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ABT choreographers toy with tradition

by Apollinaire Scherr, Newsday, November 2, 2007.

Besides stellar dancing, you can usually count on American Ballet Theatre for wonderful acquisitions – this season, Balanchine’s effervescent “Ballo della Regina” and Twyla Tharp’s casually sexy “Baker’s Dozen” – and terrible commissions.

Benjamin Millepied’s “From Here on Out” and Jorma Elo’s “C. to C. (Close to Chuck)” are not terrible, but they’re too oblivious to their own resources to be especially good.

Both choreographers have grafted the boneless, loose-limbed upper body of European contemporary dance onto classical ballet’s turned-out legs, sharp pointes and penchant for partnering. (The duets are so incessant, they could be choreographing for Noah’s Ark.)

Indebted to hip-hop’s popping and locking, Elo sets a stiff torso against wiggly, signifying arms. Millepied favors a more holistic style, with creaturely limbs and a pliant torso forming a single whorl of motion. The choreographers are playing with tradition without meaning much by it.

They do not tease out the implications of ballet conventions, as William Forsythe has done in imagining the corps as a proto-fascist phalanx. Nor do they purposefully abandon tradition, as did Andonis Foniadakis in a recent ballet to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion when he replaced the orderly corps with a mass of bodies as resplendently chaotic as passion – modern passion – itself. [Geneva’s wonderful Ballet du Grande Theatre performed this piece, “Selon Desir (According to Desire),” last week at the Joyce Theater.]

To be fair, Millepied and Elo have been making dances for less than a decade, and they are improving.

Elo, Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer, is learning about pacing: “C. to C. (Close to Chuck)” offers welcome moments of slowness and quiet. With artist Chuck Close’s crippling aneurysm as his prompt, Elo even ventures into drama, though what his robotic style will yield in that realm – beyond the struggle to be or not be a robot – remains to be seen. At least he’s forcing himself to find out.

Millepied, a 30-year-old principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and a sought-after freelance choreographer, has made bold use of contemporary composers before. He strikes gold with wunderkind Nico Muhly. The 26-year-old’s original score lays down a mushroom cloud of sound that miraculously breeds bird calls and light.

The composer’s regular injection of new melodies – a bright patch of horn arpeggios erupting from a slither of violins, say – does not inspire in Millepied an equally mercurial structure for the ballet: The dance’s churning rhythms quickly become predictable. But it does seem to have engendered striking steps. Millepied’s soft shapes harbor strife.

A few of the dancers pick up on this contradiction. Sarawanee Tanatanit writhingly resists her own steps. Perched on her partner, David Hallberg, Gillian Murphy darts a glance to the wings as if suspecting danger beyond this opaque bubble of a world.

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