American Ballet Theatre
Ballet, more so than nearly any other performance art form, has to be experienced live. The "visual perfume" of dance for some reason fails to transfer to the film or television screen. What makes the spine tingle in the theatre are the sparks between the extravagantly dressed creatures on stage and the darkened mass in front of them — invisible, yet looking on with an insatiable, voyeuristic hunger that somehow adds to the performance. No dance film has been able to capture a fraction of the rapturous tales about which one hears and reads.
The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has been the company of stars since its formation in 1940. Like America itself, ABT's greatest strength and weakness is precisely its rootlessness, its lack of a past or a style and thus its ability to do and incorporate anything and everything. The company's ideological flexibility, or laxity, has attracted celebrities such as Fracci, Makarova, Bruhn, Ferri and Baryshnikov. The 2006 incarnation of ABT boasts a roster of awardwinning Latin and Eastern European principals who have won just about every dance prize under the sun, and are rightfully worshipped as superstars in the company's New York home. In London, where most of these dancers are relatively unknown, their halos looked surprisingly dim.
ABT's five-day season at Sadler's Wells saw the company give four programmes of excerpts, pieced together to show off its international brigade. The company's three leading ballerinas — Paloma Herrera, Gillian Murphy, and Irina Dvorovenko (from Argentina, America and the Ukraine) — delivered the expected goods, but I kept thinking during the performance that some of our girls could more than match them, high leg for high leg, multiple pirouettes for multiple pirouettes. In fact, Herrera, for all her slightly underwhelming pyrotechnics, was a wooden actress who embodied little of La Bayadere's oriental mystery or the Black Swan's dangerous glamour. The three ABT prima ballerinas were so stylistically variegated that it would be nearly impossible to imagine them housed together in the more traditional institutions of Paris, Copenhagen and St Petersburg. On the other hand, the leading men were dancing on more of a wavelength. In Jerome Robbins's 1944 Fancy Fi-ee, Jose Manuel Carreilo, the highest-profile Cuban defector alongside Fernando Bujones and Carlos Acosta, strutted his stuff as an off-duty sailor whose suave ways with women and the bottle at once captured the joie de vivre of New York's nightlife while the war raged on across the Atlantic.
Hailing from Spain, Angel Corella is the prince among ABT's dominant Latin machismo. It is particularly heartening to see him evolve into a mature and thoughtful danseur noble. Corella's fireworks still crackled — a 10-revolution pirouette dazzles the eye in whatever context — but he was also one of the few dancers in the company that looked genuinely at home whether in Twyla Tharps' jazzy Sinatra Suite or Marus Petipa's academically classic extracts.
Unexpectedly, the most astonishing dancing of the weekend came from a tiny Argentine who leapt across the stage with the lightness and agility of a panther. At first glance, Herman Comejo may not strike one as the obvious choice for Fokine's homage to high camp, Le Spectre de la Rose, a love-struck girl's dream about a red rose coming alive. In fact, few men in history have got away with the dark fuchsia embroidered costume, but Cornejo, with a passing resemblance to the fawnlike youth in Caravaggio paintings. made for a compellingly feral rose spirit. It wasn't so much the height of his leaps or the squeaky cleanness of his beats and turns in the air. What intoxicated the eye was the weightlessness, seamlessness, and utter silence of the dancing. In this iconic ballet made famous by the Nijinsky, Cornejo made every technical hurdle sublimate into silhouettes of brilliance. The young girl, danced by Xiomara Reyes, must live an enviably colourful life in her waking hours.