ABT: Classics to Premieres

I’m a season subscriber to New York City Ballet and since moving to New York that’s where I’ve exclusively gone to get my ballet fix. But then American Ballet Theatre’s spring season was announced and I learned that there would be a world premiere Christopher Wheeldon ballet. I knew I couldn’t miss this. And so on Tuesday night I made my way to Lincoln Center; instead of heading in to the State theatre, I entered the Metropolitan Opera House, where ABT is performing.

Tuesday evening’s program was Classics to Premieres and consisted of two world premieres, one US premiere and one classic from the ABT repertoire. We begin with a world premiere.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Dumbarton was up first. (Ratmansky is ABT’s Artist in Residence.) You may recall from that in the fall I saw Ratmansky’s Namouna and didn’t care for it. I was gearing up to dislike Dumbarton, set to Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks,” so I was pleasantly surprised when I wasn’t completely turned off. I still can’t decide if I loved it or hated it, though.

Do you remember the Gap ads from several years ago, the ones in which the guys and gals were dressed in khakis and crisp white shirts, looking impossibly clean cut, and danced through the streets? That’s sort of how the ten dancers in Dumbarton looked. Looks aside, the dancing was fast and unyielding; neither the dancers nor the audience had a moment to rest and take in the scene. The moves had an unfinished, rough, sort of youthful edge to them, and while that may sometimes spell exuberance, here everything felt heavy. I suppose I didn’t hate it; the dancing was good and the ideas in the ballet were understandable, but I didn’t love it, either.

Next up was the US premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s Troika. Set to music by Bach, Troika is danced by, as you might guess, a trio of dancers, Alexandre Hammoudi, Danil Simkin and Sascha Radetsky. (Radetsky was in the movie Center Stage; he played Charlie!) Troika struck me as a bit of a cross between Millepied’s Plainspoken and Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free. The costumes and sense of urgency were reminiscent of Plainspoken while the interaction between the three men made me think of Fancy Free.

Like in Fancy Free, the three men show off for each other. They begin dancing together but they each take a moment to challenge the others. Unlike Fancy Free, there seemed to be something a little deeper going on here. At first I had the sense that this was a school yard rumble/dance-off with impressive braggadocio. But by the end of the ballet, I thought it was more that the three men represented three aspects of one person and that the conflict they were dancing through wasn’t among competing schoolchildren but among competing interests in oneself. I think the themes of Troika paired with its graceful athleticism make this ballet a wonderful challenge for male dancers.

After intermission, we returned for the classic part of the program. This was Shadowplay, a ballet by Antony Tudor, staged by Christopher Newton and set to music by Charles Koechlin. Dear readers, I wanted to leave. It was like watching Prodigal Son (which you know I don’t like) devolve into “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” except an actual spooky Mormon hell dream, not the fantastical and funny number from The Book of Mormon. I can’t report much else about it because I actually closed my eyes at several points so that I could try to nap before the Wheeldon premiere that would be up next.

And oh, that Christopher Wheeldon. Tuesday night marked the world premiere of his Thirteen Diversions, set to music by Benjamin Britten. Wheeldon’s trademark exploration of color, lighting and space were once again realized in yet another stirring ballet.

An ensemble dressed in black was juxtaposed by eight featured dancers in white (or perhaps it was a very pale blue; I was sitting very far back...). Thirteen Diversions was a battle between light and dark, and with their graceful movements and flowing arms, they often looked swan-like as they flitted about the stage.

In one variation, the battle between light and dark seemed to ask, “Who’s allowed where?” One group would encircle the other but then the ensnared gaggle would break free. In another variation, a gorgeous pas de deux, the dancers were backed by saturated blue lights, making them look like they were literally tangled up in blue. (Fitting as Tuesday was Bob Dylan’s birthday.) In consecutive variations, it was playtime, first for the ladies and then for the men. And in still another variation, two dancers engaged in a lovely, emotional dance as if in their own world, though they were surrounded by the ensemble of dark dancers.

I am always so impressed with the way Wheeldon creates a complete theatrical experience through his ballets. He tells a story with each element available to him, and, on top of that, the dancing is beautiful. The classical technique paired with soulful and passionate responses to the music (you can see the music come to life in his movements) make for endlessly interesting and thrilling ballets. Wheeldon will be heavily featured in City Ballet’s 2011-2012 season, including an all-Wheeldon program, a NYCB premiere and another world premiere, so book your tickets. You know where to find me next season!

Visit abt.org to learn more about these four ballets and to purchase tickets.