Saturday, July 7, 2012

Ethan Stiefel's Adieu—a Slave is Set Free

Bye, Ethan. Thanks. (Ethan Stiefel as Ali. Photo: Hidemi Seto)
ABT's 2012 Met season drew to a close with a week of Le Corsaire, your quintessential pirate ballet. Corsaire is such a rowdy tongue-in-cheek celebration of ballet's cliches that I can forgive many of its flaws. In this production staged by Anna-Marie Holmes after Petipa and Sergeyev, we get a clunky pirate ship (twice), a tepid score (based on Adolphe Adam's music), slave girls, and an endless, very pink dream sequence overstuffed with females and flowers. And how could we forget the very proper tutus and tiaras worn by the lead women, so appropriate to the town square and grotto settings? 

Of course, it's not like swans should be wearing tutus either, but the swan metaphor works perfectly with the art of ballet on every level (hence its nauseating overexposure in pop culture), so that leap is much easier to make. Setting aside the assessments of verismo, Corsaire is all about the second act pas de trois between the pirate Conrad, Medora ("a young Greek woman") and the slave, Ali. The two men are usually played by principals, and therein lies the delight of this ballet: having the chance to see Marcelo Gomes and Ethan Stiefel at one performance, and Cory Stearns and Ivan Vasiliev in another (plus the terrific bonus of Herman Cornejo in the role of bazaar owner).

Stiefel scheduled two performances as Ali to mark his ABT retirement; he can hence devote his full attention to running the New Zealand Ballet. (Why that company is another topic; the sheer flying miles required to fulfill such duties boggle the mind.) He had been sidelined with injuries in recent years, so it had been too long since I'd seen him. I expected to see a faded version of my memory of him, but in fact he was far stronger, fitter and more eloquent than that. Ali requires an odd combination of proudly wearing just turquoise harem pants and a feathered headband, and being completely subservient and obedient. His movement alternates between explosive jumps and cowering in humility in kind of silent film manner. Stiefel managed it all more than capably, with admirable jumps and turns.

Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Vasiliev (born in 1989 and, controversially, a recent exile with Natalia Osipova to the Mikhailkovsky Ballet from the Bolshoi) feels like a new breed of male dancer. Like Cornejo he is relatively short, and his gifts have allowed him entree to the top rank. But Cornejo is both a supreme athlete with the ballet superpowers of ballon and spin, and he is a poet. He mesmerizes with his ease and naturalness as his acting has seasoned each year. Vasiliev is all brute force and big muscles, a kind of Rocky Balboa of ballet, and people love him for that, and also that he's earnest and forthright—uncomplicated—in his acting. I used to consider Stiefel among the more athletic men, but the presence of Vasiliev redraws the scale considerably. Factor in his switch of companies as somewhat mercenary, and there are many parallels to today's free agent athletes.

As Conrad, Gomes felt three dimensional, letting a lock of his ebony hair run roguishly loose. Gillian Murphy, as Medora, possesses a note of playful irony that seems entirely appropriate, and she's always up for a display of technical fireworks. This is a backhanded compliment, but she can be too perfect—so capable that insecurity simply isn't an emotion in her palette. In contrast, Veronika Part (across from Cory Stearns) seems filled with insecurity, sometimes like a foal establishing its footing for the first time. But you can't argue that she has the most gorgeous lines and a genuinely complex internal life, and her vulnerability usually plays right into the arms of her current prince. Stearns has similarly beautiful lines and terrific loft; maturity, experience and some bulk will only add to his depth. 

ABT promotions were announced yesterday: Hee Seo is now a principal, and Alex Hammoudi a soloist. Both have been dancing principal roles this season, and Seo last year as well. She is the embodiment of refinement and delicacy, and he, a magnetic prince in the rough with prodigious physical gifts. But with the exodus of Stiefel, Corella, Carreño, and Beloserkovsky (oops—sorry, he's still on the roster, though I haven't seen his name lately), the company is now suddenly in need of male principals; I suspect Hammoudi will be slotted in above his pay grade far more often in coming seasons, until he—or others, probably recruited externally—rises to principal, alongside the few resident and handful of guest principals. 


zattere said...

I'm not sure Vasiliev is so new... Think of his namesake... Vladimir Vasiliev! The heroic proletarian, a Bolshoi specialty from Soviet times. He delivers, he's direct, he never leaves anything on the table. No wonder people love him (or hate him)!

Susan said...

Yes, true! I guess I'm thinking of the last decade at ABT. But no doubt in the history of ballet there are precedents.