Review: American Ballet Theatre in Programme 2 at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 1 - 6 February 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 4 February 2011

American Ballet Theatre
Scene from Paul Taylor's 'Company B'
Sadler's Wells, 1 - 6 Feb 2011
Photo: Gene Shiavone

Reviewed: 2 February 2011

David Hallberg is the Mr Darcy of dance: a tall ‘danseur noble’ (aristocratic, even) with exceptionally fine line, grace and notably delicate feet; but one troubled by the wooden plank of monotone expressiveness, which has never been more obvious than in this performance of Theme and Variations. While his body was doing amazing things, his face could have been staring at a blank TV screen. Hallberg needs his own Elizabeth Bennett to break through this otherwise impenetrable solemnity and, unfortunately, Gillian Murphy – albeit dancing prettily – appeared to pay him little regard and their partnering suffered in the mix. There were many disappointments in a generally poor performance of Balanchine’s 1947 classic, unusually made on Ballet Theatre rather than its near neighbour, New York City Ballet. It may be fair to say that it suffered from insufficient stage space but the corps de ballet were too often out of synch and this was one performance where the fine ABT dancers didn’t live up to the sparkle of their costumes.

The inclusion of the Tchaikovsky pas de deux in this first variation of the second programme (it alternates with two other pas de deux over the coming weekend) has an interesting historical context with Theme and Variations since Balanchine revived the latter in 1960 for Edward Villella and Violet Verdy; but it was quickly discarded again, and two months later he made the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, also for Verdy. Both the longer suite and the pas de deux are significant tests of strength, style, musicality and technique and while Herman Cornejo gave a blistering account, I found Xiomara Reyes (a ballerina I have greatly admired in the past) was found wanting in the Verdy role. She has always been a prodigious “turner” but, on this occasion, the three crucial ingredients of balance, certainty and musicality were all a little off. It seemed to fit the sense of under-rehearsal that was apparent in the earlier work. Nevertheless, the virtuoso fireworks of the pas de deux are guaranteed to please and the audience was immensely appreciative of both dancers’ efforts.

Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden is a wonderful piece of dance history. Made in 1936 for Ballet Rambert, it was performed on the fifth night of Ballet Theatre’s life (in 1940) and has remained a part of its repertoire ever since. A fascinating work of Edwardian style mixed with a ’30s twist, in which Tudor attempted to dictate the characters’ emotional journeys by means of movement alone and not through facial expression or mime. Only the central woman has a name (Caroline) and the narrative is cleverly told in the titles of the other main parts (‘Her Lover’, ‘The Man She Must Marry’ and ‘An Episode in His Past’). We must expect a company that has been carrying this responsibility for 70 years to perform Lilac Garden well and they delivered immense charm and drama in a snapshot of time that was beautiful to watch. If I have just one quarrel, then it would be that the key tension of the ballet has somehow been blurred over the years. I believe that the work’s raison d‘être is all about the poignancy of parting insofar as neither Caroline nor The Man She Must Marry get to fulfill that secret moment of farewell with their past lovers and the essence of that sadness seems lost in the stylistic gloss of today’s interpretation.

The final work was Paul Taylor’s Company B, an episodic ballet to a medley of nine songs (and one reprise) by The Andrews Sisters. The bouncy, jingoistic ebullience of the music provides an uplifting end to the programme but I find the choreography to be the curate’s egg, ranging from the excellent bubby, circular flow of the opening and closing full ensemble dance to ‘Bei Mir Bist du Schön’ and the exotic sashaying of Misty Copeland in ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’ to the soon-forgotten dances of the middle sections. It is, however, clearly a fun work to perform and an egalitarian one that requires no principal dancers.

With some fine exceptions (notably Cornejo and Julie Kent’s Caroline) this was a programme not so well performed as the opening mixed bill but I expect the effects of jetlag will swept away over the coming days. In any event, it is worth seeing for Lilac Garden alone.

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