To prove that there is more to American Ballet Theatre than Swan Lake and Le Corsaire, the company leapt into more challenging waters Friday night at the Winspear Opera House, presented by TITAS.
Seven Sonatas and Duets, set back to back, were a study in contrasts, and although each concentrated on duets, the first was dreamy and delicate; the second, clinical in its concentration on form. They represent perhaps the outer reaches of ballet, with Merce Cunningham's Duets making you wonder what it would look like in a different setting and with Cunningham's own troupe. (And that will never happen; the company made its final appearance Dec. 31, 2011.)
The thrill and glamour came from Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and youthful exuberance from Paul Taylor's Company B.
If you can get past the fact that Cunningham and Taylor would once be considered arch foes of ballet, than this program might suggest that ballet is either struggling to expand its horizons, or has run out of fresh material. But it does have fresh material if Seven Sonatas is any gauge. Created for the company only two years ago by artist-in-residence, 43-year-old Alexei Ratmansky, Sonatas seems to have emerged from a fresh and spontaneous well-spring of ideas.
Like Balanchine, Ratmansky believes that stories are to be told with wisps and hints, like love letters that have pieces ripped off or charred, with the writing barely legible. And like Balanchine, he plays with small alterations in form, in this case the use of expressive arm movements and swooning, tilted heads.
With pianist Barbara Bilach stationed at the right side of the stage playing limpid sections from Domenico Scarlatti, dancers clad in simple white dress emerge from the side. They form a group, but soon break apart for a serious of energetic solos, before regrouping into duos. As the music changes in mood and tempo, so does the dance—brisk, wistful, somber or funny. Yuriko Kajiya, tentative and delicate, swoons into Gennadi Saveliev's arms, while Julie Kent and Alexandre Hammoudi willfully ignore each other.
But when Ms. Kent disappears, Mr. Hammoudi scans the stage, wondering "where is she?" A frisky Xiomara Reyes acts coy with Herman Cornejo and he responds with a playful swat. At the end, all six regroup, briskly churning arms as they fly away, and return again as men leap in tandem and the women spin. Surprises never ceased in this ballet, giving us hope that ballet of this kind has much more life in it.
If Sonatas is airy and free, Duets is sober, grounded and as crisp as starched linen. Set to the tick-tick, mechanical sound of John Cage's music, one couple after the other takes over a concentrated space, there to explore the possible permutations of bends, tilts, extended limbs and off-balance and suspended holds. They often hold hands, relying on the other for support. At its most arresting moments, one dancer will make a quarter turn, limbs shooting out at different angles to create the effect of two clocks chiming different times.
Only eight minutes long, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux salved the thirsty soul for pure, glorious dancing. There may not have been much chemistry between Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns, but leave them to their own devices, and Ms. Herrera is a miracle of speed, control and clarity, and Mr. Stearns a whiz at soaring leaps.
The charm of Company B still held sway. Playful, wistful and touching, it captures all the hopes and energy of youth as World War Two looms, and innocence is soon to be dashed.
The program continues tonight with some changes in cast.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.