Lake Inferior

Troubled waters: ABT dancers in Kevin McKenzie's lavish take on Swan Lake.Photo: Mira

American Ballet Theatre’s new version of Swan Lake served as the company’s chief attention-getter for its current season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The work of ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, a man of sweet reasonableness, this Lake keeps one eye on tradition, offering up familiar passages of the Petipa and Ivanov choreography that give the ballet its status as a classic. It keeps its other eye, vigilantly, on what today’s audience presumably demands: a tale of sorts (though narrative logic and emotional truth aren’t necessarily required), lavish costumes and scenery, a speedy pace, and – above all – take-your-breath-away athleticism. Everywhere in this production, whether the occasion calls for it or not, some gorgeous guys with disarming smiles are jumping and turning like crazy.

Though he nods to the past with graceful respect in the overall atmosphere of his staging, McKenzie sacrifices far too much in catering to contemporary taste. Gone, in the first act, which depicts Prince Siegfried’s home life, are the mime and social dancing that lent perspective to the ballet’s classical element. Siegfried’s yearning for something beyond the possibilities of the real world – for the realm of dreams and desire that is provided in Act Two by the lakeside milieu with its enchanted swan maidens – makes little sense if his court has already co-opted the exalted language of classicism. But what with mime and psychological motivation largely missing, the Siegfried of McKenzie’s creation doesn’t seem to have much of a problem. When this mild-mannered, generally affable fellow belatedly turns a bit melancholy, you wonder why.

McKenzie’s other big omission is unconscionable. The extended lament danced by the ensemble of swan maidens – set to some of Tchaikovsky’s most haunting music for this ballet – has been excised. For what reason? Because it prevents the narrative from plunging ahead? Because it makes the performance longer than folks equipped with cell phones have patience for? Not only is the plangent poetry of this section one of the sublime beauties of Swan Lake, but the material is crucial to the work’s structural balance. I don’t know which is more dismaying – the idea that McKenzie may not realize this or the more likely idea that he does know the truth and chooses, expediently, to ignore it.

With the revival of the 1936 Jardin aux Lilas, ABT made one of its periodic dutiful but insufficient efforts to salvage the work of Antony Tudor, the choreographer who once shaped the company’s identity as a theatrical enterprise concerned with the drama of human feeling. The production of this threnody for lost love was staged by Sallie Wilson, a longtime Tudor interpreter, who shouldn’t be blamed for the ballet’s failure to thrive. The entire culture in which Tudor operated – a world where the inner life was paramount, where integrity and tenderness mattered – has vanished and is commonly held to be of no account. Jardin’s latest performers seem bent solely on rendering the choreography accurately, down to the last angle of the wrist, as if they’re defying you to reproach them for neglecting their heritage. The result of this strategy is that every phrase, every gesture, gets equal value; there’s no modulation, and nothing is freighted with emotion, let alone significance.

If Tudor’s ballets are to have a continued place and an ongoing resonance in the ABT canon, the company needs to devote itself to the handful of masterworks in its care. This means mounting and maintaining in repertory more than one of the ballets at a time, so that Tudor’s world has a substantial presence in the wider ABT universe. It means choosing for these productions performers who are attuned to dramatic dancing and immersing these interpreters in the choreography – not merely in the text of movements that has been scrupulously notated but also in the turn of mind from which the steps are sprung. The unlikeliness of this project strikes me even as I write. The cost of the rehearsal time required for in-depth study would appear extravagant with no commercial payoff in sight. Such an undertaking would presuppose, too, the existence of an audience still susceptible to Tudor’s concerns. I’m afraid our numbers are too few.

Twyla Tharp, ABT’s press releases note with a seeming mix of pride and incredulity, has contributed more ballets to the company’s rep than any other single choreographer. Her latest creation, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, named for its Brahms score, is the eighteenth to be added, the fourteenth commissioned by the company, and it’s an absorbing example of Tharp’s particular concerns and skills. The piece wrestles with the familiar setup of nineteenth-century classical ballet – a world comprising ensemble, soloists, and principal dancers, each rank functioning according to the rules laid down for it. It manages to keep these still-relevant distinctions without undue dependence on common ordering devices like symmetry and hierarchical pomp.

As is her custom, Tharp assails you with far more than you can take in. You’re on your own in finding your focus; she refuses to direct your gaze with conventional tactics such as placing the most consequential activity dead center with plenty of empty space around it. Instead she offers the modern perception of life – the Merce Cunningham worldview, if you will – in which myriad seemingly unrelated happenings are juxtaposed without judgment as to their relative importance. A couple at the critical moment of its loving or warring relationship exists in the matrix of an ever-flowing crowd bent on its own pursuits. The piece is studded with brief duets, each one deftly embodying an aspect of human connection, each shrewdly placed in the structure of the dance to look like a random occurrence.

The inhabitants of this territory speak the familiar Tharp-invented patois. It plays vernacular and jazz moves against the artificed elegance of the classical-dance language, deriving its most startling oddities from rendering a codified ballet move inside out, upside down, or off-kilter. These inventions are often more intellectually tantalizing than visually or physically gratifying, to be sure, but without them Tharp could not convey her simultaneously loving and belligerent message.

Lake Inferior