DANCE REVIEW : ABT Triumphs With New Morris Ballet

Times Music/Dance Critic

Last summer, the mighty New York City Ballet bumbled and stumbled through a ridiculously ambitious, hyper-trendy, much ballyhooed, empty-headed festival of modern dance that was supposed to celebrate American music. The costs were high, the standards low.

Meanwhile, American Ballet Theatre quietly went about its business as usual. On May 31, however, the business turned out to be very unusual. That night, Mark Morris introduced a quintessentially American ballet created very specifically for this company: “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” It succeeded--no, triumphed--in just about every area where the fancy folks next door at Lincoln Center had failed.

Wednesday night, rebounding from a lackluster opening night, Mikhail Baryshnikov & Company brought the piece to the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Triumph struck again.

Morris wasn’t around. Silly America has already lost him to Belgium.


The cast didn’t exactly duplicate that of the premiere. Baryshnikov isn’t dancing these days. Martine van Hamel graces the injured list. Julio Bocca and Robert Hill have left the company. Susan Jaffe was preoccupied with her new swan feathers.

Somehow none of this mattered. Morris has written a marvelously quirky set of love poems to dancers and, crucially, to the art of dance. It is an ensemble piece. All it needs is wit, bravado, technique, intelligence, discipline, nerves, charm, focus, energy, suavity and musicality in depth. The company mustered all of the above--and in glowing abundance, thank you.

“Drink to Me” is predicated on the impetus of 13 etudes by Virgil Thomson. The sentiment is tough. The excellent pianist, Michael Boriskin, is stationed center stage.

The introductory image--one of many repeated motives--reveals a man crossing the empty set while carrying a woman over his head. She is inert, stiff, a possible mannequin and potential sylph. Ultimately, the two do little. But they do return at key moments, providing the illumination of punctuation and embellishment.


Morris likes to play with ambiguity, likes to tease the viewer with unfulfilled expectations. He sets up ideas only to abandon them in mid-thought. He starts a potentially familiar phrase one way, ends it another. He savors Thomson’s gentle dissonances, consciously jerking a rhythm or juggling a beat or stressing an inner voice.

He didn’t invent every element in his highly inventive vocabulary. Reverentially, he cites the cheeky bravura of Twyla Tharp here, the guileless disorientation of Merce Cunningham there. He also quotes, and distorts, the lofty academic rituals of classical ballet everywhere. The perky fusion of these disparities, however, remains emphatically, refreshingly his.

“Drink to Me” pretends to be simple. It isn’t.

The dancers--a baker’s dozen on this occasion--wear practice uniforms. But they are ultra-elegant, spiffy white uniforms designed by the ubiquitous Santo Loquasto.


The maneuvers are fragmentary. But they can be excruciatingly difficult.

The structure looks primitive. But it evolves in convoluted permutations.

The dynamic range seems concerned with extremes. But as the exposition progresses, the focus accommodates many subtle gradations.

As is his wont, Morris ignores customary sex roles. He allows men and women both to be heroic, both to be delicate. He deals in universal gestures, ventures occasional in-jokes and always manages to sustain a consistent stylistic tone. He is affectionate, even when he mocks.


Most important, he makes his dancers look good. The well-matched, democratic ensemble on Tuesday enlisted only one official principal (Leslie Browne). Nevertheless, it attested to the exceptional strength of several artists currently ranked as soloist (most notably Cynthia Anderson, Kathleen Moore, Wes Chapman, Ethan Brown) and to the promise of some still languishing in the corps (Carld Jonassaint, Robert Wallace).

The two other components of the bill were familiar. One component proved too familiar.

“Les Sylphides,” which served as the lovely, antique centerpiece, was exquisitely dominated by Marianna Tcherkassky in the mazurka and pas de deux. Julie Kent, another corps dancer, exuded enough willowy serenity in the prelude to justify her recent (fleeting) prominence on the silver screen. In his local debut, Guillaume Graffin of Monte Carlo suggested that he could be a useful, even noble, cavalier to have around.

The evening closed with yet another performance of Leonide Massine’s “Gaite Parisienne” as danced by the costumes of Christian Lacroix. Some people just can’t get enough of a bad thing. This viewer could, and had the night before.