American Ballet Theatre opens in lively style with short blasts from the recent past

Thu Apr 15, 2010 at 12:06 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

ABT dancers in Paul Taylor’s “Company B.” Photo: Gene Schiavone

It seemed like old times Wednesday at the opening performance of American Ballet Theatre’s five-day run at the Civic Opera House.

Two decades ago, Chicago dance lovers could count on virtually annual visits by the company—usually in the dead of winter, usually including programs of new, mixed repertoire and/or full-length classics.

True, the weather was freakishly balmy Wednesday night, and ABT was back in town after skipping a Chicago engagement last year. But Wednesday’s program of works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Jerome Robbins was a welcome break from the company’s habit of bringing mainly full-length ballets to Chicago in recent years.

The mixed bill of contemporary works was a one-night-only event; Swan Lake moves in Thursday night for seven performances through Sunday. But it offered an exciting chance to see the company’s strong crop of dancers in something more modern than period tales about swan queens, Shakespeare’s doomed lovers or sleeping beauties.

The evening opened with Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations, which had its premiere in 2001, followed by Taylor’s Company B, a 1991 piece set to fizzy songs from the 1940s by the Andrew Sisters. Robbins’  Fancy Free, a classic about three sailors on shore leave choreographed in 1944 to Leonard Bernstein’s bouncy score, closed the evening.

Gillian Murphy and corps in Tharp’s “The Brahms-Haydn Variations.” Photo: Gene Schiavone

Brahms-Haydn was an ideal curtain-raiser, a golden-hued, exultant work for 30 dancers that re-introduced us to ABT’s stars as well as its confident, polished corps de ballet. As is typical with Tharp, the choreography is a constantly moving tapestry, with soloists and couples emerging from the general throng to seize the spotlight briefly before melting back into the wind-swept crowd. It is an hommage of sorts to classical ballet, however, and the dancers tossed off their complicated lifts and dazzling spins with noble grace.

Some dancers among the lead couples–Gillian Murphy and Jose Manuel Carreno, Julie Kent and Sascha Radetsky, Michele Wiles and Cory Stearns—will be starring in ABT’s Swan Lake. Driven by Brahms’ romantic score, their luxurious lunges and space-devouring leaps promised good things to come in the ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s equally rhapsodic music.

In Company B, the spirit of the 1940s—the high energy of jive dancing set against the distant but disturbing anguish of wartime—emerged in glorious detail. Girls in pedal pushers, their long pony tails swinging, flirted with boys in pleated pants and shirts with rolled-up short sleeves. Bopping along to the goofy rhythms of Pennsylvania Polka and Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!, they looked like the fresh-faced, eager teens of vintage Coca-Cola ads. With his geeky glasses and toothy grin, Craig Salstein was an endearing showoff in Oh Johnny.

But the shadows in Taylor’s chorography were deftly painted as well. In the final section–a reprise of Bei Mir Bist du Schoen, which opened the ballet—everything slowed down. The dancers’ lunges were longer and deeper, their arms reached with more longing, their legs seemed to melt under them as they slowly sank to the ground. Never heavy-handed, the choreography reminded us that youth, like life, is fleeting and should be celebrated.

The three sailors of Fancy Free—Daniil Simkin, Carlos Lopez and Sascha Radetsky—were endearing as they tried to impress each other and the girls who happened by with their full-split leaps and flashy turns. But their dancing needed a bit more snap to bring their distinct personalities into sharper focus. In contrast, the lead girls, saucy Maria Riccetto and lyrical Isabella Boylston, were fully formed characters from the first flash of their killer long legs.

American Ballet Theater presents Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Thursday through Sunday.; 800-982-2787.

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