PostHeaderIcon ABT: A Contemporary Classic

ABT - fancy free

Chicago is more a home for modern dance than classical ballet. The names of our most noted local companies stress that point: Hubbard Street Dance, River North Dance Company, Joel Hall Dancers. Yes, we can now boast of our illustrious Joffrey Ballet but it relocated here from New York in 1995.

This preference for modern dance is probably rooted in the nation’s more democratic, pioneering character while “The Ballet” took root in aristocratic Europe.  This town clearly prefers dance with an American pedigree mixed with some Broadway razzmatazz, exemplified by such 20th Century choreographers as Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp to Lou Conte, Bob Fosse and Merce Cunningham.

However, when American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s great dance companies pays a visit to the Civic Opera House, attention must be paid. They are here through Sunday, April 18 for six performances of an updated staging of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” by its Artistic Director, Kevin McKenzie.

ABT is celebrating its 70th Anniversary this season as “America’s National Ballet Company”(so named by an act of Congress in 2006). That doesn’t mean the company consists of purely American talent. Bios of the company’s principal dancers note they hail from St. Petersburg, Madrid, Havana, Buenos Aires and other international cities as well as the U.S. of A.. The claim refers to its stated mission of presenting the best ballets of the past while also performing new works by outstanding contemporary choreographers.

I used to regularly attend ABT and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet when I lived in New York more than 25 years ago. For Wednesday’s opening night performance, McKenzie chose to show off its stellar company of 85 dancers in an All-American program. I went, curious to see how predominantly foreign-born, classically-trained dancers executed the contrasting dance steps and style of Tharp, Taylor and Jerome Robbins.

When the curtain rose on Twyla Tharp’s “Brahms-Haydn Variations”, however, we were not in Kansas but some 19th Century Mittel-Europa city like Vienna.  The dancers wore traditional ballet costumes and the ballerinas danced on point. There were many lifts and duet partnering. The only idiosyncratic Tharp touch I could detect were long slides across the stage and one ballerina’s flip of her feet in a dash of exuberance.  Who knew Tharp had a classical period?

As I watched this smartly-executed, semi-enjoyable work commissioned by ABT and premiered in 2000, I longed to see flashes of Tharp’s signature style, as in “Push Comes to Shove” or “Nine Sinatra Songs” and on full display in her Broadway hits, “Movin’ On” and the current “Come Fly With Me”.

Perhaps ABT was reluctant to be too All-American and sought to reassure the tony opening night audience that they were in the right house.  As soon as the perky sounds of the Andrew Sisters opened “Company B” by Paul Taylor, all worries dissolved and I sat back to thoroughly enjoy the company’s catchy swing dance variations to a host of popular World War II songs—“Bei Mir Bist du Schon”, “Pennsylvania Polka”, “Oh, Johnny”, “Tico Tico” and their smash hit, “Bugle Boy of Company B”. The evocative duet by Simone Messmer and Grant Delong in “There Will Never Be Another You” was particularly moving while Craig Salstein’s male heart-throb in “Oh Johnny, Oh”, captured the braggadocio of a single guy in hot pursuit by seven frisky females to winning perfection.

The gingham shirts, red bandanas, hoop skirts and slacks relocated us back smack in the American heartland while the sailor costumes in Jerome Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free” sealed the deal.  The delightful “all-American” trio of Carlos Lopez, Sascha Radetsky and Daniil Simkin (hailing from Madrid, Santa Cruz, CA and Russia respectively) danced up a storm, executing Robbins’ hot-blooded boys meet girls escapade with aplomb and panache.  They moved the audience to its feet, generated lusty applause at the final curtain and left me exiting the Opera House thinking, “Yep, that’s real American”.

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