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Heart Trouble

The nature of love inspires new American Ballet Theatre pieces by Lar Lubovitch (light and happy) and John Neumeier (not).

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Meadow lark: Lubovitch's latest ABT commission.  

In the final moment of Lar Lubovitch's Meadow, commissioned by American Ballet Theatre for its recent mixed-repertory programs at the City Center, the delicate maiden, tenderly cradled in her worshiper's arms, suddenly, without shifting position, soars weightlessly upward into the heavens. (Flying by Foy, of course.) The ballet is a paean to an early-adolescent fantasy about love -- all quivering pastel sentiment -- that lurks in the heart of many patrons older and wiser enough to know better (or at least more). Judging from the trajectory of his work, I can see that Lubovitch has, with Meadow, perfectly achieved his vision of romance. The ballet -- set to a mix of composers including Schubert and placed in an ingeniously contrived cloudscape -- makes its point concisely, coherently, and prettily. What dismays me is that a man of Lubovitch's experience and intelligence would not have evolved a richer, truer, and thus more sophisticated dream.

The ballet's central couple (Sandra Brown and Keith Roberts) emerge from a community of fluidly wafting bodies clad in drifting unisex costumes stained raspberry and turquoise. Lubovitch's symbiotic signature device dominates the movement: Individual figures seem to be parts of a single large organism. Watching their action diffuse and cohere again is like looking at a Lava lamp that has undergone a makeover, its blobbiness converted to an ineffable lyricism. Predictably, in the main duet for the lovers, the young man alternately draws his inamorata to him, molding her as if she were clay in his hands, and swings her outward in sapling-in-spring shapes. Throughout the ballet, everything is transient; nothing is stabilized -- it's all free-flow. The goings-on and the ideals behind them -- love, peace, communality, ecstasy, the beatitude of youth -- belong to the Zeitgeist that shaped Lubovitch's aesthetic some three decades back. Apparently these principles are still a valid part of America's perpetual innocence.

John Neumeier's Getting Closer, another commission, fortuitously offered the converse of Lubovitch's rhapsodic attitude -- with even less satisfying results. To a score by Ned Rorem, Neumeier preaches his familiar sermon about the impossibility of establishing sound one-on-one relationships in our fraught, dark times. (An American, Neumeier has found his artistic home in Europe, where he is much appreciated.) Getting Closer suggests these circumstances just as a subtext; the ballet, in contemporary fashion, purports to be largely abstract. Three couples are featured: Angel Corella with Julie Kent (she at her most tremulous and forlorn), Brown with Roberts, and the glowingly competent Oksana Konobeyeva with Griff Braun. When the male-female pairs aren't demonstrating strident misalliance or hopeless anomie, they confront one another as units destined for mutual inscrutability. Corella and Roberts also grapple in a gratuitous Cain and Abel encounter. As usual, Neumeier's vocabulary harps on the contrast between graceful, harmonic classical moves and their discordant opposites, an issue that decades ago exhausted any interest it might have held. All I can say in favor of this dance is that it is less hermetic and long-drawn-out than your typical Neumeier effort and that, for once, the choreographer isn't leaning on Mahler or Bach.

Traditionally known for its eclectic repertoire, ABT enhanced that reputation with a scrupulous staging of Robert Joffrey's Pas des Déeses. At the time of its creation in the mid-fifties, this delightful piece looked back more than a century, evoking -- with tender, charming, yet ever so slightly mocking nostalgia -- the heyday of the Romantic ballet. The goddesses of the title are three sublime ballerinas of the age, "the languorous Grahn, the darting Cerrito and the floating Taglioni," as the program note characterizes them; their all-purpose cavalier, Arthur Saint-Léon, completes the quartet. The choreography evokes the ladies' specialties, their lethally polite rivalry, and, most important, the filigreed yet dazzling nature of Romantic-era technique. The first cast was distinguished by Yan Chen's performance as Cerrito. Until now, the undeniably capable Chen seemed to me too doll-like -- porcelain, mechanical. On this occasion, she broke through to the impassioned wildness of a creature drawn to a realm far beyond the world that can be attained via proficiency and control. This was moth-to-flame dancing, and there's nothing so thrilling.

Chen was also the sole participant to do justice to her role in another significant company acquisition, Martha Graham's 1948 Diversion of Angels, one of the most appealing works in the modern-dance canon. Staged cleanly by the former Graham star Takako Asakawa, the piece is not yet viscerally understood by its ABT performers. Classical ballet emphasizes the work of the limbs, freeze-frame images of exquisitely sculpted shapes, and independence of gravity's pull. Graham technique is all gut-sprung action in complicity with the ground -- and, ideally, the psyche. Apart from the small, swift Chen, who had the advantage of being typecast as the quicksilver woman in yellow, the ABT people achieved no more than a creditable pictorial reproduction of the choreography, as if they had learned it through videotape images that they'd conscientiously superimposed upon their bodies. There's no way, though, that Graham can be authentically rendered by working from the outside in.

Overall, the men in the company grow more and more admirable, and the audience's appreciation of them is keeping pace. America's receptivity to male dancers -- a welcome corrective for its adulation of the ballerina at her counterpart's expense -- has been expanding since Nureyev and Baryshnikov first astonished us. For a long time, the general public's enthusiasm for male dancing centered on virtuosity, which the two Russian stars amply demonstrated, though it was just one facet of their remarkable artistry. Now viewers, grown more sophisticated, show themselves sensitive to both aspects of male dancing -- the athletically amazing and the emotionally resonant. In this climate, the very human qualities of Keith Roberts make him a star. For the same reason, the Apollonian Ethan Stiefel, all pure, precise technique, widens his capabilities by probing dramatic character in the title role of Billy the Kid. And Jose Manuel Carreño, the perfect example of prodigious derring-do matched with a unique, complex, and utterly seductive temperament, easily cops the title of Best in Show.


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