at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 12-14

Beautiful dancing is seductive. Watching American Ballet Theatre perform Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta is a pleasure: the dancers’ lightness and ease in Sinfonietta’s lightning-fast leaps and changes of direction inspire a sense of wonder. Joop Caboort’s warm lighting and Walter Nobbe’s idyllic costumes and scenery–fluttery dresses with contrasting trim and hair ribbons for the women; open-necked, billowing shirts in soft pastels for the men; a bright backdrop of undulating greens and blues, projected bands of rich color–evoke youth, promise, and all that is bright and fair.

The first movement, an eruption of vibrant male energy, establishes the tone and texture of the entire work. In Sinfonietta, musical and choreographic phrases are perfectly synchronous but independent in mood, emotion, and climax. Seven men hurtle through space with unremitting force–leaping over and over with no preparations, no transitions, no accents, very few steps. We see the same movements doubled and redoubled: no dancer is ever alone on the stage for more than a moment; the ensemble is all.

And what an ensemble this is–so perfect it’s spooky. As they rocket past one another or wheel and soar in unison, the dancers are somehow isolated, alone: no eye contact, no physical contact, not the barest suggestion of relationship between them. They are as precise–and as awe-inspiring–as orbiting electrons. The first movement is a hymn to maleness, a paean to the group.

The second, third, and fourth movements focus on duets doubled and repeated; they are taut and high-strung rather than free and spirited. The men throw the women in grands jetes, tether them, cover their eyes. The women are tossed back and forth, seemingly interchangeable. The men quickly lower their partners from a supported jete to lying flat on the floor with no apparent landing or transition; they swing them around the floor, spinning the women in splits, then on their knees. Six dancers jete in unison; the women are flung to the floor; the three men continue to leap. It’s almost as if the simple presence of women encumbers the men, renders the movement earthbound. The women certainly have little to do: the movement is something done to them. Balanchine is often quoted as saying “Ballet is woman,” an attitude forcefully displayed in his choreography. Kylian’s work suggests that ballet is man.

The fifth and final movement begins and ends with the dancers facing away from the audience, equally detached from us and from one another, underscoring the cool impersonality of the dance. In between, we see wave after wave of those breathtaking transitionless leaps and a men’s ensemble section recalling the first movement.

Kylian’s work makes an interesting addition to the ABT repertoire because it doesn’t play to the company’s historic strengths–principal dancers’ virtuosity, charisma, and dramatic ability. Other works are as forceful and athletic–Tharp’s In the Upper Room and Brief Fling–but none is so faceless; not even Swan Lake can focus our attention on the company in quite this way. Sinfonietta displays the dancers as machines for dancing, the Leos Janacek score as a great engine. By giving the men the most exciting choreography and depriving them of spatial, choreographic, and psychological relationships, Kylian transforms male dancers into depersonalized divinities; women are almost inconsequential. It’s an entirely different image of dancers and dancing, an image much loved by Kylian’s sizable following and prevalent in the opera-house ballets of Europe. ABT’s superb dancing assures the success of Sinfonietta; no doubt it will be a mixed-bill staple for years to come.

Swan Lake–originally choreographed by Wenzel Reisinger in 1877, cast in the form we know by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895–is standard fare for ballet audiences everywhere. There’s a Balanchine staging, a Cranko staging, a MacMillan staging, a Neumeier, a Nureyev, a Vaganova, a Lopukhov, a Grigorovich . . . Baryshnikov staged Swan Lake for ABT in 1988, interpolating additional Tchaikovsky music and his own choreography; it featured the costumes and scenery of PierLuigi Samaritani. Since Baryshnikov’s departure, ABT has reintroduced the second act of David Blair’s 1967 staging, designed by Oliver Smith. Swan Lake is a touchstone: principals, companies, and directors are measured by their interpretations of the work. But though Swan Lake is an important ballet, it’s all too seldom a transcendent one.

It takes a performance like Susan Jaffe’s as Odette to transcend predictability, a performance possible only with partnering as sensitive as Ricardo Bustamante’s. It takes a corps schooled to perfection to animate Ivanov’s choreography: the least bit of sloppiness reduces the Swans’ soft arm movements to semaphore, and even a hint of rigidity transforms the ensemble into an army of automatons. There’s no question that ABT has what it takes.

Anyone who has seen Jaffe’s memorable Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son knows her gift for characterization; she doesn’t emote, she just is. The Siren’s stabbing walk across the stage on pointe and Odette’s tremulous brushing of her head against a raised arm represent the two extremes of the current dramatic repertoire: both fall equally within Jaffe’s range. While somewhat frightened in the face of Siegfried’s rash declaration, this Odette gradually discovers reserves of strength and determination as they dance: Jaffe exhibits perfect poise and self-possession every time she relinquishes Bustamante’s support. The timing and rapport so evident in their performance–especially at those moments when Odette pauses, arches, and falls backward into Siegfried’s arms–imbue their relationship with an atmosphere of inevitability; the dramatic motivation is clear. And like Sinfonietta, ABT’s act two of Swan Lake is filled with beautiful dancing all around.

Fall River Legend, a dark, brooding drama based on the story of Lizzie Borden, is generally considered choreographer Agnes de Mille’s most important work. When she choreographed Oklahoma! (1943) and Brigadoon (1947), de Mille not only set conventional musical-theater numbers but created revolutionary pure-dance sequences that advanced the plot and illuminated character. Fall River Legend (1948) is equally innovative: in it de Mille created a ballet whose narrative details are suggested by the characters’ reactions to each other rather than conveyed to the audience by mime or onstage action.

The eight scenes of Fall River Legend are flashbacks and a dream framed by the Accused’s sentencing and hanging. The Accused (Cynthia Gregory) watches Herself as a Child (Ashley Tuttle), her Father (Ethan Brown), her Mother (Christine Dunham), and her Stepmother (Georgina Parkinson). She struggles against their domination but ultimately succumbs to them and finally to her own growing rage.

The narrative provides many natural occasions for dancing: the tender, nearly vernacular duet for her Mother and Father; the waltz jumps and lovely unconventional lifts of the neighbors’ moonlit idyll; the weaving lines and circles of a jubilant church service; and two duets–one tentative, one passionate and pleading–for the Accused and her Pastor (Victor Barbee).

They’re lovely dances and beautifully danced, but they’re not divertissements; rather, they set the stage for the expositions of character that surround them. Character is conveyed in full-bodied movement, not just in gesture. Initially, the Accused and Herself as a Child dance in tandem, one behind the other. By the time the Mother dies and the Stepmother blocks the doorway into the house, their movement is the same but some transformation has occurred: the Child barely sketches a phrase that the Accused attacks with pure, repressed pelvic energy; the Child walks offstage simply, and the Accused–almost shaking with tension–follows her Father and her Stepmother into the house. The gesture the Stepmother uses to solicit the Father’s complicity–splayed fingers extending from an open mouth–reappears as the Pastor supports the Stepmother in a slow turn: she has changed from an imagined to a real sexual threat. The dramatic form of Fall River Legend still looks fresh.