American Ballet Theatre


by Kate Snedeker

May 16-17, 2003 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York

American Ballet Theatre conductor Charles Barker refers to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as “total theatre”, words that are fitting to describe ABT’s HereAfter , which premiered on Friday night. With choreography by Natalie Weir and Stanton Welch, a full cast of dancers and the 120 voices of the New York Choral Society Singers, HereAfter was an elaborate and rich, if sometimes cluttered, spectacle.

A spiritual flashback, Nathalie Weir’s Heaven , set to John Adam’s Harmonium, explores the memories of a man encountered at the very moment of his death. Santo Loquasto’s set evokes a futuristic, metallic temple, with the choir arranged on metal bleachers behind a thin scrim, a central stairway leading down from a doorway to a tall metal platform. The man, danced by Ethan Stiefel in the premiere, descends curled in up a hamster wheel like “ship” to encounter two “pivotal female figures in his life”, but his brief sojourn into past memories is cut short by Death.

Weir’s choreography is stark and edgy, accented by Brian McDevitt’s dim, shadowy lighting which jaggedly highlights the contours of the dancers’ bodies. Loquasto’s dull colored costumes, pants for the men and bra-like tops & dark skirts for the women, add to the surreal feeling. It’s a slightly sinister view of humanity, with the corps creeping, crawling and scuttling from under the metal bleachers like rats, but yet trustworthy enough to catch the man when he falls backwards off the platform. The choreography for the male corps in particularly striking, with men partnering men, lifting each other into high twisting leaps.

Ethan Stiefel’s man was innocenct, as if already separated from the taint of his earthly memories. He moved as if in a haze and not totally aware of the grimness surrounding him. As the first woman, Stella Abrera, dancing with her usual raw power, seemed to be a former lover, passionate and solid. The other woman, danced with a gentle, mature tenderness by Julie Kent, was more maternal, a mother figure perhaps. On Saturday, Xiomara Reyes brought a younger, more innocent feel to the second woman, making her more young love than maternal figure. Paloma Herrera as the other woman, brought quiet fire to the role, the emphatic sweep and stretch of her extensions impressive. Weir’s Death, inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem, is a “gentle and beautiful man”, and appears atop the stairway, looking impassively down at the scene below. Marcelo Gomes, with his long limbs and velvety smooth dancing was a patient and detached death, firm, but gentle in guiding the man away from the woman, away from the memories and up to heaven.

On Saturday, Herman Cornejo and David Hallberg were a much more effective, powerful combination as the man and death. As the man, Cornejo had a fierce intensity, emotions boiling below the placid surface. A slight dancer, Cornejo used every inch of his body, stretched as far as it would go; the man fiercely hanging on to his last earthly memories. Hallberg, most often seen in classical roles, was a striking and effective death, looming over the much smaller and slighter Cornejo. With this commanding presence and his full unhurried exploration of and attention to each step , Hallberg brought a new emotional power to the role.

Though well danced, the ballet was simply too much spectacle . The choir, tucked away behind the scrim was almost inaudible at times, overwhelmed by the orchestra and muffled by the scrim. The set was also overwhelming, with dancers often drawn away from meaningful choreography to climb stairs or ladders, and the metal “ship” was gimmicky and unnecessary to make the emotional point. Less is very often better, and in the end, the power of the dancing is what matters, so why distract from the dancers...

Stanton Welch’s Earth , a jovial, surrealistic ballet to the “profane songs” of Orff’s Carmina Burana was a much more effective spectacle. Welch brought Carmina Burana to life in his own fantasy world, a mix of renaissance, sci-fi and sheer imagination, fiercely independent of place or time. Loquasto’s sumptuous costumes: the woman in dresses of rich reds, greens and golds, slit all the way up the front and intricate, spiky crowns, and the men in leather banded, short costumes and helmet like headpieces reminiscent of Star Wars, added to the fantastical, timeless feeling. The Man was again in pants, this pair with an ornate, low slung waistband.

Welch takes The Man on a journey, escorted by Fate and Fortune to experience love, innocent, mortal and idyllic, as portrayed by three women. The choreography is as impish as the music, with the corps at play, jumping, rolling, somersaulting and leaping across the stage, a people with nothing to weigh down their minds. The women frolic, lifting the their split skirts high the air, the men leaping and twisting in a particularly memorable section for the male corps. However, noticeable errors among the corps and soloist on both nights hinted at a lack of rehearsal time.

Angel Corella attacked the role of The Man with his usual electricity, crackling with youthful, if not totally innocent energy. He slides down almost into a split, leaping back up at the last moment, spins and jumps as the men surround him, not really threatening, but keeping him encircled. On Saturday, Julio Bocca was an equally acrobatic, but earthier man; a more experienced mortal. As Fate and Fortune, Joaquin De Luz and Herman Cornejo, often paired in bravura duos, were outstanding on Friday, spinning and leaping with uncanny synchronization despite the seemingly unwieldy helmets. In the Saturday cast, Jose Manuel Carreno and Marcelo Gomes were individually stunning, but appeared very unsure about the timing.

The three women are each different in their love: Ashley Tuttle’s cheekiness and miming of the swollen stomach of woman in child is an innocent love, Abrera’s more passionate, powerful dancing is that of mortal love, while Kent is idyllic love, laying with the man and then lifted over his body. Reyes, Erica Cornejo and Herrera took on the roles in the Saturday matinee, with a slightly less nuanced performances.

It is spectacle, but joyous and wondrous spectacle. Welch’s choreography works beautifully with Orff’s music, and avoids intertwining itself with the set. Perhaps the only jarring moment comes at the end when the man ascends the staircase only to be replaced by his first act counterpart. It seems to be a gesture to tie the acts together, but creates more questions than it answers, too much to ponder after the heady gaiety of the ballet.

Charles Barker conducted at both performances.

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