American Ballet Theatre, fall season

At Lincoln Center on Saturday, October 10.

The American Ballet Theatre doesn’t usually perform at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall—and for good reason. It’s a terrible place for a dance performance. The majority of the balcony seats, in three tiers along the walls of the long rectangular room, have only a partial view of the stage. There’s no orchestra pit, so all the accompanying music must be performed by a mere handful of musicians sitting in a back corner of the stage. And there’s no curtain, so the dancers have to warm up in full view, the ballerinas with sweat pants pulled up underneath their skirts, an amusingly ungraceful effect.

I was trying to make the best of it, but the woman sitting next to me Saturday was not shy about voicing her displeasure with the situation. After she had finished griping about how she couldn’t see the left third of the stage even when she leaned forward in her seat, she started complaining about the lack of a curtain. “I don’t like having the stage just be open,” she told me. “It ruins the mystique!” I mumbled something noncommittal—I was trying to read my program—but she turned back to me a few minutes later. “Never mind what I said earlier,” she said, now smiling. “This is fun. It’s like having a backstage pass!”

So I looked up for a second look, and she was right. It was fun watching the dancers warm up, walking through steps, practicing gestures, greeting one another with theatrical kiss-kisses on both cheeks, all the while dressed in their goofy hodgepodge of slick performance attire and grungy hoodies and legwarmers. And that, the mixed blessing of a bad venue, set the tone for the program. My seat really was lousy, and there were aspects of the music and choreography that I didn’t like, but I had fun despite my misgivings. The beautiful elements of the dancing were truly beautiful, and that made up for a lot.

The program featured three new works by three different choreographers, which was a treat, especially as it opened and closed with the two strongest: Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” and Benjamin Millepied’s “Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once.” Millepied’s chosen accompaniment, three uninspired minimalist works by David Lang, left me cold, but he found a lean energy in the crisp music that I enjoyed despite myself. The work featured a larger ensemble than any of the other numbers, and the dancers’ uniform angularity—their sharp, decisive moments—delighted me. The work lost some momentum in the second movement, an inert, posey pas de deux, but reclaimed it quickly in the final part, thanks largely to the athletic, crowd-pleasing Daniil Simkin. Simkin performed electrifying, gravity-defying leaps, and on some, his fellow male dancers caught him mid-air, with his legs stretched out to a perfect 180 degrees. The catches were eerily perfect—absolutely no rebound, timed perfectly to a beat of silence in the music—creating the illusion that time had simply stopped, leaving Simkin frozen in space, a stunning effect.

Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” was less showy and more elegant, with a quirky romantic mood. The work featured three pairs, each given a turn in the spotlight, and it sparkled with little personalized gestures that seemed to hint at all kinds of emotional undercurrents fizzing amid the pretty steps. The full ensemble passages didn’t have the delicate charm of those in “Concerto DSCH,” which the New York City Ballet premiered last year, but the “Sonatas” pas de deux were gorgeous and bewitchingly cheerful. (I don’t know why that struck me so, but it did. The apparent joy with which the dancers performed that particular number was contagious.)

“Sonatas” was probably my favorite work on the program—particularly impressive considering its musical handicap: the accompanist’s damper-heavy performance of Scarlatti’s would-be-should-be crisp sonatas drove me crazy. Aszure Barton’s “One of Three,” on the other hand, featured Maurice Ravel’s marvelous jazz-inflected Violin Sonata in G, performed impeccably by violinist Ronald Oakland and pianist David LaMarche. I wanted to love the choreography that went along with it, but I simply couldn’t get past the weird, rabbity shoulder shrugs and the spectacularly unflattering, cheap-looking dresses.

If anything vied with “Seven Sonatas,” it was Jerome Robbins’s “Other Dances”—a simple pas de deux, not one of his more impressive works, but beautifully polished and flirty and appealing even so. (Plus: Chopin mazurkas! Yay!) David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy, two accomplished principals in the company, seemed to toss the steps off, sailing through the work with breezy confidence. For that work, my awful seat was actually pretty good: the positive of being close to the stage outweighed the negative of being way too far to the side. I might not have been able to see the dancers when they moved too far to stage right, but as long they stayed on the other two-thirds, I could see their faces perfectly, emphasizing just how warm and personable Robbins’s choreography really is. I can’t say I want ABT to perform at Avery Fisher regularly, but as a treat, it ended up being a far better experience than either I or my grouchy neighbor expected.

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