ABT is Brisbane-bound

ONE way of looking at the repertoire for American Ballet Theatre’s Brisbane visit in August and September – its first to Australia – is with absolute pragmatism: there’s Swan Lake, of course, which is for many audience members the ballet gold standard, and there’s a triple bill made up of pieces the company is currently performing.

But the pieces very much describe ABT too – its nature as a company of stars and its history as an organisation that has had extremely close relationships with some of the most admired choreographers in the field. In 2006 Congress recognised ABT as the national ballet company of the United States and it is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Bach Partita.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita.

On a visit to Sydney last week to promote the tour (Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland were also on the whirlwind agenda), ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie described a company on a firm footing. ABT recently added more New York performances to its annual schedule, although there will be a loss next year when Nutcracker moves from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (one of three venues for ABT in New York) to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in California’s Orange County.

“It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We have a long-term relationship with Segerstrom Center out there and it’s crowded [in NYC]. We found it difficult frankly to market a season in three different venues, sometimes marketing three different venues at the same time. We know we go to Washington every year. This will ensure we go to Orange County every year. Frankly it’s a better venue to see the production [by Alexei Ratmansky].”

While in Sydney McKenzie spoke engagingly for an hour to a Friends of the Australian Ballet gathering. He said that while George Balanchine was carrying out his unique vision for what would become New York City Ballet, early ABT patron and director Lucia Chase “collected the best of the best” for Ballet Theatre (ABT’s name until 1957). On the choreographic front there were Agnes de Mille and Anthony Tudor, and “getting Tudor was the defining moment. Energy begot energy. ABT became a company of dancers who could do it all. ABT didn’t have a school for decades so talent came from around the world. Everyone fits into ABT. They all took from each other. There was individualism.’’

While there is now a school to feed ABT, the company didn’t want to lose the international influences that built it. “Style is a thing we take on and off like our clothes,” McKenzie said. “There are fundamentals we all agree on.” (Even now the ABT corps is only 30 per cent a product of the school.)

Sitting at the apex of the company is a roster of 16 principal artists, some with dual associations that must make scheduling a nightmare for McKenzie. David Hallberg is also a principal at the Bolshoi Ballet, Roberto Bolle is resident guest artist at La Scala and Polina Semionova is a guest artist at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, where Ivan Vasiliev is a principal dancer. Diana Vishneva regularly appears in her Russian homeland, and Gillian Murphy has been principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet for the past three years, although that position is unlikely to continue when Ethan Stiefel, her fiancé, relinquishes his post as RNZB artistic director on September 1.

Vasiliev will not be coming to Brisbane, says McKenzie, but he hopes Bolle’s schedule will permit his presence. “He’s got a tight schedule, but it could work. The objective is to get him here.” Hallberg is on board for the tour, as is Murphy and, it is anticipated, most or all of the other ABT principals.

McKenzie, artistic director of ABT for 22 years (and still happy in the service, he says) told the Friends in Sydney that nothing about the way the company operates had changed from the first performance. “There’s a chaotic scrappiness. A tale of too much with too little time and too little resources and coming out looking good. There’s a passion to do it; everything else needs to be gotten around.”

The version of Swan Lake to be performed in Brisbane is McKenzie’s, which premiered in 2000. It is staged annually. “It’s mainly for marketing reasons,” McKenzie said frankly. They know they can sell it every single year so they want to do it. To quote George Balanchine, I wish everything was called Swan Lake.”

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

For the Brisbane mixed bill, called Three Masterpieces, McKenzie chose the three choreographers who he said have had or will have the greatest impact on the company: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, who is ABT’s artist in residence with a contract stretching to 2023. (That contract allows Ratmansky to work with other companies for half the year; he recently made a new Cinderella for The Australian Ballet.)

Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) follows the fortunes of three high-spirited sailors on leave and is a happy showcase for exuberant male dancing. Tharp’s Bach Partita (1983) is fascinating because 28 years passed between its premiere and its revival last year, and Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas (2009) is the work of the busiest and most feted exponent of classical ballet working today. I spoke to McKenzie about the two newer works.

“This is the finest classical ballet since Balanchine’s death, which also took place in 1983.”

– Robert Gottleib, New York Observer, 2013, on Tharp’s Bach Partita

“Bach Partita celebrates the grand architecture of ballet and also each disappearing moment, each inimitable person … Tharp has built a wondrously strange thing: a monument to evanescence.”

– Apollinaire Scherr, Financial Times, 2013

Kevin McKenzie:  A 28-year gap [he laughs]. I think it was largely because of the violinist issue [the work was made to Bach’s Partita in D minor]. For a period of time it had to do with our venue issues, but I think it was really more about the violinist. Twyla created this work to a recording of Jascha Heifetz and he had a particular rendition of particular parts of it that were really fast, and it was a choice. It was an interpretation of it that is incredibly difficult to replicate.

When we first did it we didn’t really have the proper sort of representation, that kind of speed. Twyla wanted us to do it to tape. We can’t do that. By mandate, by union rules, if it can be played it must be played. And I agree with it. That’s part of the magic of live theatre. Then it became apparent that it was hard to find a violinist worth their salt who was going to deliver Heifetz’s performance. They wanted to deliver their own performance. It was either put on the back shelf or it was a stand-off: ‘do it to tape or don’t do it at all’. Suddenly a fair amount of time went by.

When I became director I asked about it, doing it at City Center, and Twyla said, ‘It’s not big enough [the theatre]; you just can’t do it. The stage won’t support the patterns.’ I commissioned from her Brahms-Haydn [The Brahms-Haydn Variations, 2000] and it just brought [Bach Partita] to mind. I thought it’s getting to be 20 years, it’s time we did it.

And then the violinist issue came up again. I think really through time it was about breaking down the barriers about who had the chops to do it; should it be a big-name person or should it be a discovery, whose choice should it be? Ultimately we found this wonderful violinist, Charles Yang, who is a product of his age. He can play those Bach partitas with a real personality of his own but deliver the tempos that Twyla wanted. He’ll do that for us one night and then he’s off doing some new-wave project the next night. It’s remarkable. [Yang will come to Brisbane with ABT.]

In the end, that’s it. One can always look for a juicy story but sometimes it really is a matter of waiting for all the stars to align.

It was astounding to see it come to life, a 28-year memory. And what is memory, how accurate is it? It’s really made up of impressions. When I saw it come to life whole swaths of it that looked familiar and I could see the dancers that it was created on behind the choreography. Other parts I had no memory of. Ultimately what was really astounding to me, and riveting, was how exactly like the music the structure of the ballet is – intensely intricate and fierce.

The music is layered with information, and the structure of it, the designs, the floor plans, if you will, the patterns, are just ingenious and they have the intensity of the music and it takes 36 dancers to execute. The one thing I had never considered was that – I walked away and thought I’d seen a visual version of the music.

 “Three gentle-mannered couples in simple, fluid white clothing by Holly Hynes treat the music as if it were a glade in which to dance together, alone, and in couples. One of Ratmansky’s great gifts is stitching together classical steps in ways that are full of trickery. Yet the unexpected twists or changes of directions or choice of movements never look plotted. His choreography breathes, sighs, pauses, plays a joke, and runs off laughing, as if complex, difficult dancing were a simple, easy-to deliver utterance.”

– Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 2009, on Seven Sonatas

McK: Seven Sonatas is like putting your head into a very private dinner party. I wanted [Ratmansky] represented, and this was the work that was going to be in repertory this year. He’s doing a new Sleeping Beauty for us in our 75th anniversary so there’s no time for him to create a new smaller work, so we’re beginning to curate the smaller works that we have already.

The thing that is representative of Ratmansky in Seven Sonatas is it is incredibly personable. One feels as if they are making it up as they go along. It seems to be a signature of his – it’s like you’re listening in on a conversation between the artists. It’s a very intimate piece. That notion of a conversation between artists was something that the music really drove.

[DJ: Is there a link with Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering?] To some degree. Yes, if you were to say that Dances at a Gathering is a genre, yes, to that degree. That’s where the likeness begins and ends. It’s so definitely Ratmansky in the way that Robbins is so definitely Robbins. Tudor’s Leaves are Fading – that is very Dances at a Gathering genre too, but they have no resemblance to one another.  One is absolutely Tudor, the other absolutely Robbins.

Visiting Australia with McKenzie were principals Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, who described their experience of dancing Swan Lake together.

James Whiteside: When I joined ABT that was my first Swan Lake. First of all I needed to learn the steps. That’s where we started. Obviously we had met before. Kevin [McKenzie] would get us into the studio and say, okay, you start over there, and go step, step, kick, step. Not really.

Gillian Murphy: No, that’s not the choreography!

JW: We took it from there, one step at the time.

GM: I was excited to dance with James for his very first performance of Swan Lake and I’d say I am spoiled from dancing with Ethan [Stiefel], Angel [Corella], Marcelo [Gomes], David [Hallberg] – pretty much everyone. I’d never danced with James before, so before we even did anything I said, James, I need to tell you I’m spoiled, I’ve done this ballet with so many amazing men and it’s one of my favourite ballets, love it so much, and so I’m not usually difficult at all but I may have some things I’ve learned over the years so …

When we had our first rehearsal I wasn’t worried at all but didn’t know what to expect exactly, and from the first moment James partnered me I was like, oh, ok. I’m in really good hands here, so this is going to be really fun. And from the first rehearsal we were getting really excited about it. For me, just to dance it with James in his first performance is a special thing because I wanted to be there for him and to make it a special debut.

In terms of talking about the characters and whatnot, once James had learned the choreography it was a matter of we would do parts of the pas de deux and Kevin would say, this is looking good, but what are you saying there? This is where the conversation starts.

JW: If there’s a moment where I am unsure of what something means, I’ll speak up and say, I don’t understand why I’m doing this. Please enlighten me. I think it’s important to infuse your dancing with meaning instead of mindless steps. That’s why I felt so confident dancing with Gillian because I could read her movements so easily and see it in her eyes exactly what she was thinking and it made the conversation very simple in a way, and I think that’s the best policy when it comes to acting.

GM: James and I respond to each other’s body language very innately which is good. This is not a verbal art form. So we could talk about it ad nauseum and we could both talk about our characters and what we’re feeling here and what we’re feeling there, and sometimes we would do that, but for the most part there are a lot of things that are best said through your body, and that’s what we’re responding to. So that conversation happens in the moment, and it’s different every moment. The premiere that we did together was a very special performance I thought. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JW: When you’re premiering a role and especially a ballet as iconic as Swan Lake, there’s a certain expectation and pressure. I have to say I was incredibly surprised that I enjoyed every moment of it. It was such a comfortable performance. I couldn’t have been happier to dance with Gil and having literally such a great time on stage, feeding off of each other’s energy and the energy of the audience and our peers and making art.

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (nine performances), August 28-September 4; Three Masterpieces (four performances), September 5-7, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

Footnote: I read that former ABT principal Cynthia Harvey was in the first cast of Bach Partita so, having interviewed her before, I got in touch to ask what she remembered of the piece. Harvey described her thoughts as only “my vague recollection over a great many years”, but despite the passing of so many years her description is useful and interesting.

Cynthia Harvey: I was not a principal dancer in the original cast, I was one of the soloists but later I did dance, I believe it was the part originally done on Magali Messac. All I can recall is that the choreography was intricate – Twyla used a lot of phrases that were repeated either in retrograde (like movie film going backwards) or we did phrases that were in canon – perhaps facing another direction. I recall a certain formality but simplicity. I don’t know if it was intentional to NOT “go for Baroque” in terms of gesture, but the intricacy might have been the tribute. I think the formality and sweep of the movement reflected the music. I remember there were issues regarding using our ABT musicians to perform the partita as Twyla had the tempi and especially the emphasis of dynamics based on one recording. That she choreographed those emphases, or at the very least, we couldn’t avoid placing musical emphasis in parts she choreographed, was part and parcel of the recording she had been inspired by.