- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

American Ballet Theatre is midway through a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, bringing with it three programs devoted entirely to retro ballets.

The newest one was created in 1911.

The 1841 “Giselle” led off last week, followed over the weekend with four ballets by Michel Fokine. It was here in the ballet “Petrouchka” that the company came truly, vibrantly alive.

“Petrouchka” is a brilliant and haunting work, with its powerful score by Igor Stravinsky; the daring design of its scenery and costumes by Alexandre Benois and Fokine’s strikingly original choreography.

The boldness of the ballet is unusual, as is the clarity and unity of vision of its three collaborators.

This revival of “Petrouchka,” created in 1911, had its debut Friday evening. The story of the forlorn puppet Petrouchka, who loves not wisely but too well, who frightens off his beloved by his outburst of wild enthusiasm, is touched with pathos. It was a triumph for former Joffrey dancer Gary Chryst, who has re-staged “Petrouchka” with amazing verve and vivid attention to detail.

It was also a triumph for the opening cast. Amanda McKerrow as the doll-like Dancer and Marcelo Gomes as the self-satisfied Moor were superb. As the title character, Ethan Stiefel took on the iconic role that has produced memorable performances by the 20th century’s greatest male dancers — from Vaslav Nijinsky to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Mr. Stiefel gave a remarkable performance; his eagerness both touching and funny, his gestures an uncanny mix of puppet-like and human.

A special treat was the appearance of Frederic Franklin as the Charlatan. The former star of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, now 90, is a true living legend of dance who still commands the stage with his personal warmth and style.

“Petrouchka” is not only an intimate drama; its climax (set in a colorful St. Petersburg fair, complete with a dancing bear, falling snow and a stage vividly alive with dozens of well-sketched characters) was a further tribute to Mr. Chryst’s staging and ABT’s fine dancers.

The other delight on the Fokine program was “Spectre de la Rose,” with a pretty performance by Xiomara Reyes and a stunningly airborne one by Herman Cornejo. The traditional costume for the man of rose petals sewn on a bodysuit and bathing cap has happily been replaced by a more streamlined version. Mr. Cornejo has a great floating leap and handled his arms like tendrils on a vine.

Mr. Franklin, known for his amazing archival memory of dance, staged a revival of the “Polovtsian Dances” from “Prince Igor.” Unfortunately this work of unabashed kitsch is showing its age.

The program was completed by “Les Sylphides,” now seldom seen but once ubiquitous in the ballet repertoire.

It’s a puzzlement why this and the performances of “Giselle” I saw earlier in the week had such a drab tinge to them. The company seems to be pushing for a hallowed aura to its historical ballets and this translates into attenuated phrasing and drawn-out tempos that lose all vitality.

It beset the opening night “Giselle” in the dancing of the corps in the first act. In the second act there were beautiful slow adagio passages between Giselle and her lover, Albrecht. But sometimes phrasing and flow disappeared.

Three experienced ballerinas danced Giselle the first three nights. Opening the engagement, Julie Kent brought her compelling stage presence to the role. Her mad scene was carefully thought out and her second act full of soft grace. But Jose Manuel Carreno, an excellent dancer, was uninvolved as her partner and there was not much chemistry between them in this tale of undying love.

Amanda McKerrow’s Giselle has always been one of her finest roles. Her grave innocence was touching as she blossomed under Albrecht’s admiration, before she learned of his betrayal.

She was also blessed with Mr. Stiefel as her partner. He was carefree and headstrong as Albrecht in the first act, anguished when he realized his part in Giselle’s death and gave a stunning performance as dancer and partner in the second act.

The dramatic ballerina Alessandra Ferri was passionate in the title role on Thursday, dancing with a favorite partner, Julio Bocca, who plays Albrecht with casual charm.

Miss Ferri and Miss McKerrow omitted the difficult diagonal hops across stage in the first act. Although they are a well-known feature of the part, both ballerinas have the wisdom to shape a performance within their capabilities. Giselle of all roles depends not on technical tours de force (although the technical demands are formidable) but the more elusive art of conveying deep and subtle emotion.

***

WHAT: American Ballet Theatre

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Evening performances are at 7:30 tomorrow through Saturday. Matinees are at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

TICKETS: $29 to $99

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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