gomes looked utterly lost in the Balanchine style -- he's way too striking and imposing to be appropriate as the second movement cavalier. Third movement was a bit of an improvement. Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev may not be familiar with the Balanchine style, but they certainly can execute the fast jumps and turns of the movement and they can keep up with the music. But the fourth movement was again a mess -- Simone Messmer was fine as the soloist (great fouettes) but the entrances and exits of the corps were sloppy and slow. The coordination between the four female soloists was non-existent -- that wonderful moment when they all pirouette together had the four soloists landing in four very different times and positions. In the back the corps de ballet apparently forgot that arms and legs are supposed to be facing the same way. A particularly painful moment was when the back row does a simple tendu. One saw that their feet were at varying degrees and some knees were bent. Instead of a crescendo, the orchestra seemed to grow more sluggish as the ballet crawled to its close, and as a result, one of the most exhilarating finales in ballet went for absolutely nothing.

Maybe my strong negative reaction was colored by the fact that across the plaza, the NYCB regularly does this ballet with the exact sharpness, precision and musicality that define the Balanchine style. But that's not to say that I haven't seen the NYCB mess up the Bizet. Martins can be careless with the casting of Balanchine warhorses like the Bizet or Serenade. But I felt sorry for anyone who watched ABT's rendition and thought that this was actually Balanchine's work. The ABT ignored the very thing Balanchine felt was so important -- the music. The allegro, adagio, allegro vivace, and rondo structure of a symphony were all ignored in favor of a kind of indifferent sluggishness. The seamless mirroring of the corps de ballet movements to the soloist choreography was ignored as every movement was considered a showpiece for the soloists. A few years ago the Mariinsky brought their version of Symphony in C to New York and they didn't dance it the way the NYCB dances it but they didn't delete or ignore the choreography to such an extent. This was a blatantly disrespectful performance.

The depressing thing was, at the end it was greeted by the usual loud cheers and flower bouquets typical of an ABT performance. Across the plaza, the NYCB audience regularly leaves before the soloists of any ballet have a chance to come out for a curtain call. It's depressing.


  1. Dear Ivy, I came across your blog trying to find news about Polina Semionova who has left Berlin unfortunately. Although I am a bit disappointed you obviously did not like her dancing on that evening, I absolutely enjoy reading your blog. You not only write about your personal opinion, but give a lot of valuable information as well.
    Please keep up the good work...


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