Friday 18 February 2011

A quest for unrestrained perfection

American Ballet Theatre – Programme One, Sadler’s Wells, London

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is a must-see for lovers of spotless dancing. The mixed bill performed earlier this month at Sadler’s Wells as the first of two programmes was no exception. The show included two UK premieres: ‘Seven Sonatas’ by internationally acclaimed ballet choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and ‘Everything doesn’t happen at once’, the latest creation by the eclectic dancer and dance-maker Benjamin Millepied. The two pieces respectively opened and closed the evening and could not have been more different from each other.

In ‘Seven Sonatas’, ABT gave an impeccable yet sedate performance. Ratmansky’s choreography, deeply grounded into ballet language and technique, provided a blank canvas for the dancers to show their unparalleled technical skills, yet their bravura did not make up for their lack of energy. As the six performers impeccably executed Ratmansky’s tale of an arcadian timeless world, the canvas filled with beautifully designed patterns, yet remained blank. Credit goes to pianist Barbara Bilach whose performance of Domenico Scarlatti’s ‘Keyboard Sonatas’ was as nimble and flawless as the limbs of the dancers she shared the stage with.

The second performance in the programme was Twyla Tharp’s ‘Known by heart (Junk) duet’. It started strongly with Gillian Murphy and Blaine Hoven landing from their grand-jeté in perfect synchronism with the opening beat of Donald Knaack’s score. Yet the rest that followed was easy to forget. The lack of originality in the choreography, diversity in the music and energy in the dancers’ performance, made this piece the weakest of the mixed bill.

To liven up the audience’s hopes came ‘Duo Concertant’ by ballet pioneer George Balanchine, set to music by equally renowned composer Igor Stravinsky. Although both artists’ owe their fame to being masters and innovators each of their own art form, the piece that ABT chose to perform seemed bound to an old-fashioned template. The musical executions of the piano and the violin players interspersed with the pas-de-deux broke the pace of the dancing, which still appeared restrained and lacking in drive.

The performance that stood out and made the evening unmissable was the final piece by Benjamin Millepied, ‘Everything doesn’t happen at once’. It released the energy that seemed to have been dormant throughout the evening and finally burst in this climactic performance. The piece for 24 dancers was set to David Lang’s percussive score powerfully played by a six-instrument-ensemble under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins. The music, lighting and choreography jointly contributed to creating a masterpiece of complexity whose restless pace conveyed the sense of unachievable simultaneity made evident by the title of the piece. Since the very start, the music established a dynamic dialectic with the light casted on the dancers’ skilful bodies. The pace was gripping and kept the beholder hooked to the next piccolo’s blow or xylophone stroke, most of which were made unpredictable by a crafty combination of offbeats and syncopation. Similarly, the dancers moved at a highly dynamic pace, alternating swift footworks, turns and jumps with slow-motion lifts and tilts that made the bodies look as though they were floating or challenging gravity. The evening could not have ended better than with such a richly articulated configuration of sound, light and movement which found in Millepied a visionary architect and in the ABT dancers extraordinarily strong yet graceful builders.

The show closed on Sunday 6 February 2011.


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