American Ballet Theatre

at the Auditorium Theatre, through October 1

Walking out of American Ballet Theatre’s mixed-repertory concert last Friday I was plagued by one question: what the hell has happened to love in the 20th century? Whether deliberately or unwittingly, the five dances on this program together offer a sort of mini history lesson on love. From the lush romance of Swan Lake through the emotional simplicity of George Balanchine to the cleverly constructed agony of James Kudelka’s Cruel World, it seems that love has been turned on its ear in the 20th century and has yet to right itself.

There are few pas de deux more romantic than the two ABT plucked from Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895. In the first the White Swan, Princess Odette, who’s been changed into a swan by the evil sorcerer Rothbart and can only become human for a brief period at midnight, dances with Prince Siegfried, who discovers her at this hour. This is a passionate and painful pas de deux, for they fear that they can never be truly together. In the second Swan Lake pas de deux, the sorcerer’s daughter Odile impersonates Odette as a Black Swan and tricks Siegfried into believing that she’s his love. In their dramatic dance Siegfried’s joy at being reunited with his lover is undercut by Odile’s joy at having tricked him. In both dances, however, romantic love reigns supreme, and performances hang on the individual dancers’ abilities to convey that love.

Julie Kent danced a flirtatious, seductive, and ultimately jubilant Black Swan. Her phrasing was almost perfect, adding tremendous depth to her character. The Black Swan may be an evil person, but Kent made her a real person–a quality only the best dancers are able to achieve. Her partner, Charles Askegard, was less compelling. Too intent on technique, he rarely moved beyond it to let his character emerge. Even when the choreography suggested an emotional state, Askegard plowed through as if afraid he wouldn’t make it to the next phrase.

The White Swan pas de deux, as danced by Susan Jaffe and Jose Manuel Carreno, exuded anguish and passion. The chemistry between them was intense, flaming up at moments when their faces almost brushed, though the characters never kiss. It was a compelling performance of one of ballet’s most romantic scenes, but at times I wished they would relish their love instead of anticipating the fact that they had to part.

Such heavy-duty passions couldn’t be farther from the style of George Balanchine, the Russian American choreographer credited with defining American ballet in the 20th century. His dances convey a straightforward, simple, unaffected charm. Many–including Theme and Variations and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, performed by ABT–are plotless, danced for the pure joy of moving. Any relationship, romantic or not, that develops between a male and a female dancer is purely serendipitous, an accident born out of the movement.

Perhaps the best performances of the evening were given by Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella in Theme and Variations. Herrera (who will debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet this weekend) is more than a pleasure to watch–she exuded such pure joy, her solos seemed almost a hymn of thankfulness for the opportunity to dance them (and all this after she twisted an ankle onstage). Corella, equally thrilling, was lush, quick, and gentle–a combination difficult to pull off given the sheer technical demands of Balanchine’s work. By contrast Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, as performed by Amanda McKerrow (who will play Juliet to Julio Bocca’s Romeo) and Vladimir Malakhov, was dry. McKerrow somehow lost the sparkle she normally has, and though Malakhov made some impressive leaps, our hearts didn’t leap with him.

Kudelka’s Cruel World premiered in 1994–11 years after Balanchine’s death and nearly a century after Swan Lake made its debut. In 19th-century Russia few people would have thought what Kudelka expresses about love, let alone make a dance about it. Smoothly combining classical ballet with modern choreography in Cruel World, Kudelka not only dethrones the star ballerina, he pulls a coup d’etat on ballet’s romantic vision of love, replacing it with masses of men and women whose only impulse is to torture each other throughout the mating process.

Unfortunately, Kudelka ventures no farther than this. Each of the four movements (in Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence) is a repetitive variation on a theme: women are trapped in uncaring, abusive relations with men, and men are trapped in their own self-perpetuating roles. Most compelling is the second movement, in which a lone woman (Marianna Tcherkassky) allows herself to be passed passively and painfully from one man to another. Their movement is sexual and possessive. She is their object. When she tries weakly to escape, they instinctively bring her back into the circle, and she succumbs.

This “mating ritual as torture” theme is not uncommon in contemporary choreography, and sadly all the dancers seemed more comfortable playing these roles than the more romantic ones. What this says about our collective vision of love in the late 20th century is uncertain; all I can say for sure is that this dance made me comfortably uncomfortable.

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