Don’t Look Back

Alessandra Ferri in the title role of ABT's Anastasia. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Oddly, American Ballet Theatre saved most of its novelties for the end of its eight-week season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The showiest of these items was the program-length Anastasia, Kenneth MacMillan’s 1971 creation for England’s Royal Ballet, being given its ABT premiere. The work began life in 1967 as a short modern-style ballet (angles, agony, Bohuslav Martinu score); it dealt with the nightmare existence of Anna Anderson, who believed herself to be the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, saved from her family’s massacre by the Bolsheviks. This material subsequently became a surreal third act, prefaced by two acts of easier-to-take stuff: plangent Tchaikovsky music; depictions of aristocratic idylls, undercut until the last moment by only incidental rumblings of dissent; parades of luscious costumes; contrived setups for displays of conventional classical dance.

The two parts of the work remain uneasily joined, and neither is altogether satisfying. MacMillan had a vivid imagination, ignited by an erotic glamour he found in death, but he wasn’t able (as his countryman Antony Tudor was) to transform the classical vocabulary into a means of fervent, multi-layered expression. The choreography for Anastasia fails, moreover, to recount its rooted-in-history narrative intelligibly, and apart from the title role, the characters are merely sketched in. Still, in the anachronistic genre of long, elaborate twentieth-century story-ballets, the piece offers more pleasures than many of the put-up jobs dance fans are subjected to.

I saw Alessandra Ferri as the heroine. While she couldn’t equal the raw theatrical intensity brought to the role by its originator, Lynn Seymour (who could?), she has a gift for febrile melodrama that found a perfect outlet here. As the adolescent grand duchess, Ferri displayed an appetite for life that blended childish exuberance with a budding, minxish sexuality; as the emotionally tortured Anna Anderson, she was an icon of desolate isolation. The production as a whole, staged from Benesh notation by Monica Parker, was gratifyingly polished. The soloists and ensemble performed with elegance and style in assignments they may well not have found thrilling.

Presumably, the adventurous segment of ABT’s audience was served by the program comprising the revivals of three ballets in a more contemporary vein. On ABT’s dancers, Paul Taylor’s 1978 Airs (to ravishing music by Handel) lacks the weight, texture, and subtle undermining of the merely beautiful that Taylor’s own modern-dance troupe brings to it. Still, it is the most balletic of Taylor’s works, and Susan McGuire and the dancers on whom she mounted it applied themselves to their task with sensitivity and intelligence. Twyla Tharp’s 1976 Push Comes to Shove (which intercuts Haydn with ragtime) was created for ABT; it’s a typical example of what’s known as “crossover” choreography. It’s also about a company like ABT, reveling in the beauties and absurdities of a grand dance institution with a highly eclectic repertory. In the leading role originally built on Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ethan Stiefel looked like a boy trying to master an important lesson – that of appearing offhand while executing disjunctive virtuoso feats with precision timing. He’ll never equal Baryshnikov, but he’ll no doubt loosen up some. I thought Susan Jaffe and Amanda McKerrow were miscast as the female leads: The contrast between them in physical type is insufficient, and they lack an instinct for the sublimely ridiculous, which the piece demands. Jirí Kylián’s 1991 Stepping Stones (to music by Cage and Webern) belongs to that European school of portentous modern ballet for which many an American dance observer finds little patience. Let’s just say the production looked terribly chic and pregnant with would-be significance and let it go at that.

Don’t Look Back