What’s the Pointe?

At the end of the opening-night performance of the Aspen Sante Fe Ballet, the company members lined up across the stage of the Joyce and took bow after bow while the audience clapped and cheered. This was as it should be, for their New York debut had gone without a hitch. But the best moment of the performance—the only moment that showed us something beyond technique and athleticism—didn’t come until well into the bowing and clapping, when the company’s two directors emerged from the wings. Both men were laden with flowers, and they walked along the line of dancers giving each one a bouquet and a warm embrace. The substance of what they were saying was so clear it might have been projected in a supertitle: “You’re the greatest! This is New York! We’re incredibly proud!” One by one, each face lit up; and for the first time all night, the stage was full of feeling. Suddenly, this young company had revealed its personality.

Ideally, of course, we’d have glimpsed that personality somewhat earlier. But directors Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker, who founded the company seven years ago, seem to be facing the same problem that plagues better-known troupes: Where are the choreographers? Three of the four pieces on the program were simply incoherent. From the meaningless flourishes that clog Dwight Rhoden’s Ave Maria to the madwoman who claws the air and screams in Dominique Dumais’s sans detour to the silly mannerisms in Nicolo Fonte’s Vertical Dream, none of these works deserved the intelligence the company was plainly trying to apply to them.

The fourth, and the clear audience favorite, was Moses Pendleton’s Noir Blanc, which is set to New Age music and performed behind a scrim, through which we see slim, nebulous white mannequins doing all sorts of gravity-defying movements—tilting, floating, sailing, turning upside-down, and so forth. It’s pleasantly eerie for the first few minutes; after that, the white figures just keep tilting and floating and tilting until I, at least, thought I would lose my mind. Finally the scrim goes up to reveal the performers in half-black, half-white costumes, which account for the illusion. Noir Blanc is a work very much in the spirit of Pilobolus, where Pendleton began his career, and Momix, the company he runs now. Both troupes have legions of fans, who are certain to like Noir Blanc more than I did. They can catch it at Jacob’s Pillow, where the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet will be performing from July 9 to 13.

American Ballet Theatre is luckier than Aspen Santa Fe and many other companies, for its mission is to live in the past, where it can neatly sidestep the choreographer problem. Night after night during ABT’s spring season at the Met, the curtain went up on village squares filled with rollicking peasants, sylvan glades overflowing with gypsies, ballrooms packed with royalty and jesters, bright mornings and moonlit midnights, birthday parties and funeral processions and harvest festivals, and endless miles of yesteryear’s ballet. ABT is full of firecrackers these days, all of them expert at tearing into sky-high leaps, flirtatious spins and kicks, whirling fouettes, treacherous balances on pointe, ardent lifts, and camera-ready triumphant conclusions. Few companies anywhere could have pulled off such an homage to nostalgia so brilliantly, and if the dry-ice smoke rolling across the stage made this week’s fantasy sequence hard to distinguish from last week’s, never mind. The people have spoken; in fact, they’ve shouted Bravo! until they’re hoarse; they love the classics.

Now and then, to be sure, even ABT has to bring new work onboard, a challenge that artistic director Kevin McKenzie evidently meets by shutting his eyes and wishing hard. What else could explain Artemis? This peculiar ballet by Lar Lubovitch opens with maidens and satyrs dancing in a ring, the satyrs dressed in furry little pants with tails, and ends with a vision of Artemis and her beloved as golden constellations in the night sky. Not good.

But McKenzie was smart enough to program Artemis with work that showed ABT doing what it does best, and gloriously. First we had Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, traveling so lightly across Tudor’s fragile pas de deux from The Leaves Are Fading that they seemed to distill it rather than dance it. Then came Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carreño, twin tornadoes in the Don Quixote pas de deux, dripping with glamour. And finally we were treated to The Dream, Frederick Ashton’s one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, made in 1964 for the Royal Ballet and first performed by ABT last year. If Shakespeare had been a choreographer, here is the ballet he would have created. (And if he could have cast Alessandra Ferri and Ethan Stiefel as Titania and Oberon, Herman Cornejo as Puck, and Julio Bragado-Young as Bottom, he surely would have.) Unlike, say, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, which ABT also performed this season, The Dream is true to its source without stooping to the literal. Ashton simply summons the images right off the page and sets them free to dance. Puck’s glorious, ornate leaps are the poetry; the fairies rushing around the glen all atilt are the poetry; Bottom prancing on pointe, in bliss, is the poetry.

Shakespeare also prompted the only tears I saw being wiped away at a ballet performance this spring—Shakespeare, and Jerome Robbins. The dances from West Side Story, which Robbins arranged into a suite for the New York City Ballet, made a welcome return toward the end of the City Ballet season. At the finale, when the dancers gather onstage and sing “Somewhere” in their plaintive, untrained voices, they’re standing in pools of blood we can almost see, trying to believe in better times and places. Who isn’t, these days? The New York State Theater was packed, the sniffles were audible, and the ovation seemed to burst from the very heart of the city.

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What’s the Pointe?