Seeing Double

Classic Arts Features   Seeing Double
American Ballet Theatre's repertory is well stocked with works that offer dancers the opportunityto exploit something rather like a split personality.


Now don't worry. This condition involves an artistic challenge, not a turbulent mental state: A dancer alternates between roles in the same ballet, dancing the lead one time and his or her rival the next.

In his production of Swan Lake, ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie judiciously apportions the role of von Rothbart between two characters: A horned fiend in a muscle suit (a corps member) who haunts the lake, and a silken seducer (usually a principal) who does more than just flap around in a cloak, inserting himself between Odile and Siegfried. Before the Black Swan pas de deux, McKenzie's aristocratic von Rothbart proceeds to mesmerize the entire court and visitors. His new solo, set to the rarely done "German Dance," begins as a slow, slinky seduction to get those princesses out of the way, and builds to an accelerated finale that sweeps him around the stage and up onto the throne beside a traumatized Queen Mother. McKenzie's von Rothbart has presence and menace to spare when he cajoles Siegfried into publicly breaking his vow to Odette. Marcelo Gomes, whose matinee idol charisma rarely permits his antic wit to break through, has a wicked gleam in his eye when he says, "I enjoy playing Siegfried one night and von Rothbart another; because when I confront Siegfried, I know what he's thinking."

Face-to-face clashes between rivals regularly occur in ABT's classic ballets. In Act I of La Sylphide, for instance, the conflict between rivals Gurn and James quickly goes from the comic to the serious; tension is resolved by a joyous solo for each. Supporting roles like Gurn often provide corps members with their first prominent part, and ABT's corps is stocked with gifted young men and women fully capable of making the most out of such opportunities. Hilarion, the hapless peasant lover in Giselle, offers men the chance to dance a supporting role while studying the Albrecht of several principal dancers at close hand. "Acting Hilarion is not like dancing steps: you can't change a step but there are several ways to do a gesture," says Soloist Gennadi Saveliev. "I take my lead from my Albrecht; if he suddenly dismisses me with the full authority of a prince, then I must act more startled, maybe cringe." Saveliev has danced Albrecht often ("I'm still dissatisfied with how to manipulate my cloak"). His Hilarion is admired for the extraordinary power of his dancing and mime: "I'm a beggar on my knees in center stage before Myrta; I'm a victim when I rise. I must hold back nothing if I'm dancing myself to death."

Herman Cornejo holds the record for multiple parts in the same ballet with four main roles in Le Corsaire: the pirate Conrad, which he'll debut this season, his loyal slave Ali, his treacherous companion Birbanto and the slave trader Lankendem. When Cornejo was cast as Birbanto, one fortunate audience saw his adorable impish side assert itself. After someone had performed Lankendem's sensational Act I solo, in which one leg is thrown over the other in midair for a 360-degree flip, a beaming Cornejo waited until the ovation had died down and casually performed the same feat among the crowd on stage left. "What I really enjoy is the Act II pas de deux as Ali," he says. "Conrad gets to take a rest and the audience goes crazy."

Natalia Makarova's sumptuous 1980 staging of La Bayadre, set in ancient India, offers a ballerina the choice of two stellar roles: Nikiya, the temple dancer who tends the sacred flame, the symbol of God, and Gamzatti, the princess pledged to the warrior Solor, who has secretly pledged his love to Nikiya over that flame. Either role offers rich opportunities for mime, as well as virtuosic dancing. Their confrontation in Act I over Solor is one of ballet's great scenes and the turning point of the drama.

Susan Jaffe, a former principal noted for both roles and now an ABT ballet mistress, says, "There are depths to Nikiya and Gamzatti that reward close study; the more you work through these roles, the more the roles inform you who they are. Nikiya is dualistic, deeply in love with Solor yet a spiritual leader; when overcome by helplessness and desperation, she assumes the prayer position. Gamzatti is not a spoiled brat but a proud woman educated to be a queen; her attempt to buy off Nikiya by giving her a valuable necklace is an act of desperation, not of generosity or arrogance. Pantomime is essential to Bayadre; it deepens character and creates complexity."

Gillian Murphy, who scrupulously performs every step in either role, says, "My characterizations change every performance because I must leave room for spontaneous reactions with Solor and others. I look for new ways to show Gamzatti's desperation and vulnerability. For Nikiya I must stress the spirituality that is her anchor. It gives her the strength to defy the High Brahmin when he declares his love for her and to be openly, fatally defiant with Gamzatti.

"I think Gamzatti knows Nikiya will be murdered during the ritual dance she performs at the end of Act I," Murphy adds. "As Gamzatti I maintain an icy veneer while Solor, seated beside me, tries to hide his reaction to my doomed rival's performance."

When performing La Bayadre, soloist Hee Seo says, "I started in the corps and learned both roles by watching great dancers perform them. Your gestures, big or small, must be organic. I danced Gamzatti first, after I had an overview of the total ballet." She doesn't hesitate to share an insight she has acquired along the way that can be applied throughout classical ballet: with a level, unblinking gaze, she says, "It's always the guy who creates the problem."


Harris Green writes about dance in New York.

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