American Ballet Theatre’s gala performance for the opening of its New York season was wonderfully varied and matched the level of excitement necessary to kick off a run at the prestigious City Center. First on the program was Mark Morris’ musical interpretation of Ben Jonson’s poem Song to Celia, actually first created for ABT fifteen years ago, though it showed no signs of wear-and-tear on Tuesday night. Virgil Thomson’s Etudes for piano, played masterfully by Barbara Bilach, includes thirteen sections, which Morris cleverly camouflaged with a seemingly endless variation on the number and partnerings of dancers. Draped in ivory and carnation-pink flowy tops, skirts, and standard men’s tights, the dancers could have been cream puffs lilting across the stage.

Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in the pas de deux from Stars and Stripes © Gene Schiavone
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in the pas de deux from Stars and Stripes
© Gene Schiavone

The beginning sections of the ballet, while altogether pleasant, were a bit boring – there was Morris’ usual attention to the relationship between music and choreography, and the dancers moved with characteristic grace, but it had a decided air of “it’s all been done before”. That is, until the dancers each took a solo turn in the center, alternating between swift pirouettes and perfectly placed arabesques, moving in a circle. One almost became dizzy watching them.

Equally thrilling was the men’s bravado trio, led by ABT staple Herman Cornejo and his flawless pirouettes – which he landed in an écarté extension, facing upstage, without a hint of exertion. Extensions and arabesques, it seemed, were the recurring motif – they abounded in myriad variations.

Next up was the five-and-a-half-minute pas de deux from the Second Movement of James Kudelka’s ballet, which felt appropriately bittersweet, carefully matching Tchaikovsky’s yearning score and Carmen Alie and Denis Lavoie’s earth-toned costumes for Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes. The two partnered each other well; Gomes assuredly tossed her overhead and zipped her across the floor, mid-split, as if they were gliding over water. Despite the dancers’ seamless interactions, however, this piece felt too careful and too nuanced to make any great impression.

Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes suddenly brought the stage a jolt of zest. It was entirely refreshing to see this pas de deux: the dynamic duo of Daniil Simkin and Sarah Lane was a necessary burst of energy from the previously subdued program. The entire pas de deux had the audience cheering, and for good reason: there were stunning balances, Balanchine’s characteristically lengthy and daring partnering, and unbelievable technical prowess radiating right from Lane and Simkin. Simkin, however, is the unequivocal hero of the duet. With his perky soldier gait and charming goofiness, he immediately had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand.

Each of Simkin’s tours en l’air seemed higher and more difficult than the last, and at the end of every pirouette was an enviably long suspension. While Lane was perfectly serviceable (though she did lose her bearings for a moment in the middle of a rapid turn sequence), her smile seemed mechanical next to Simkin’s infectious enthusiasm.

But the final piece was the real treat of the program: there is little that can top the 70th anniversary – to the day, no less – of Agnes de Mille’s now iconic American ballet Rodeo. In a short film that preceded the ballet performance, de Mille told an interviewer that she wished she could create ballets like George Balanchine’s; unfortunately, she stated emphatically, she just couldn’t. But what riches for the rest of us, to see the type of ballet that she was capable of creating!

Xiomara Reyes was the tomboyish Cowgirl who has a crush on Jared Matthews’s Head Wrangler – a man who doesn’t know she exists. Reyes certainly held not only her own, even amidst a colorful cast of more than 20. Her acting ability deserves accolade: pantomime in ballet can easily become laughable, especially when the ballet is set in the Wild West and the entire company is supposed to be atop horses. But the rhythmic abdomen jerkings of Reyes and the rest were entirely convincing. With her thumbs hooked casually in the belt loops of her pants and her long braid swinging behind her, Reyes was an absolute delight to behold as she transformed from shy tomboy to confident cowgirl. Matthews gave off the right debonair attitude, but Sascha Radetsky had the much more plum role of the Champion Roper, who teaches Reyes to dance and even indulges in some a cappella tap work.

The company brought a nice liveliness to the piece, which complemented Copland’s expansive and invigorating score, but quite a few dancers didn’t look too stable during their many (albeit difficult) one-legged balances. Nothing could really mar such a winsome ballet and genuine performances from Reyes and Radetsky, though. I wish more of today’s choreographers would take a page from de Mille’s book and not be afraid of creating a strongly narrative ballet.

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