Most of New York’s American Ballet Theater didn’t have to broach locked-down airports and squeeze onto the rare flight leaving the East Coast – all but a few of the personnel bused in last week from Southern California. Still, when the sixty-member touring company hits the Zellerbach stage this week, we in the theater may just weep. Over the years ABT has given us dance to cry for, dance of such sweep and grandeur, and dancers like Julie Kent so divine that they make our skin tingle and our eyes cloud over. But with thousands dead or missing in New York in last week’s hellish demolition of the World Trade Center, to have a bit of Manhattan safely here defies the belligerents who hope for war, and may make us cry with relief that aspects of peace and beauty endure.
It was no accident that the New York company, 61 years ago, chose to be the company for the country. Its ambitions, like its repertory, have been big ever since Lucia Chase, heiress to the Chase bank fortune, and a group of dancers from the Mordkin Ballet founded ABT. They opened in January in 1940 with 85 dancers, 21 ballets, and 11 choreographers on the roster, their idea being to create a ballet museum comprising the best works of dance history along with new, commissioned, American work.
When the company last performed here four years ago, the uneven dancing that plagued the company in the days of the big stars like Natalia Markarova and Eric Bruhn was gone. Director Kevin McKenzie had swept his house clean of the rampant elitism and sloppy ballet corps that set in after too many fat years. It’s not a perfect company – the stars may not shine as brightly as they once did – but its moments of greatness, especially in less abstract ballets, accumulate faster than Bobby Bonds’ home runs.
“I’m old enough to have witnessed the great days of ABT,” Cal Performances director Robert Cole said by phone last week. “Performances were incredible occasions, always sold out, with great stars.” Now, with a stellar lineup of dancers, says Cole, “there’s a chance for the company to rise to that level again. I think it’s important that people see them, and I want to do what little I can to encourage classical ballet as an art form.”
This week in a two-program, five-day run, ABT goes for broke in a contemporary bill that includes the West Coast premiere of Mark Morris’ Gong accompanied by Terry Riley’s Tabuh Tabuhan and the local premiere of Paul Taylor’s Black Tuesday, referring eerily to a disaster 72 years ago, when the stock market crashed and the banks closed. In program two, ABT moves fluidly across the choreographic spectrum with its full-length Giselle, the to-die-for tragedy that tests the skill and artistry of every company that attempts it. And if, like me, you can’t help looking for signs and symbols right now, Giselle is a good place to search: It is a story about the living and the dead joining forces and together, through the power of endurance and passion, defying the cold, magnetic pull of vengeance.