Clear, Afternoon of a Faun, and Fancy Free

The American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center on Saturday, October 28.

When selecting which dance repertory programs to see, I usually pick based on strong interest in one particular piece. When I actually attend, however, that special piece is rarely my favorite and occasionally a disappointment. It’s a fun reminder that although I’ve studied music and film and theater, dance is still new to me, and I really don’t know what I’m doing when I make my choices.

I attended Saturday, for example, because I’m familiar with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and I thought that music would accompany an enjoyably dreamy ballet. As it turned out, Jerome Robbins’ choreography left me cold. Robbins invented a scenario for the short work—a male dancer practicing alone in a studio is joined by a ballerina with beautiful long hair—but that scenario adds little and detracts considerably. It manages to be both intrusively specific (why couldn’t Robbins choreograph an uncluttered mood piece?) and distractingly vague (is the ballerina real or imaginary?). The “story” also leads to pointless, pensive meandering about the stage instead of, you know, dancing. Although there obviously is no speaking, it still reminded me of the common “show, don’t tell” admonition to writers. The choreography effectively tells us the man is daydreaming instead of showing us those reveries or, even better, what those reveries feel like.

The conceit that bothered me most, however, is the presence of an imaginary mirror on the “fourth wall” between the stage and the audience. Instead of looking at each other or out into the audience, the dancers gaze intently into the middle distance, ostensibly at their own reflections. The effect is irritatingly narcissistic, even solipsistic. The choreography implies that the woman is imaginary, too, but the man’s concentration on himself makes me wonder what she could represent to him. To draw a highly inappropriate comparison, the dance reminds me of the howlingly funny scene in the movie American Psycho in which the antihero, Patrick Bateman, preens incessantly before a mirror during a ménage à trois, all but oblivious to his two partners. Perhaps Robbins’ choreography isn’t supposed to be sexual, but whether the woman is supposed to embody a sexual fantasy or an aesthetic ideal or a muse or merely an ordinary woman, the whole scenario feels weirdly masturbatory.

The “mirror” also isolates the audience. I felt completely disconnected from what was happening on stage—not that much was happening on stage. Afternoon of a Faun has its moments, but most of the choreography feels lazy, not so much a dream as the dull, foggy feeling one has before waking completely.

Robbins’ breezy Fancy Free is much more fun. The iconic dance depicts three sailors on shore leave as they harass passing women—wait, no, that would be my bias there. But honestly: three men surround a woman whom they don’t know, steal her purse, and taunt her by holding it just beyond her reach. Surely you don’t have to be the sort of person who, as a young girl, cried at The Taming of the Shrew, wrote an alternate ending to My Fair Lady, and looked contemptuously upon the Little Mermaid’s sale of her voice to find that just a tiny bit creepy.

But I digress. The dancing in Fancy Free is delightful, no matter how I feel about the ever-so-charming behavior of the sailors, who do become more bearable once the two women consent to join them for drinks. Robbins created solo dances for each of the three sailors, and those, for me, are the highlight of the piece. The solos are energetic and spirited, and Craig Salstein, Sascha Radetsky, and Jose Manuel Carreño performed them with perfect bravado.

My favorite work of the evening, though, was unquestionably Clear, choreographed by Stanton Welch. I’m not familiar with Welch, so I wouldn’t have known to seek Clear out (though I adore the Bach concertos to which it is set), but it is heartstoppingly gorgeous. The piece calls for seven men and one woman—a fairly unusual combination that showcases the male dancers. Such choreography often focuses solely on the men’s athleticism, but Welch requires not only enormous leaps and spins but true lyricism, as well. The steps go beyond impressive; they are beautiful, emotional, and sensitive to the contours of the music.

Herman Cornejo was the lead dancer Saturday afternoon, and he was brilliant, swooningly expressive and dazzling with his pirouettes. The most striking episodes in the piece, however, were the duets between Alexandre Hammoudi and Blaine Hoven. The pair didn’t dance together, exactly, but in concert: the elegant movements of one followed a beat behind by the other. The effect was lovely. After a while, Xiomara Reyes joined them for a pas de trois, which Welch choreographed almost as one would a pas de deux with the man’s part duplicated. Hammoudi, Hoven, and Reyes danced in tight proximity to each other, their limbs weaving together and apart, the men lifting Reyes as one. I might not have gone to the theater to see Clear, but as I left, it was that work that lingered in my thoughts.