Posted on February 20, 2012
American Ballet Theatre, The Kennedy Center, Washington DC – February 3–5, 2012
Tucked away in a Saturday afternoon matinée at the centre of a weekend mini-season of Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère, padded out on either side by more experienced casts, came a trio of debuts in the leading roles. This protective programming, though understandable, proved an unnecessary precaution for Vadim Muntagirov’s first outing, both with American Ballet Theatre and in this ballet. Americans might describe his guest appearance as a “try-out” but they will never need to do so again, since it was a spectacular debut in every sense, closely matched by Hee Seo’s first reading of the Temple Dancer, Nikiya. Muntagirov is already confirmed for more performances in ABT’s New York “Met” Season, early this summer; reprising the role of Solor with Seo and partnering Irina Dvorovenko in Swan Lake. Given the lack of strength in depth within ABT’s cohort of male principals (even worse than The Royal Ballet’s current predicament in the same department), it seems that English National Ballet will now be sharing their star danseur across the Atlantic (and elsewhere) on a regular basis.
Muntagirov commanded the stage with a maturity that belies his 21 years and the comparative inexperience that comes with such youth. The character of Solor is rarely absent from the stage and Muntagirov enters early in the first scene, on his return from the hunt (having slain an enormous tiger) with all the imperious mannerisms of that deadly warrior. There are no half-hearted gestures here but strong, heroic statements. This emphasis carried through into his dancing, where each multiple pirouette slowed into a perfect balance and every jump achieved remarkable elevation; cabrioles, assemblés, jetés en tournant and double tours delivered with impeccable technique and timing. It was only when required to jump in time with Isabella Boylston’s Gamzatti at the beginning of their betrothal pas de deux that matters went awry but, as they say, it “takes two to tango”. Boylston had been excellent until this point, but the pas de deux went badly wrong for her, as she appeared to rush from receiving applause into the fouettés of her variation and fell badly at the end. These things happen, but I feel that the orchestra’s attempt to set new records with the breakneck speed of its tempi didn’t help any of the dancers. Boylston was clearly hurt by the nasty fall, and it seemed likely that she would have to be replaced but, to her credit, she persevered (in well-disguised pain) unto the end and didn’t put another foot wrong.
For all that Muntagirov shone, his brilliance was reflected right back by a sensual, flowing gem of a performance by Hee Seo, a Korean who joined ABT in 2005 and was promoted to soloist in 2010. It was a partnership that worked effectively from first to last and a piece of inspired casting by Kevin McKenzie (ABT’s long-serving artistic director – a description that goes with the role since the company has effectively had only four directors in 70 plus years). Hee Seo is tall, with long, elegant legs and arms that taper into beautifully shaped hands and fingers. She is a svelte, cool dancer from whom emotion isn’t shouted through expression but meltingly delivered through her timing and movement. A dancer to savour, and a partnership with great potential, the couple will reprise these roles at the Metropolitan Opera House on May 23 and 26, 2012.
A partnership now in full flow is that between Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes, who performed as Nikiya and Solor on the Saturday evening. Part is a consummate ballerina, schooled in the Vaganova tradition of St Petersburg and through her ongoing coaching by the former Kirov ballerina, Irina Kolpakova. Part was once described by Clement Crisp as “a divinity in exile”, four words that I could not possibly top. Her adagio dancing is certainly of another world, and although there were moments in this performance where she appeared tired, it was worth the trip alone to catch Part in one of her finest roles. Gomes delivers dramatic impact and expressiveness but I disliked his reinvention of the choreography in Solor’s variations, which seemed an unnecessary indulgence.
The mini-season included two performances by Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera in the lead roles and, although I found the first of these lacklustre, their second was a huge improvement. The pair dealt unassumingly with a serious costume malfunction in the first scene that temporarily hooked them together before ripping a large hole in Herrera’s body lycra, thus exposing rather more of Nikiya than we are used to seeing. Stearns is growing as a dancer, but his was the least warrior-like of the three Solors and he still needs to develop a more commanding stage presence. Herrera is a ballerina at the opposite end of the spectrum to Part: not ethereal, but earthy, sexy and supremely dynamic. At 36, Herrera still exudes an enjoyment of dance that is not always evident in leading ballerinas, and she remains a joy to watch.
None of the three dancers impressed in the Gamzatti role. Each conveyed the surly, sultry attitude of the Rajah’s daughter but only Simone Messmer danced through the steps without accident – and only at the expense of being less convincing, although her betrothal pas de deux with Stearns was the most together of the three. In addition to Boylston’s mishap, Stella Abrera struggled with her variation and, off balance, was forced into turning the final fouetté into a limp pirouette.
I’m sorry to say that one or two of the male soloists in the betrothal dances seemed bulky enough to make a guest appearance in the Superbowl that happened in Indianapolis on the following day, and there were many noisy and heavy landings amongst the female dancers in the pas d’action and d’jampe dance. Against this, the corps de ballet was suitably mesmeric in the Kingdom of Shades scene, which notably improved in timing, uniformity and balance over the four performances. It was especially pleasing to see a girl from my home county of Bedfordshire, Gemma Bond – the former Royal Ballet dancer – as a leading Shade, setting the example of an unwavering balance in those two deadly high arabesques that follow on from the Shades’ exhausting procession down the ramp and onto the stage.
Injuries took their toll amongst the male dancers, leading to cast changes at each performance. The most notable absentee was Daniil Simkin, and his role as the Bronze Idol was substituted by mixing and matching across the three casts. Joseph Phillips, the only dancer not scheduled to dance the role, was the one who impressed me most.
My overwhelming impression of the ABT Bayadère is that it looks tired – and indeed the costumes largely appear to be unchanged since Makarova’s production entered the ABT repertory in May 1980. It is a mistake to dance all of Acts II and III behind the gauze curtain, which both negates the effect of Solor’s opium-induced dream and restricts the vision of important detail in the later scenes. Nevertheless, it remains a classic and I saw with my own eyes how delighted Makarova was with her new cast. There is no doubting that she, and America, has uncovered a new star in Muntagirov.
Top Vadim Muntagirov in La Bayadère. Photograph: Gene Schiavone