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Floor Exercise

In this fall's ABT season, Stanton Welch's new Clear, with its men's-gymnastics-style dancing, looks murky next to a revival of Antony Tudor's Dim Lustre.

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Straight and narrow: ABT dancers in Stanton Welch's Clear.  

Stanton Welch, an Australian choreographer currently popular in the classical-ballet world, knows what his audience craves and handily provides it. For American Ballet Theatre's autumn season at the City Center, he concocted Clear, which caters to the lust for male-virtuoso display that ABT has cultivated in its public. Set to Bach selections already familiar from having dances attached to them, the piece employs seven dazzling guys -- among them, Angel Corella, Marcelo Gomes, Maxim Belotserkovsky, and Sascha Radetsky -- to create a perpetual-motion machine. The turns multiply, the jumps soar, the leaps sail -- with every step and step combination revved up to stop just short of the humanly impossible.

This much, dashingly executed, is pure circus. But Welch and, no doubt, ABT aspire to art as well. So Clear is furnished with a not-so-subtle subtext. The second movement of the piece, a soulful adagio with lots of echoing phrases for Gomes (huge, dark, slow-moving, and sensuous) and Belotserkovsky (blond and elfin, with a poetic air), suggests a male love relationship. When Julie Kent, the lone woman in the cast, intrudes upon it, it dissipates and finally dissolves. The Olympic-gymnastics stuff takes over again until Kent returns in the final section to commandeer Corella, who's now leading the pyrotechnical antics, as her partner in a heterosexual romance that freezes out his earlier companions. I call this proposition politically incorrect, to say nothing of banal. Yet 99 percent of the first-night audience, drunk on bravura, stood up and screamed its delight.

More substance was provided by the company's first attempt to dance Balanchine's Symphony in C, created in 1947 for the Paris Opera Ballet and subsequently, for more than a half-century, a New York City Ballet signature piece. ABT's production, staged by NYCB veterans Victoria Simon and John Taras, has all the right ideas. It doesn't seem to have the right dancers, but that's understandable. The ABT ensemble is groomed in an all-purpose classical style that allows for lush and languid sculptural effects. It is naturally ill equipped to deliver the NYCB specialty of crisp articulation that is musically phrased even at top speed. And ABT's dancers, accustomed by much of their eclectic repertory to "interpret" their roles, consciously applying attitudes and sentiments to the steps, are at a disadvantage when confronted with the Balanchinean requirement of an objective approach, one that trusts the movement itself to convey any necessary emotional implications. That said, ABT can at this point be praised for choosing a ballet that will reward every effort the company puts into it. If the casting of the eight leading roles was uneven -- in many cases, incomprehensible -- there were still several distinguished performances, notably from Nina Ananiashvili. As the ballerina in the sublime second movement, she was eloquence personified.

Another welcome addition to the repertory was a splendid revival of Antony Tudor's 1943 Dim Lustre. Set to Richard Strauss's fervid Burleske in D minor, the ballet depicts an encounter in an Edwardian ballroom, here given an effective hallucinatory design by Zack Brown. A man and a woman on the brink of an affair experience flashbacks -- Proustian in nature, though more vehement in tone -- of indelible episodes in their separate romantic pasts. The power of nostalgia vanquishes the perennial siren song of hope and they part, witnessed by a stilled anonymous couple, the only other figures remaining from a hectic, swirling dance that has suddenly vanished. While not among Tudor's very greatest works, Dim Lustre is distinguished for its heady atmosphere and psychological acumen as well as for its movement invention and musicality. It is so much more sophisticated than contemporary items like Clear, the comparison is almost pointless.

American Ballet Theatre
At the City Center.


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