Review: Ballet Theater Goes From Tap to Sci-Fi Rites of Spring

Posted May 22, 2018 6:38 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It’s a rare soul who feels that a ballet gala should include the world premiere of a drama in which a mother sees her child exterminated in a gas chamber as part of a futuristic ritual. After all, most people think ballet galas are events for pretty dances in which a male star spins on one leg and a ballerina hops around on point, in a dance charmingly set in a bygone era. On Monday, American Ballet Theater gave us both at the Metropolitan Opera House. For good measure, it also threw in a (kind of) tap number, too.

The gas-chamber dance is Wayne McGregor’s “AfteRite,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The spin-and-hop period one was a preview of two excerpts from Marius Petipa’s “Harlequinade” (1900), to Riccardo Drigo’s score, as staged by Alexei Ratmansky. The tap piece — another world premiere — was “Praedicere,” by Michelle Dorrance. All three would have worked much better in a smaller theater, especially “Praedicere”; I felt as if I were watching all three with clinical detachment and without personal involvement.

“AfteRite” came last, but let’s speak of it first. How do you make Stravinsky’s “Rite” modern again? McGregor’s drama is ingenious and often suspenseful. Individuals gather joylessly in simple, pale, modern dance wear. In one corner there’s a glass-doored interior chamber with green shrubs in pots. (Vicki Mortimer designed the costumes and set. The lighting, which helps to distance the dancers from us, is by Lucy Carter.)

You come to know a few individuals (notably Herman Cornejo, Jeffrey Cirio and Misty Copeland). From her first entrance, Alessandra Ferri — the former Ballet Theater dramatic ballerina now in her 50s, returning as a guest — is immediately poignant, and subtly differentiated from others onstage. You see two children in the chamber; Ferri later joins them there, then leads them out, standing protectively with them. How do these and other ingredients connect?

Part of the mystery is the style of movement that McGregor gives his dancers. Nothing is primitive here; there’s a multiplicity of action. You’re often unsure which parts of the stage to look at because there are at least two different things going on. When a little point work occurs, it’s peripheral. Torsos move as much as legs; as always with McGregor, heads often jut. An expressionistic force seems to compel this tribe. The lift of a thigh, the holding of a balance, the bending of a back often seem compelled — but by what?

Dancers also partner one another. Since men partner and lift men as well as women from an early stage, it’s hard to know how much gender is an issue here. Yet to some degree it certainly is. In particular, Ferri and Copeland are manipulated — but also respected.

McGregor doesn’t tell his story clearly, but its ambiguities are the point. Though I’ve given away what happens at the climax, I think its element of horror leads us back to the tragic cruelty of Stravinsky’s drama — but this time we follow it from the mother’s point of view.

True, no ballet ever realizes all that’s going on in this score, but McGregor’s timing is often remarkably good, especially in the way he catches those bass notes that come like depth charges.

And you leave wanting to know more about the sociology of this tribe. How does Copeland fit in? What will happen to the second daughter? Is Cornejo the main child’s father as well as her chief executioner?

I’ve often resisted McGregor’s work in the past. I can’t say I succumb to it here. But he’s greatly helped by giving himself this sci-fi narrative. And he elicits devout, intelligent, arresting dancing from Ballet Theater’s performers. He has worked with Ferri at both the Royal Ballet and Fall for Dance at City Center. She has the raw truthfulness of Eleonora Duse or Anna Magnani; her mere presence is intensely affecting. One disappointment is her duet with Cornejo (to the music traditionally associated with the Chosen Maiden’s solo): She protests, but with a numbness bordering on tepidity.

The gala opened with the Act 1 ballabile and the Act 2 Hunt of the Larks from “Harlequinade,” both high-spirited and appealing. Robert Perdziola’s scenery, a perspectival townscape, and costumes are wonderful in color and detail. The Petipa choreography alternates between formulaic sequences and inventive wit. The full premiere of this two-act work arrives on June 4; I hope it will seem of greater consequence than these amiable, chirpy excerpts.

Though 14 dancers delivered Dorrance’s “Praedicere” with panache, this would have looked better in a far smaller theater — the Joyce, say. Even with amplification, the footwork seldom registered in terms of sound. The mixture of ballet and tap mainly filtered out the best elements of either. But a winning solo, with brightly ballet jumps, came from Craig Salstein, an engaging former company soloist who, after 16 years, here made a farewell appearance with the company.

American Ballet Theater

Performed May 21 at the Metropolitan Opera House. The season continues through July 7; abt.org.