Dance Review: On A Rare Trip to Dallas, Did the American Ballet Theater Impress?

American Ballet Theater has only been to Dallas twice in the last thirty years. The last time they were here, six years ago, they performed at Southern Methodist University in the more traditional  McFarlin auditorium. On this return to Dallas last Friday evening, the performance took place in the ultra contemporary Winspear Opera House, to present masterworks by four renowned choreographers : Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Alexei Ratmansky.

What began as a slow evening of dance, with ballet choreographer, Alexie Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” followed by modern dance choreographer, Merce Cunningham’s  “Duets,” eventually gained momentum with a worthwhile crescendo displayed in both Balanchines’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de duex” and Paul Taylor’s “Company B.”

For “Seven Sonatas” the curtain opens to reveal a black grand piano just upstage of the yellow-orange saturated cyclorama. After a few bars of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, the dancers begin to emerge. Women adorned in long white flowing dresses with Romanesque bodices, glide across the stage briskly executing a complex petit allegro series. They weave their way through the men who are wearing traditional white tights with white romantic blouse. With all six dancers settled center stage, the sonatas begin to unfold. One after another they launch into a series of well organized transitions into the various sonatas.

What was billed as only seven sonatas seemed to be one perpetual sonata litany. From a compositional perspective “Seven Sonatas” was very well constructed. Ratmansky incorporated a wide variety of choreographic devices including theme and variation, generous use of cannons and working with dancers in pairs, trios, solos or as a fixed ensemble of six.

From a purely academic perspective, I applaud American Ballet Theater for reviving “Duets” the second piece on the Dallas program. “Duets,” by Merce Cunningham, may very well be one of his most accessible works for classically trained ballet dancers. The formal structure of “Duets” makes it a rare work for Cunningham who is best known for his innovative approach to creating dances based on a certain amount of “chance.” Unfortunately, with the bright purple, yellow, pink, and green lycra unitards, coupled with the repetitive and percussive musical arrangement by John Cage, this piece is firmly locked in the early eighties.  Composed of six consecutive dances, “Duets” is technically quite simple to perform but structurally as complex as any Cunningham fan would expect it to be.

The second half of the evening included: George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” and Paul Taylor’s “Company B.” Both well known, often performed masterworks of choreography. “Tchaikovsky Pas de deux” is a light and airy, short ballet. The performance here was extremely well executed; effortless partnering, charm and fabulous technique complete with precision, speed, turns and elevation.

Taylor’s “Company B” was a perfect ending to the evening. This ode to World War II, originally staged in 1991, includes bits of wartime dances that defined that generation:  like jive, jitterbug and the lindy hop. Accompanied by the Andrews sisters, this fun modern dance work was far better suited to the dancers of American Ballet Theater than Cunningham’s two dimensional “Duets.”