- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

American Ballet Theatre opened its annual week of performance at the Kennedy Center Tuesday evening with a program that was a study in contradictions.

Because the company appears here often, most ballet-goers are familiar with its repertoire. However, a stranger who wandered into this opening program might well have been mystified by ABT’s artistic profile. Is it a classical company performing without much conviction? An interpreter of lyrical modern dance? A razzmatazz group out to present pop ballets?

The company prides itself on being versatile, but an evening without a strong center left one feeling adrift.

The opening “Raymonda,” created at the end of the 19th century, was the last great ballet of Marius Petipa, choreographer of “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” It’s a full-length work with a medieval setting and a complicated plot that climaxes in a burst of Hungarian-tinged classical variations. It was this brilliant third act, often performed alone, that ABT danced.

Here was the challenge of grand classical dancing full of nuance and style — and the company performed it as if it were a classroom exercise.

The lack of style was striking, from both the lackluster ensemble and Gillian Murphy in a ballerina role that calls for an impassioned and authoritative performance. Miss Murphy has the authority and a pure, crystal-clear technique, but the passion and nuance that give the ballet color and life were missing in her cool, chiseled appearance.

The exception to all this was Angel Corella, who triumphed in his dancing and gave the ballet most of its excitement. He combines brilliant technique — soaring elevation, impeccable landings, dizzying turns — with a hunger for movement and generous-spirited warmth. This is an era of extraordinary male dancers, and he is one who makes it so.

For a complete change of pace, Nacho Duato’s “Without Words” was a soft and breathless series of solos, duets and trios for eight performers, including some plucked from the corps, along with leading dancers Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes and Ethan Stiefel. The work is set to music of Schubert, sensitively played by cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten and pianist Barbara Bilach.

Great dance works set to important music illuminate their scores— think George Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris. Mr. Duato does not aim so high; he uses the music almost like wallpaper. But he has created tender, interesting partnering that the dancers project with warmth and grace.

In addition to the principals, the finely tuned ensemble included Maria Riccetto, Julio Bragado Young, Danny Tidwell, Anne Milewski and Isaac Stappas.

“Without Words” reached its apotheosis in Mr. Stiefel’s transcendent solo. A dancer with finely burnished technique, he brings a feral alertness to everything he does. This combination of intensity and refinement made for a riveting performance.

It showed the artistry of which the company is capable, but then the evening concluded with the pop ballet “Within You Without You,” a good-hearted show-biz number set to the music of George Harrison and with “Jeans provided by Calvin Klein.” That sort of thing.

It sounded dubious on paper, with not one, but four choreographers involved in the enterprise: Stanton Welch, Natalie Weir, Ann Reinking and David Parsons. Naturally, they used a lot of the same virtuoso steps, and its artistic aims were nil. Yet “Within-Without” was so determinedly designed to please that it had a breezy charm.

The dancers did all that was asked of them, performing with acrobatic and virtuoso flourish. The evening’s two male stars were again standouts, with Mr. Corella’s quirky opening solo and Mr. Stiefel providing the most individual moment in the ballet’s title song. “Within You Without You,” with its East Indian sounds, gave Miss Weir a peg for her choreography, and Mr. Stiefel’s performance made it exhilarating.

The program will be repeated this evening with some intriguing cast changes, and ABT will conclude with performances of the full-length “La Bayadere” over the weekend.

**1/2 WHAT: American Ballet Theatre

WHEN: Today at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $27 to $97

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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