Wednesday, October 30, 2019

ABT Showcases Royalty

Herman Cornejo in A Gathering of Ghosts. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Twyla Tharp has been one of ABT’s consistent choreographic contributors, ever more so during the company’s brief fall Koch season. A Gathering of Ghosts, created to Herman Cornejo, celebrating 20 years with ABT, was the key premiere in the run. Cornejo “hosts” a cavalcade of guests, purportedly historical figures or metaphors—Louis XIV, Greased Lighting, Proust—and possibly facets or reflections of his own being. They swan on, perform showy passages while interacting with Cornejo (or not), and swan off. Cornejo is repeatedly ignored or slighted, and in this vacuum of indifference, he takes the opportunity to let loose and show off. It could be an analogy for his whole career, in which his lack of ego moved him to the background, only for his raw talent and appeal to refocus the spotlight on him.

The “ghosts’” movements don’t seem particularly demonstrative of characteristics; perhaps the work demands a second viewing to discern them. But it gives Tharp a reason to play with Cornejo and other superb dancers, mixing in sections for the women in flat and pointe shoes, pairing up company members in interesting ways. Mostly, it is a gift to Cornejo, and thus to us. 
Tharp’s longtime collaborator Norma Kamali designed the variegated costumes, primarily black and silver—shorts, jackets, tulle skirts for both genders—plus two amazing flared-leg jumpsuits, and a parachute-like regal cape with a train for Cornejo, donned only for one ceremonial coronation in the closing scene. 

The ballet world would never admit to being “size-ist,” against shorter dancers, but if you’re male, it’s a smoother path to advance given the same basic skills if you’re 6’, versus 5’6”. Thus Cornejo has also silently fought his height in his rise through the ranks, which was actually quite rapid (see Marina Harss’ profile on him). Nonetheless, his quiet confidence, warmth, unaffected manner, and sensuousness have combined to make him one of ABT’s most admired men. He is one of a handful from his generation who never fails to reach audiences’ hearts.

I want to like Tharp's Deuce Coupe (1973) more. Is it the scratchy sounding Beach Boys recordings that grates? The ever-present White Ballerina noodling around aimlessly in her perfect, careful arabesques? The faux funk of Tharp’s jazzy style? The hideous loud mens’ costumes by Santo Loquasto? The 19 sections? I appreciate seeing all these broken rules on ABT at the Koch (and last summer at the Met), but I don’t need to see it again for a few years.

Calvin Royal III in Apollo. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
Other repertory included Let Me Sing Forevermore (2019) by Jessica Lang, to songs sung by Tony Bennett. Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside performed it wearing Bradon McDonald’s (Mark Morris Dance Group! Project Runway!) skater-inspired midnight blue separates. It’s a pop confection, with sassy interactions and athletic feats. It was paired with Clark Tippett’s Some Assembly Required (1989), a bit more somber and long, with even more strenuous lifts and shows of strength by Roman Zhurbin with Skylar Brandt. These two deserving and less-sung soloists had a chance to show off their wares. Zhurbin is so often in character roles that it’s easy to forget how well he can dance, and Brandt sparkles in allegro and precision.

When Balanchine’s Apollo is listed in repertory, casting of the lead role is the main deal. This season, the big buzz surrounded Calvin Royal III, a fast rising soloist whose name-appropriate regal bearing destined him to perform the part, here with Hee Seo, Christine Shevchenko, and Zhong-Jing Fang. Royal fits the concept of confident, curious youth, open to the inspiration lent by the muses. He has large, enormously expressive hands which add a flourish to each gesture. While it seemed like a bit more rehearsal time would benefit his performance, he rendered an inspiring and warm Apollo, presaging optimistism and creativity.

Remarkably, in the cast of this original version with the birth scene, five of seven performers were non-white. Thus is the nature of the current company, ever more diverse and less star driven than past decades, and continuing its lengthy partnership with Twyla Tharp. 

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