Friday, May 24, 2013

ABT—Short and Sweet

Hee Seo in A Month in the Country. Photo: Marty Sohl
American Ballet Theatre is, at heart, defined by its full-length story ballets, most of them classics done last century or the one before that. It's slowly adding new ballets, but the resources it takes to create a new one are prohibitive, not to mention the risk involved. But one of the profound pleasures of following the company is to watch its shorter works programs, usually reserved for the company's sporadic and brief fall runs, but gaining a toehold in its traditional two-month spring Met Opera run.

It just ended four performances of a combo platter: Mark Morris' Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes (1987), Frederick Ashton's A Month in the Country, and Balanchine's Symphony in C. The program proved to be a terrific balance stylistically and temporally. Morris' sweeping cross-stage passages chased Virgil Thomson's solo piano lines (played by Barbara Bilach) like butterflies, the phrases sweeping with longuer or clicking together. It balanced Symphony in C, a study of musical and dynamic contrasts to Bizet. Each of its four sections has such a distinct characteristic that, while abstract, its casting reveals as much about the dancers chosen as if it were Romeo & Juliet. Of particular note were Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes imbuing the adagio second movement with great import and maturity, and Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in the third movement, playfully trading ever higher grand jetés.

Hee Seo and David Hallberg in A Month in the Country. Photo: Marty Sohl
The Ashton, based on a story by Turgenev and originally done for London's Royal Ballet in 1976, was a company premiere, and a lovely addition to ABT's short rep. Its exaggerated costumes (designed, as were the sets, by Julia Trevelyan Oman)—frilly petticoats for the women, borderline garish striped and plaid jackets and pants for the gents—vibrate within the multi-layered set that leads us from inside to out, with all the metaphorical implications therein. The eight characters in this domestic soap interlock like a puzzle: Natalia (Hee Seo) and her husband, their son, her ward, admirer, and two servants. 

The arrival of a tutor (Beliaev), danced by David Hallberg, disrupts Natalia's status as the sun around which the household revolves; he captures the hearts of the three women in varying capacities, as the object of the ward's (Sarah Lane) crush, a playful companion for the maid (Simone Messmer), and a fully blossoming romance with Natalia. The dance passages are mellifluous and fragrant (if somewhat confined by the set), great attention is paid to echoing and complimentary lines, which both Seo and Hallberg have in spades. But it's the small gestures and details that transform a sketch into a story: imbuing personal objects with emotional resonance (a shawl, a basket, a dress' ribbons), the foreboding of absence and longing, the fragile network of human relationships so easily sent spinning. 

ABT returns to the chestnut canon with Don Quixote.

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