ABT II and The Royal Ballet School

The Ailey Citigroup Theater
New York City

Some years ago, American Ballet Theatre’s junior company, ABT II, shared a program with The Royal Ballet School. I remember thinking the kids from ABT II looked as good as any professional company while their British counterparts still looked like students. On this outing, however, the British kids were absolutely smashing—at least I believe that’s the proper London expression. Smashing!

Romanza by Gary Norman

Gary Norman’s Romanza.
Photo by Johan Persson.
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Opening with Gary Norman’s Romanza, seven RBS couples filled the stage, moving through perfectly-spaced formations—which was no easy feat given that the stage is a bit small for that many people, particularly with the women sporting stiff tutus. Their costumes, by Tessa Balls, were in white while the men were clad all in black with sleek jackets. Norman’s choreography (set to Paderewski’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op 17) was largely traditional—an excellent vehicle for showing off the students’ mastery of classical steps—and yet in some moments, like the swirling preparations into bird lifts, the choreography showed a more contemporary sensibility. As the male lead, Brandon Lawrence stood forth, anchoring the performance, though it was the group as a whole that won over the audience with warm smiles and a gracious presence.

ABT II danced Antony Tudor’s Continuo set to Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D Major, music which sounds deceptively easy-going but, when coupled with Tudor’s challenging choreography, really puts dancers to the test. Sterling Baca had some partnering difficulties but was stellar in his solo work. Colby Parsons—who, on first sight, resembles the main company’s David Hallberg—is a tall, lanky performer whose dancing looks leisurely, when time allows, but who really moves out when the choreography demands it.

Fractals by Parrish Maynard

Brandon Lawrence in Parrish Maynard’s ballet Fractals.
Photo by Johan Persson.
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Parrish Maynard, formerly a soloist with ABT, set Fractals on the RBS dancers. Driving music by Ken Kirschner created a palpable environment for this vigorous ballet which bore hallmarks of William Forsythe’s In the Middle…Somewhat Elevated: dancers strode onto the stage to get in position before commencing their variations; the movements were a virtuosic blending of the classical with the contemporary; even the costuming reminded one of his athletic, style-bending aesthetic. Dancers of note included Brandon Lawrence, again, as well as Grete Borud Nybakken who had a number of memorable moments—one of them being her strut down center stage toward the audience. She has the slight wriggle of a runway model and a smirk lurking about the corners of her mouth—like she knows something that we don’t and she’s about to dance it for us. She launches into her variations with complete command of every nuance—clearly a dancer to watch for. One of my particular favourites was Tomas Mock, a strong performer who cuts a clear, charismatic figure in everything he dances.

Schrumpf by Alastair Marriott

Alastair Marriott’s Schrumpf.
Photo by Johan Persson.
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After intermission we were treated to Alastair Marriott’s Schrumpf (music by Kurt Schwertsik, Scrumpf-Symphonie, Op 80), an enigmatic piece for three men and a woman with the slight air of a Diaghilev production. Like the performing dolls in Petrushka, so, too, do the characters in this ballet appear to be carnival performers who execute Marriott’s ingenious tricks for the entertainment of an audience. Also like Petrushka, however, there’s an air of mystery enshrouding these stunts. Even though the performers smile genially to us, there is something other-worldly about them, as though something else, perhaps even sinister, is behind their appearance. Gina Scott was wonderful as the lead woman; Lawrence and Mock were joined by Calum Lowden to form the trio of men who, perfectly synchronised, held Scott aloft in their scissor-like legs, or formed a box into which she folded double and slipped down out of view.

Alysa Shee and Aaron Smyth represented ABT II in the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. I liked seeing this work immediately following Schrumpf because of the stylistic contrast. Stereotypes of English reserve and American bravado sprung to mind, though the truth of this idea of national styles is fading with the stylistically-international capabilities of today’s ballet companies. I’d venture that any major company could do Ashton’s Monotones with the proper mood, or work by Forsythe with the athleticism we enjoyed from the originating company. My proof of this theory is the fact that while Aaron Smyth danced his part in Stars and Stripes with what could be considered a brash, American confidence, I was later to learn that he’s actually Australian. All this hypothesizing about national traits aside, let me not get away from the fact that Smyth’s performance was brilliant. He has great ballon, a strong, clear line in the air, and a confidence that puts the audience at ease. One of the greatest gifts a performer can give to those watching is assurance that things will be well-handled—Smyth has this gift in spades—there’s naught worse than under-prepared dancers who leave us wincing as they muddle through.

Programme notes indicate these two groups will do a reciprocal performance in the 2011-2012 school year when ABT II will go to London to perform at The Royal Ballet School’s facilities. One hopes this international exchange will continue in spite of the fact that, by that time, ABT II will have undergone some restructuring. The junior company will be folded back into ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, it will return to its earlier moniker of ‘ABT Studio Company’ and, sadly, they’ll bid farewell to current artistic director Wes Chapman under whose leadership the group has blossomed over recent seasons. Previously serving as an ambassador for the main company, by doing outreach performances at smaller venues around the world, the troupe will return to its core focus of preparing dancers for ABT and other renowned companies. One can only imagine such reining in is due to budgetary constraints, another sign of how dire economic conditions impact the arts in a country where there’s little support from the government.

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