American Ballet Theatre’s repertory program at Segerstrom Center for the Arts considers three ways in which music informs dance. In Merce Cunningham’s DUETS from 1980, the music (in this instance John Cage’s score for electronic sounds and percussion titled, Improvisations III) and Cunningham’s sharp edged collage of roving partners coexist in an amiable and at times reluctant standoff of togetherness. With Thirteen Diversions, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon lets Benjamin Britten’s almost-concerto for piano and orchestra (Op. 21, Diversions) suggest a well assembled mosaic of large and small ensembles tied together by an underlying sense of formality. Finally, the Alexei Ratmansky Firebird cleaves to the iconic score of 1909 to capture his version of Igor Stravinsky’s episodic folk tale of the magic bird and a clutching sorcerer.
Now that Cunningham’s company has achieved emeritus status it seemed a purposeful gesture to acknowledge his contributions by reviving DUETS. A true ballet company will breathe something different into modern dance work like DUETS and that proved true on Friday’s program which coupled four of ABT’s female soloists with male partners from the corps. There are six couples in all who dance separately, and then briefly convene as an ensemble at the conclusion. Standard footwear, not bare feet, was in vogue on Friday evening. Xiomara Reyes and Aaron Scott stood out for making the movement feel the most grounded and modern in the Cunningham mold. Veronika Part and Vitali Krauchenka looked not so modern in the promenading movements that were more tinged with the ethos of a grand pas de deux than a simple walk around. Marc Lancaster’s glowing lighting made the brilliant, multi-hued unitards flare, and with the velvet wings and backdrop, seemed to place the dancers deep in a jewelry box tipped on its side. It is easy to like much of Cunningham’s classic works such as DUETS because they don’t ask for conclusions or explanation. The music plays, the dancers come and go whilst executing precise and often difficult movements, in this case, actions where the body, head and arms act separately rather than in tandem). It provided a well-defined polarity against which you could measure the eventual heat, drama, and excesses of FIREBIRD, which closed the program.
As a former New York City Ballet principal dancer, you might expect Wheeldon to have taken away some valuable lessons from his experiences dancing Balanchine’s ballets. His use of the excellent concertante music from Britten’s moody and instrumentally colorful orchestral suite and his intricate patterns flow on stage as ensembles form and then disappear. They bring to mind the Balanchine legacy. You may add to that Wheeldon’s smart, remade classical style, and the dressed up look of Bob Crowley’s grey and black tuxedo top costumes. The costumes divide the dancers into two groups, a quartet of soloists in grey, and a larger corps of sixteen suited in black. The women danced with bare legs and the knee length skirts flashed a muted band of purple on the inside hem. It was a marker for much of the ballet which played with a sense of subtlety both in the connections between sections and in the relationships among the quartet of soloists. Not subtle were the lighting designs by brad Fields which were both beautiful and unusual, but which complicated the stage with numerous changes, resizing effects, and at times a glare which made it difficult to focus on the dancers. One effect, a comet tail of light that seemed brushed onto the dark blue cyclorama referenced, on a larger scale, reinvented installations from the light artist, Dan Flavin. Particularly moving were the solo by Hee Seo (Rubato) and the spectacularly connected romantic duo (Chant) danced by Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm. Also adding heft and air time was the men’s ensemble section (Tocatta). Cleverly, the work finishes not with a full scale finale but one in which only Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes remain on stage at the conclusion.
Ratmansky mostly sticks to the standard story in his FIREBIRD but also employs a flock of firebirds as well as a group of twelve maidens who are kept by the magician, Kaschei. His version of the story runs into trouble on stage where there is not enough room for Simon Pastukh’s brilliantly imaginative orchard of gigantic, mechanical trees (Kaschei’s magic garden) and the combined forces of firebirds and maidens. What might have looked opulent unfortunately comes across as visually riveting but chaotic from the standpoint of movement.
I admire Ratmansky as a storyteller and reviewed both his NAMOUNA (NYCB) and BRIGHT STREAM (ABT). This FIREBIRD was not as uniformly satisfying but the difficulties lie not so much in the dancemaking as in the staging and costuming which are most keenly felt at the conclusion when the white suited men (they double as versions of Ivan) emerge from inside the trees to join the maidens as Kaschei’s spell is broken. Their garb somehow looks amiss; you might have hoped for something earthier all around.
The four central characters all dance with a clear sense of definition and theatrical consistency. Misty Copeland as the Firebird danced the role with requisite physical abandon, covering risky turns and big jumps. Kaschei (Roman Zhurbin) was darky menacing with his green gloves and thrumming fingers, a villain but without by-the-book melodrama. Maria Riccetto as the Maiden made the best of an inherently weak role and Herman Cornejo (Ivan) did yeoman’s duty in a demanding principal role that had him on stage for much of the ballet’s action.
The real star of this production was its intense theatricality. The tree’s with their glowing blossoms and smoking branches, the rich costuming by Galina Solovyeva, Wendall Harrington’s magical projections of the dying orchard and Fields’ lighting, in a sense, became a 21st century translation of a bygone era’s ground breaking designs for dance.
DUETS ran with a recorded score. Ormsby Wilkins, conducting the Britten, brought out all of the work’s colorful dimensions. The excellent piano soloist was Barbara Bilach. Charles Barker conducted FIREBIRD. His was a detailed and finely made version but the conclusion, from the fanfare on, felt too tame. The huge finish never really made an appearance.
(The FIREBIRD was supported in part by Segerstrom Center for the Arts and is a co-production with the Dutch National Ballet. The orchestra is comprised of members of Pacific Symphony)