American Ballet Theatre Mixed Repertory

Tuesday night’s performance by American Ballet Theatre (ABT) at The Kennedy Center was pleasant enough for the price – last minute tickets sold for $25 – if not entirely inspiring. Two of the four pieces from the mixed repertory performance were nicely done if not overwhelmingly memorable. The evening also included one glowing highlight (Manon Act I Pas de Deux) – and one dismal low point (Don Quixote Act III Grand Pas de Deux).


Black Tuesday
Choreography by Paul Taylor
Music: Songs from the Great Depression

Black Tuesday was a great start to the evening. A lively, Depression-era romp depicting both the strength of the American spirit and the gritty difficulties of loneliness and poverty, the ballet is 30 minutes of spirited and expressive dancing, executed nicely by the company. Particularly moving was Misty Copeland’s solo danced to the tune, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Copeland’s dancing of desperate struggle was passionate and very beautiful. Typical of Paul Taylor, however, the sadness of this piece is more than tempered with a generous dose of uplifting humor. “He peoples his Shantytown with Vaudevillians and Doughboys, hookers and showgirls, all eking out a meager existence on the streets of the city. Music hall hoofers recall their heyday, down-and-out couples jitterbug down Park Avenue, a pimp continues to hawk his wares, and a newsgirl pretends to slay the big bad wolf that is the Depression.” (Paul Taylor company website)


Manon (Act I Pas de Deux)
Choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan (Premiere: Royal Ballet 1974)
Music: Jules Massenet

This Manon excerpt, “the bedroom pas de deux,” was the highlight of the evening. Julie Kent danced with her usual perfection. Even her hair tumbling loose from its bun served to enhance, rather than detract, from the restless passion of her character. MacMillan’s choreography is lilting, romantic and technically interesting. Everything about the piece, including the minimalist set, sang an intimate portrait of a young couple in love.

Viewed outside of the context of the full length ballet, this scene is slightly misleading. Young Manon is not quite the innocent she seems. Just moments after her romantic bedroom scene with her lover Des Grieux, she succumbs to the advances of wealthy Parisian Monsieur G.M., abandoning Des Grieux. Throughout the ballet, Manon declares and then betrays her love for Des Grieux twice and compels the earnest young man to lie, cheat and murder before finally choosing love over material grandeur as she dies in his arms.

MacMillan said of the ballet, “The characters fascinate me…My clue to [Manon’s fickle, erratic] behavior is her background of poverty. Manon is not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor. Which brings me to the other theme of the ballet – the contrast between great wealth and great poverty in eighteenth-centry France…” (New Yorker Magazine 1974).

Between Balanchine, in his “101” comments, and MacMillan himself, there is a consensus that Manon is decidedly amoral – someone with “much charm but little character.” However, when considered in the context of an era when poverty, by MacMillan’s own admission, “was the equivalent of a long, slow death,” it’s hard to blame her completely for her bad behavior. Here is a teenaged girl initially destined for the convent and subject to the insensitivity of her brother’s manipulations. Wavering and rash choices do not seem unreasonable for a poor young woman in a time when being a poor young woman meant you had very few options and very little control over your own destiny.

Perhaps it’s true that Manon is a slut and Des Grieux a fool, but the context and motivations for their actions are subject to interpretation, which makes for a refreshingly layered ballet plot.

Additional resources

2005 Moscow clip

ABT Manon synopsis


Don Quixote (Act III Grand Pas de Deux)
Choreography after Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky
Music by Ludwig Minkus

Unfortunately, the perfection of Manon was immediately followed by a bumbling performance of the Don Quixote Grand Pas de Deux. Ballerina Xiomara Reyes seemed off kilter and about to tip over straight through the curtain call. She missed several balances and fell out of some critical turns. Both she and partner Herman Cornejo came across as a little bit ridiculous, almost as though they were deliberately poking fun at the choreography. What should have been a lively and impressive display of ballet technique was instead a shockingly disappointing exercise in awkwardness.

The audience, surprisingly, ate it up. As my friend commented, “I guess all you need is some red and black, throw on some sparkles and they’ll love it!” Hard-to-please reviewer Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post was also surprisingly more impressed – or perhaps, more accurately, less disappointed – than I was. (Read her review).

Thirteen Diversions
Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon
Music by Benjamin Britten

My main reason – aside from the irresistible ticket price – for attending last night’s show was to see this piece by Christopher Wheeldon, whose work so often leaves me speechless with its refreshing steps and breathtaking drama. Thirteen Diversions features brilliant partnering sequences and formations that are typically Wheeldon-esque. However, the piece did not grip or hold me in the way that others by this promising choreographer have done.

Benjamin Britten’s score was thoroughly enjoyable, played beautifully by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra (which this week includes my friend, violist Tiffany Richardson).


Read The Washington Post review by Sarah Kaufman


Upcoming at KenCen is ABT’s La Bayadere (view clip) this week.

I was disappointed to miss last weekend’s fine performance by Mark Morris Dance Group of “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” which received a stellar review from The Washington Post.

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The Joffrey Ballet

If you haven’t yet seen the new documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” find a screening and go! The movie eloquently traces the history and contributions of the Joffrey Ballet, which started from nothing and became a leading force in American dance, combining classical ballet with modern dance technique in new – and uniquely American – ways. The film is a tribute to the work and vision of founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, as well as that of the dedicated and adventurous dancers who helped define a new manner of movement, which includes my friend Roger Plaut.

The best thing about this movie, though, is the sheer amount of exposure it gets for ballet in today’s “YouTube” society. Not only can audiences everywhere learn about dance history at the movie theatre for under $20 a ticket, they can also access acres of archival footage on the movie’s website. Finally, at least one company is making its treasure available to the masses via the Internet! I look forward to using this resource for my future posts about Joffrey-created ballets – so stay tuned!

Featured in the movie are several clips from Joffrey works, including Robert Joffrey’s own 1967 “Astarte,” a groundbreaking, rock-ballet that landed the company on the cover of Time Magazine and solidified the Joffrey’s position as America’s timely, world-aware dance company. Arpino’s choreography (he was much more prolific than Joffrey) echoed the same notions. His 1969 ballet “Trinity,” for instance,  had ballet dancers moving in ways very different from their peers and captured the dichotomous mood of its time. The ballet looks and sounds a little dated today (can we say “disco” music?) but that’s the good and bad of Joffrey; much of what feels dated today was once supremely relevant. And the overall feeling of the ballet still resonates, even if the music is a bit outmoded. “Deuce Coupe”, the Beach Boy ballet presented in 1973 in collaboration with Twyla Tharp and her modern dancers went a long way to bridge the vast distance between ballet and modern dance at its time, and forged a path for the future.

I first came to love the Joffrey for its infamous “Billboards,” released on video in 1994. The ballet is set to music by Prince and is both celebrated and criticized for its popular, sex appeal. But in addition to the groundbreaking ballets that were the Joffrey’s contributions to the American dance canon, we are also indebted to the company for restoring “lost” works from the early 20th century. Robert Joffrey had a lifelong admiration for the masters of early modern ballet; he identified with Nijinsky as a dancer and with Diaghilev as an impresario. Important ballets from this period were never recorded and, therefore, unavailable to audiences.  Joffrey, therefore, went to great lengths to recreate these ballets as closely as possible to their originals. In 1973 he presented “Parade,” restaged in collaboration with original creator Leonide Massine. His attempt to do the same for Fokine’s “Petrouchka” was not as successful but is, nonetheless, admirable for its appreciation of important moments in dance history. Joffrey’s timely presentation in 1967 of Kurt Jooss’ anti-war ballet “The Green Table,” staged in collaboration with Jooss, was all too relevant at that time – and sadly remains so today.

“Robert Joffrey was committed to preserving historic ballet masterpieces that had fallen out favor in the repertories of world ballet companies. He realized that much respect should be paid to the classical choreographers who were pioneers of their time, by the pioneers of the present.” Sheri Candler

Movie website  – Check out the BLOG!

Washington Post movie review

Saw the movie and want more? Check out these Podcasts from former company members.

I am also reading the definitive book on Joffrey, the man and the company. Order yours today: The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company by Sasha Anawalt.

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The Concert

Choreography: Jerome Robbins

Music: Frederic Chopin

Premiere: New York City Ballet, 1956

Watch a video 

In “101,” Balanchine calls The Concert “a charade in one act,” and, indeed, the piece is like a series of comedic sketches. The ballet begins with a pianist sitting down to play, as if in a concert, and various, eccentric “audience members” (dancers) appearing on stage with their own folding chairs to observe the performance. The eccentric “concert attendees” act out the unique fantasies and daydreams that the music inspires within them, including plots of murder and deception, and imaginings of playful flight. The ballet is, according to Patricia Barnes in “Dance and Dancers,” “dance’s funniest creation.”

Typical of Robbins’ imaginative choreographic style, The Concert is subtitled, ” The Perils of Everybody.” In his program note, Robbins explained his motivation. “One of the pleasure of attending a concert,” he says, “is the freedom to lose oneself in listening to the music.” Although my personal concert experience has not included such dramatic imaginings as those of the characters in this ballet(!), I strongly relate to the idea that music’s greatest offering, especially when heard in a formal setting, is its ability to transport me to other realms, in which my imagination goes wild and often leaves me feeling newly alive. I sometimes look around at my fellow concert-goers in the darkened hall and wonder at the fact that the music, heard by all, is likely inspiring hundreds of unique reveries.

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The Nutcracker

Choreography: Lev Ivanov/Marius Petipa

Music: Tchaikovsky

Debut: Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg 1892

It’s that time of year again: the season when men, women and children everywhere assume an air of ballet knowledge and flock to see The Nutcracker. Suddenly and briefly, ballet is in the popular culture spotlight. Weary shoppers listen to The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy while waiting in line at Macy’s and imagine a sparkling ballerina in a pink tutu spinning around on her toes, and believe that what they are envisioning is entirely representative of ballet. It’s like the World Cup phenomenon in the US, when masses of usually oblivious Americans muster up some serious soccer enthusiasm and act like it’s not a fleeting interest. Or the tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve with abandon despite most people having no idea what those words mean.

Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman once wrote, “That warm and welcoming veneer of domestic bliss in The Nutcracker gives the appearance that all is just plummy in the ballet world. But ballet is beset by serious ailments that threaten its future in this country… companies are so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts that no one can justifiably croon about… The tyranny of The Nutcracker is emblematic of how dull and risk-averse American ballet has become. … Has ballet become so entwined with its “Nutcracker” image, so fearfully wedded to unthreatening offerings, that it has forgotten how eye-opening and ultimately nourishing creative destruction can be?”

If I sound as cynical as Ms. Kaufman, which I know I do, it’s not my fault. When you grow up dancing, you treasure the annual excitement of putting on The Nutcracker. You start at age 7 skipping out of Mother Goose’s massive hoop skirt and top out ten years later as the lead in Waltz of the Flowers, the crowning moment of your short-lived dance career before the dance team college culture engulfs you. Your feelings toward The Nutcracker are forever after bittersweet. You dread hearing those over-played opening notes but end up performing in the grocery store the steps, emblazoned on your memory, despite yourself. You loathe the inevitable well-intended comment from acquaintances who, knowing you “do ballet,” are so proud to tell you that they’ve just seen The Nutcracker, and yet, when the Bolshoi broadcasts its latest production to a movie theatre near you, you go to see it.

The Bolshoi’s broadcast version had the usual highlights and pitfalls. Act One, Scene One employed adult dancers (not children) to perform the roles of the young party guests. Though this made for a comparatively dance-filled scene that moved along at a nice pace, I still found myself wishing it over with so we could get to the real dancing. Interestingly, the Nutcracker doll itself was played by a live dancer and Drosselmeyer’s role was uncharacteristically and happily dance-heavy. The interpretation of the dances from around the world, particularly that of the Chinese dance, were embarrassingly condescending. The lead roles, however, were danced very nicely and did justice to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music in The Waltz of the Flowers and the Grand Pas de Deux.

Though unsuccessful in its 1892 debut, The Nutcracker endured and has become one of the most popular ballets, especially in the US, where popular culture undervalues dance in general. Today the ballet is performed by large and local companies across the country as part of a beloved – and lucrative – holiday tradition.

The plot is, no doubt, familiar. A young girl receives a doll from her spooky uncle at the Christmas party in her home, falls asleep by the Christmas tree and awakens to a battle between giant mice, led by the Rat King, and toy soldiers, led by her Nutcracker doll. The girl helps the doll win the battle by throwing her shoe at the Rat King. The doll turns into a handsome prince and takes the girl away to a magical winter wonderland. Snowflakes dance. The couple then travels to a land of sweets, where confections from various parts of the world dance for them. Finally, the girl wakes up in her living room, discovering it was all a wonderful dream.

Each company tweaks the plot and interpretation a bit – some more than others. In some productions, Clara/Marie dances the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. In others Clara/Marie does not wake from a dream at the end and, instead, goes off with the prince as in a fairy tale. In Washington, DC, Septime Webre’s interpretation for the Washington Ballet has become iconic in its own right. “Set in Washington, DC and filled with hints of Americana, this production features the heroic George Washington as the Nutcracker, King George III as the Rat King and cherry blossoms dancing on the Potomac (” My husband just saw this production, his first Nutcracker (excluding my numerous childhood videotapes to which I subjected him upon our engagement) and enjoyed it.

Some call it pure nostalgia, others a triumph of good over evil. Still others, myself included, think of The Nutcracker as a coming-of-age story: a tale of sexual awakening in which a young girl on the verge of puberty imagines a handsome prince who takes her away from her home to a faraway land. All in all, it’s a charming but relatively shallow ballet, with a few stunning highlights among a lot of milling about. Nonetheless, I continue to both avoid and crave its ubiquitous presence at this time of year.

Additional resources

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The Sleeping Beauty / Live from the Bolshoi at West End Cinema

Choreography:  Marius Petipa

Music: Peter Tchaikovsky

Debut: Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia  1890

An undeniably important ballet in the history of the art, The Sleeping Beauty has been presented time and again for over a century. The ballet has been reinterpreted by every major company since its first production in the late 1890s, and is a beloved gem in the canon of ballet. The New Yorker’s Andrew Porter describes it as, “the grandest, fullest and finest achievement of Classical ballet-it’s definitive statement…ballet’s Bible.”

The Sleeping Beauty (or “La Belle au Bois Dormant”) is traditionally presented in three acts, but the charming and energetic third act is often excerpted and presented as “Aurora’s Wedding.” Petipa’s choreography (most productions remain very true to his original) cleverly draws from Sleeping Beauty’s fellow fairy tales, featuring lovely divertissements by Cinderella and her Prince Charming, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and others of Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose characters.

Porter wonders how Sleeping Beauty stacks up against other quintessential ballets. Swan Lake, Cinderella and others, he claims, “symbolically enshrine truth about human experience and human behavior…” He asks, “Can we find a moral in The Sleeping Beauty beyond that guest lists should be kept up-to-date lest awkwardness result?” He claims that Tchaikovsky, who happily catered to extremely detailed composition instruction by choreographer Petipa, clearly expresses his own answer through his score. “[Tchaikovsky’s] Sleeping Beauty,” he says, “is a struggle between good and evil, between forces of light and forces of darkness, represented by the benevolent Lilac Fairy and the wicked fairy Carabosse.”

Thanks to the Bolshoi Ballet, which has begun to broadcast live performances from its magnificent, newly restored theatre in Moscow to movie screens around the globe, new audiences can make their own call on the ballet’s moral. And though nothing can compare to the excitement of viewing a ballet performance in the theatre itself, ballet can only stand to benefit from the greater exposure that such broadcasts provide.

My afternoon at DC’s West End Cinema was pure pleasure. Svetlana Zakharova’s Aurora was flawless. David Hallberg, the first American principal at the Bolshoi, was excellent despite his eerily weird facial expressions. Highlights, aside from the magnificent spectacle of the theatre and stage themselves, also included the gorgeous Princess Florine (Bluebird’s lovely partner), Puss in Boots and the Gold, Silver, Sapphire, and Diamond Fairies. I wasn’t moved by the stony Lilac Fairy , however, and even Carabosse’s superb pantomime (the role, as is tradition, was played by a man in travesti) was, alas, still boring pantomime to me!

Overall, I’m thrilled for the opportunity to see more ballet and plan to attend the next Bolshoi broadcast. My next wish is that other companies will follow suit and help expose new audiences – not only to classics like The Sleeping Beauty, but also to the exciting new work of contemporary artists.

Additional resources


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The Clowns

Choreography: Gerald Arpino

Music: Hershey Kay

Debut: Joffrey Ballet 1968

Clowns – scary, right? Well, the ballet seems to add a new dimension of eeriness to the subject.

Little is available online in terms of video or commentary but Balanchine deemed it worthy of inclusion in “101.” The ballet begins with a sort of inverted Big Bang, leaving a sole surviving clown among a heap of deceased victims. The survivor manages somehow to revive his dead companions, who in turn tap into previously undiscovered human tendencies toward violence and cruelty. When their wrath turns on the survivor, he succumbs to his own baseness. Imprisoning them all in a giant balloon, he again is the sole survivor.

Additional resources

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Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Choreography / Premieres: 

Rotislav Zakharov – 1945 (Bolshoi Ballet) / Konstantin Sergeyev, 1946 (Kirov Ballet)

Frederick Ashton – 1948 (Sadler’s Wells Ballet)

Margot Fonteyn as Cinderella

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

Moira Shearer as Cinderella

Ben Stevenson – 1970 (National Ballet at Lisner Auditorium, Wash. DC)

Most are already familiar with the tale of Cinderella. In 1697 French writer Charles Perrault published it in his “Tales of Mother Goose,” a collection of fairy tales. Prokofiev, however, saw “… Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us … What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path and finally the dream fulfilled.”

A ballet classic, Cinderella has been choreographed and staged many times for a variety of companies. Most versions tend to follow the story that we know. Cinderella has two step-sisters (usually played by men in drag) but her step-mother doesn’t always appear. Accompanying the Fairy Godmother are the Fairies of the Four Seasons. Some productions, including Ashton’s and Stevenson’s, do away with the prince’s round-the-world search for the lost slipper’s proper owner.

“Created in 1893, it was in this ballet that Pierina Legnani, an Italian ballet dancer who had just been taken on at the … Maryinski Theatre, was to introduce a series of thirty-two fouettés which would amaze audiences.”

Premiered by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1948, Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, which many consider to be the definitive version, is an homage to the classical tradition of Petipa. “…Ashton has built a wonderful ballet, using a typical mix of the finest choreography with comedy, irony, and at times an underlying sense of sadness. At the heart of the piece is the meltingly beautiful pas de deux for the Prince and Cinderella at the ball…Her famous entrance, walking on pointe down the great staircase whilst gazing straight ahead, must be terrifying to do but it is always a magical effect. Almost every Royal Ballet ballerina has danced it: the best make the most of the contrast between kitchen and ballroom…”

In 1976 Ben Stevenson was appointed artistic director of the fledgling Houston Ballet, where he remained for 27 years, and during that time he created such new works as “Dracula,” “Cleopatra” and “Peer Gynt,” and brought new life in his original versions of “The Nutcracker,” “Coppelia,” “Swan Lake,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Don Quixote.” But there’s something about “Cinderella” that causes it to remain his masterpiece.”


Sources / Additional resources

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