at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 7-18

Looking better than in years, American Ballet Theatre has danced into town with a lovely if unimaginative season featuring beautiful dancing, ever more fully developed dancers, and a slow, steady improvement in repertory.

La bayadere represents the most recognizably classical side of ABT’s repertory. It’s an excerpt from Marius Petipa’s 1877 La bayadere, the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene from act two, and it epitomizes classical concerns with elegance, form, line, phrasing, and musicality. Yes, of course, the scene is wrenched from its narrative context, but the drama is not central to the dancing: this sort of classicism is far more concerned with dance than with drama.

Because of the importance of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, modernists often underestimate Petipa’s role in shaping 19th- and 20th-century ballet. He created or contributed to some of our most important narrative ballets: Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Swan Lake, Raymonda, The Seasons, Le corsaire, Cappelia, Esmeralda, La sylphide. He ultimately fell out of favor in Russia because of his tendency toward abstraction, which was then considered painfully formal and old-fashioned. That same tendency, a bare 40 years later, enabled Balanchine to make everything else look oldfashioned.

The “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, in which the warrior Solor is reunited in a dream with his lover Nikiya, provided Petipa with the perfect pretext for creating lovely, lyrical movement for the two lovers, three ballerinas, and a large corps de ballet. In the opening of this 1974 production (staged by Natalia Makarova, with set, costumes, and lighting by PierLuigi Samaritani, Theoni V. Aldredge, and Toshiro Ogawa respectively), the corps enters from between the crests of two great waves painted in the style of 19th-century Japanese prints.

The corps’ entrance is interminable, offering plenty of time to note–and tire of–the overlapping limbs that occur as the dancers snake down the ramp and across the stage. From where I was sitting, the 24 coalesced into 6, and each of those 6 sported five legs and eight arms. Petipa’s use of space, especially his kaleidoscopic patterns, does more than anything else–more than steps, character, or this ensemble’s dancing–to make La boyadere’s ensemble choreography tolerable for today’s audiences.

Petipa’s choreography for the five principals wears well. The pas de trois and variations for the three ballerinas are lively and musical, especially when they’re given a performance as vibrant as that of Tuesday’s cast: Amanda McKerrow’s cool poise and Christine Dunham’s apparent weightlessness were stellar, but Deirdre Carberry’s bright phrasing was the evening’s greatest joy. The same choreography looked lackluster on Thursday’s Shawn Black, Lucette Katerndahl, and Amy Rose. Andris Liepa, of the Bolshoi, made his Chicago debut on Tuesday evening as Solor, a role danced Thursday by Danilo Radojevic. Liepa’s lyrical arms and torso were attractive, but Radojevic’s superior placement and elevation suited the movement especially well. Cynthia Harvey’s dancing emphasized Nikiya’s human nature; Marianna Tcherkassky’s, her otherworldly appeal. Radojevic was an attentive and restrained partner for Tcherkassky; Harvey and Liepa simply looked unsettled.

The company’s engagement also featured the Chicago premiere of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new production of Swan Lake, the ballet originally choreographed by Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895. That this Swan Lake succeeds so well owes at least as much to Baryshnikov’s altered score, Jennifer Tipton’s brilliant, subtly novel lighting design, and Samaritani’s scenery and costumes as to the beauty of the original. This is a Renaissance court, more evocative than specific. (The plastic swans and the cartoonish shadow swan dying may be a bit much, however.)

This Swan Lake is at once familiar and strange: the story is still about love and faithfulness, temptation, illusion, death. But this Von Rotbart is much more clever than usual, Siegfried less culpable. Baryshnikov has inserted a wry new trio, the “Mask Dance,” in the act three divertissements. The ballet has dropped the crowd-pleasing fouettes, the “Valse Bluette,” and the crowd of congratulatory peasants. And more than in any other production I have seen, nothing really matters but the dancing.

Baryshnikov’s interpolated “Mask Dance” opens the act three divertissements. Depending on whether we see the backs or fronts of the dancers’ costumes, they may seem male one moment and female the next. The three dancers–Claudia Alfieri, Ashley Tuttle, and Greet Vinckier in Friday’s cast–were entirely transparent; the delicate gestures toward their masks, one on the front of the head, one on the back, recall the artfulness of accomplished onnagatas, the men who play women’s roles in classical Japanese drama, rather than Western ballerinas. By setting act three and its divertissements in Siegfried’s mother’s court instead of at a public celebration of his birthday, Baryshnikov elevates the czardas and the mazurka to the level of court dances; although the Spanish and Neapolitan dances are equally wonderful, they still look like entertainment jobbed in for the occasion. The czardas and the mazurka are two of the most charming character dances in any of today’s ballets, and it’s wonderful to see them staged and danced so attentively.

Like La bayadere, Swan Lake tends to be a star vehicle. On its opening night, this Swan Lake belonged to Susan Jaffe. In act three, Jaffe’s feral, electric dancing creates a being we can resist no more than Siegfried can; in their pas de deux, Jaffe and Liepa are charged, fired. When the lovers are reunited in act four, her return to pliancy, languor, and softness makes it hard for us to believe that this is indeed the same dancer. Jaffe’s performance is largely a matter of color. The movement of act four isn’t substantially different from that of act three; what differs in act three is the sharpness of Jaffe’s phrasing, her attack, her reluctance to make eye contact with the deluded Siegfried. Given the complexity, power, and breadth of Jaffe’s performance, Samaritani and Baryshnikov are wise to spare us the stereotypic, easy black-and-white duality of Odette and Odile.

Jaffe’s dark strength also infused her debut as the Siren in George Balanchine’s 1929 Prodigal Son. There is little subtlety in her portrayal of this hostile, ravening sexual beast; the malevolence of her gaze and her excruciatingly precise pointes are chilling and perverse. Radojevic’s Prodigal is complicated; he displays a surprising ambivalence toward her, even maintains a certain detachment in the midst of their astonishing consummation. His repentance rings true, but not his dissoluteness.

Neither Prodigal Son, Swan Lake, nor La bayadere is really about exciting ensemble choreography; even Gaite parisienne (now looking a trifle jaded) is little more than a series of star turns. ABT’s new pieces, Clark Tippet’s Rigaudon and Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes (both receiving their Chicago premieres this season), show the company to signal advantage.

A jovial and gentle dance for 16 set to Britten’s Simple Symphony for Strings, Rigaudon’s recollection of courtly and social dances of earlier eras (a rigaudon was a lively couple’s dance in common time) is largely tongue-in-cheek. Young men compete, and young women alternately soothe and ruffle them: some things never change. Tippet’s choreography scatters and collects his dancers in interesting ways, often slightly out of kilter: asymmetric tableaux, spatial arrangements borrowed from Petipa, an apparent sextet gradually revealing itself to be a quartet and unrelated duet sharing the stage and the score. Only occasionally does the partnering degrade into gimmickry.

Morris’s Drink to Me bears all his hallmarks: his unique, innate musicality; the softened torso poised on fast, linear legs; the way the dancers cross the stage in half-turns, pausing only to touch each other’s fingertips; the partnering style predicated more upon what two given bodies can accomplish together than upon gender; his peculiar, lithe little balancees; a flamencolike flourish of the upper body; fifth-position arms with crossed wrists.

Both formal and accessible, Drink to Me suits ABT’s dancers; their stylistic breadth seems to have allowed Morris a latitude impossible in his own company. Placed on the lovely, virtuosic bodies of ABT, his choreography gains definition while it loses the casual, nearly throwaway charm it has on his own dancers; it grows foreign yet sacrifices little of its familiarity. What a pleasure to discover that Morris’s work is as versatile as it is beautiful and brave.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Swope.