Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Overgrown Path -- ABT at Bard College, Friday October 17, 2008

Overgrown Path

We arrived at Bard two hours before curtain. It was a gorgeous fall day, the colors of the Hudson Valley in full array as we approached our destination, the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center. Winding around the well-groomed lawns toward the theater, we saw two deer grazing by the roadside. The road dipped down and around to the parking lots, and, since we were early, we got a choice spot. The bigger lot further downhill requires an uphill trek from its users and Bard thoughtfully provides chauffered golf carts as taxis for its health-compromised theatergoers.

The campus's bucolic autumn atmosphere lent itself to the first ballet after intermission, Jiří Kylián's Overgrown Path.It is in this 10-part non-storied story ballet that the ABT principals and soloists are found mingling as one entity, separated abstractly into solos and duos and more. Five principals, five soloists, two corps members, dressed in fall colors -- red, orange, yellow -- and black, all in ballet slippers, and often in a simultaneously moving mass like leaves blown in the wind, convey an atmosphere of foreboding as they seem to be inexorably rushing toward something against their wills.This can be viewed as a "story" ballet if one is aware of its reason for being.

From ABT's site we read:

"The ballet is inspired by Leoš Janáček's autobiographical piano pieces, the path is the composer's life, imbued with rich memories of his small Czech village to the untimely demise of his beloved daughter." (from the program notes)
Seen without any background info, it's a ballet of movement, shapes, modern-dance angst and turmoil, and the experimental choreography of the next generation of modern dancemakers after Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor. Kylián dedicated the ballet to Antony Tudor and based it on Leoš Janáček's "intimate piano cycle, which gradually evolved over a number of years spanning the time before and after 1902, in the saddest period of Janáček's life.

It is the sequential deaths of his two children that informed Leoš Janáček's composing ever after. The overgrown path symbolizes the memories we all have, which become a jumble of events losing or gaining impact, depending on how our experiences through the years reorder our lives. What was once monumentally important may fade alongside other, more trivial at the time, incidents which now carry greater emotional influence for us. And so, to the performance.

David LaMarche strode to his piano in the orchestra pit, with a round of applause accompanying him. His giftedness with the 88s was apparent at the first musical passage. This is ABT's master pianist and we were so privileged to hear him. I felt a confidence with LaMarche that I did not feel with Barbara Bilach's opening notes for "Baker's Dozen", although she had to play twice as many notes, twice as fast (why does that sound like a familiar cliche in the context of her being a woman.....hmmm ).

LaMarche's overture led us into an ensemble dance where, first off, the costumes were noticed. Shapeless long dresses for the ladies, covering their balletic assets, reducing them to vehicles for molding, assembly and disassembly. The men fared no better with indistinct drab garb, homogenizing them all into, what? ... tree trunks? gnarly old branches? dried-up, blackened leaves? "Overgrown Path" doesn't allow identity by personality or technique to anyone. All are the same, the same but different. While there are some solo parts, some small groups, some couples, the roles could be danced interchangeably by anyone on stage, even given the natural physical and stylistic differences from one dancer to another.

The star of the ballet is the music, expressionistic in that it lets you imagine your own running scenario for it, even while you are being offered a visual framework by the ballet, much like seeing the movie version of a beloved book where they've portrayed it so differently than what was pictured in your mind's eye as you read it. At first, it suggests hope and promise, with only a hint of the tragedy to come. Extremely beautiful, and perfectly fitting the season, it pulls on your soul, when it's lilting as well as when it's surreal. As it progresses from part to part, the music starts to chill as it grabs you. As listener, you are whorled in with the same insistence as it captures the dancers onstage.

By the time we arrive at "The barn owl has not flown away", after "Unutterable anguish" and being "In tears" (the sections with the death, symbolized by the removal of the black-clad Gillian Murphy (playing the daughter who died) by Marcelo Gomes-- playing the role of death? -- from the midst of the other dancers) into an upstage abyss, the music is bold, urgent, unrelenting. In the stages of grief, this is somewhere in the anger, bargaining, depression and loneliness area. It is danced by Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, who, though known as ballet stars, deliver understated fluidity and supremely gifted movement in servitude to the music.

The eleventh, unnamed, part was danced to silence. Well, not really. It was taught to music in order to establish the phrasing and counts for the dancers, who then had the music pulled out from under them to be performed without it. But it wasn't done in silence. Finally, the dance was the star and the dancers, en masse, the star vehicles (like well-rehearsed corps members who must align themselves to each other by rote, using only the mobility of the eyes to check distances and positions). The piano stilled. What we heard, especially those who had close-to-the-stage perches, was the shuffling of a stageful of feet, vividly emphasizing the undercurrent of lives that continue for others even when life has ended for some.

The rustle also reminded us of the falling leaves outside, which reminded me of the curious deer who watched the cars arriving for the ballet. There is always life. The dancers continued agitatedly soft-shoeing it -- making me think also of the frenzied action of baby birds stretching their little heads up, mouths agape, for the worm brought by the mother bird -- or, more to the point, like this was the only thing that mattered to do in life, until the curtain softly fell.

Veronika Part and David Hallberg in Overgrown Path, NYT photo
Veronika Part -- how wonderful to see her! had some phrases to dance which allowed her beautiful penche to be admired. She partnered with David Hallberg for a pas de deux before blending back into the group. Julie Kent, in vivid red, did mostly ensemble work. She and Misty Copeland, also in red, were the female halves of "A blown-away leaf" with Jared Matthews and Gennadi Saveliev their male counterparts. It was pretty much a group dance which linked into a trio of staunchly stepping males. More group work, in various combinations of dancers, and then Alexandre Hammoudi was introduced to the piece as partner to Kristi Boone in "Good night". As they melted into the group, ensemble work returned, with smaller groups falling away to form new coalitions of movement.

There was forward marching, withdrawal, zombie-like, molasses-slow exiting steps, fluttering, and quiet. There was lifting, turning of dancers into sideways positions, picking up and moving of unmoving dancers, lunges, and retreats. The fact that the choreography was performed by some of the best dancers in the world did not escape my notice, but it was such a piece that would have looked good on any fine company anywhere, major or regional. Perhaps the high level of competence at ABT permitted the dancers to suppress their personas to serve the music and choreography better than dancers of less accomplishment could manage, I don't know.

Are ABT dancers so good that they can belie their training and experience while letting it intrinsically do the talking for them? Maybe they are. And it was fun to see Marcelo in the last line of the group -- in the shadows -- for a change! Or maybe I've thought too much about this ballet and what it means. When I asked my friend who saw it with me what she remembered from it, her reply was "I remember that it was my least favorite." And that remark came from a veteran balletgoer!

Second intermission

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