Last time this company were in London they performed two classic ballets, Swan Lake and Le Corsaire, on this occasion however, American Ballet Theatre has chosen a more contemporary mixed bill.
Twyla Tharp’s duet, taken from Known by Heart, was the quirkiest of the four pieces. Known for her mixing of other genres with ballet long before anybody else was doing it, Tharp managed to pack in – among other things – tap dance, boxing and martial arts into this short piece. The dancers, Gillian Murphy and Blaine Hoven, were both superb, and Hoven’s knack for comedy is apparent alongside Murphy’s gorgeous lines.
Tharp’s duet – which follows the structure of a classical ballet pas de deux, with an opening sequence followed by solo variations and a grand finale – flips from razor-sharp precision to burts of total messiness. It’s almost like watching two very drunk professional dancers, and it was good, if silly, fun.
Of more interest were the two pieces receiving their UK premieres. Closing this programme, the first two planned by the company, was Everything Doesn’t Happen At Once, a 2009 work by Benjamin Millepied – who is currently seemingly everywhere owing to his stint as actor and choreographer in Black Swan.
Everything feels very choppy as a result of the chosen music, to which the choreography responds closely. Most of the pauses in the score (and there are many) are matched with freezes in movement; while this is effective in some parts, particularly when Daniil Simkin is repeatedly caught mid-air, in others it felt too literal and a little tired.
When the choreography was freed from the straitjacket of the music’s every pause, Everything… improved substantially. The section with the dancers matching en pointe contained some very busy but intricate formations, lines criss-crossing each other; and even though it felt out of place, as if Millepied had tailored the solo according to his dancer’s capabilities regardless of the overall style, you could not take your eyes off Simkin’s gravity-defying jumps and never-ending turns. At the work’s best was the poignant pas de deux between Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomes: their lifts and balances were so tender that you almost fail to notice how difficult they are.
The other UK premier was Alexei Ratmansky’s opening piece, Seven Sonatas, a series of short sequences set to Scarlatti’s music played live on a grand piano upstage right. The seven sonatas all conveyed a distinctive feeling, even though it remains without a narrative, with the music acting to divide the piece into small, unrelated episodes. There was a painful duet reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and an excessively macho virtuoso solo that seems to lovingly mock that classical ballet staple, but the most enjoyable was the opening sequence, which was small, subtle and elegant. There are flashes of beauty and, surprisingly for an abstract piece, many moments of comedy, too.
Balanchine’s Duo Concertant completes Programme One, but unfortunately the impact of having a pianist and violinist on stage alongside the dancers was undermined by the fact that it appeared after the impressive Seven Sonatas.
Music is once again the focus to the piece, but very often the dancers – Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns – are actually watching the musicians and soaking up Stravinsky’s score. However, the pauses felt longer than the time Herrera and Stearns actually spent dancing, and their faces told us nothing. To see Balanchine in a more lively tone, you might be better off opting for Theme and Variations, which opens the American Ballet Theatre’s second programme.
American Ballet Theatre is at Sadler’s Wells, London, from 1-6 February with two Mixed Bills: Programme One, on the 1, 3 and 4 February and Programme Two, on the 2, 5 and 6 February. For further details visit: Sadler’s Wells.