American Ballet Theatre at The Kennedy Center

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A trio of new and old works prove American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is A-ok and it felt like William Shakespeare was smiling in the dark when the American Ballet Theatre presented Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, based on the Bard’s ode to magical love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in 'The Dream.'  Photo by MIRA.
Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in ‘The Dream.’ Photo by MIRA.

Our area has seen beaucoup de tributes in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday year, but nothing tops the perfection of Ashton’s 1964 one-act ballet, staged by Anthony Dowell (the original Oberon) and Christopher Carr. Ashton created The Dream for London’s Royal Ballet in observance of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and now 50 years later, ABT’s latest rendition proves once again that the master may be long gone but the masterpiece lives on.

A natural storyteller, Ashton had a gift for characterization through classical ballet choreography. His beguiling retelling of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors takes place in the magical woods of Victorian England, an outdoor setting, His familiar comic touches appear throughout this work – the burly peasants from a nearby village burst on the scene with twisted turns and funny-looking leaps, one foot crooked forward with the other dangling. As the character Bottom (a donkey who takes advantage of a magic spell that makes him irresistible), Alexei Agoudine danced the part in point shoes. Impressive, indeed.

Conductor Ormsby Wilkins – his white hair flying as fast as the dancers whirling on stage – added to the frivolity of the ballet with his handling of Mendelssohn’s hummable music. The lush sets and spring-green costumes were designed by David Walker, and that moonlit stage, created by John B. Read, is beguiling.

How fascinating to watch the 16 female fairies scurry about the magical forest as their king, Marcelo Gomes (Oberon) makes his dramatic entrance with a sweep of his cloak, a wicked gesture to his cohort Herman Cornejo. Moments later it’s a knockdown fight with Queen Tatiania, danced by our hometown sweetheart ballerina, Julie Kent.

In The Dream, Kent dances with abandon. She has the unique ability to draw in the music and perform the variations first legato, then fast and furious. Towards the end of the ballet – after dozens of changing partners – the royal couple melt together in Ashton’s beautiful pas de deux. Her now tender husband lifts her high above his head, places her gently across his body, and carries her off to another world. No doubt local dance fans will beg or borrow to get tickets to see this Maryland native, who honed her skills with Hortensia Fonseca at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring.

All the elements were present in The Dream – earth, wind, fire, and water. The dancers sizzled; the dancers soared; and Cornejo, especially, left us breathless with his role as the definitive Puck. ABT’s youthful-looking principal performed show-stealing solos, like turning eight times without a falter or jumping high in the air, his feet beating endlessly before landing, and the audience cheering every feat, sometimes inappropriately in the middle of a quieter variation. In just a few short years, this Argentine firecracker has emerged as the one-to-go-to when you need bravura dancing. You can catch him as a lead in Don Quixote in the Saturday evening performance.

The repertory program (which repeats tonight only) began with Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, created in 1908. Fokine drew his musical inspiration from the lilting Chopin waltzes and familiar haunting melodies, sensitively conducted by David LaMarche.  An inspiration for George Balanchine’s abstract ballets, the ballet showcases ABT’s bevy of talented young women – 16 sylphs (Katherine Williams, among them), a trio of featured ballerinas and one male dancer, the Poet (Joseph Gorak). In the mazurka, principal Stella Abrera captures the ballet’s poetry and seems to dance as if in a dream, almost as if she knows something the others fail to grasp. Loved her special gesture where she touches her ear to listen, then her lips to smile. Abrera dances with her husband/movie star Sascha Radetsky in Don Quixote later this week.

ABT’s star dancer Marcelo Gomes created Aftereffect, a sexy new work for eight male company dancers, where it was placed smack in the middle of these treasured classics. Naked to the waist,  these guys brought down the house with their wild, sometime frenetic, always athletic moves. It deserves another look, perhaps on a night with Twyla Tharp dances to match it.

Scene from 'Les Sylphides.' Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Scene from ‘Les Sylphides.’ Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Running Time:  Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

American Ballet Theatre performs Works by Fokine, Gomes, and Ashton tonight at 7:30 p.m. at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. The full-length Don Quixote follows for five performances Thursday through Sunday, April 17-20th. For this too-short engagement, Director Kevin McKenzie presents a host of ABT stars (including Poloma Herrera on Sunday afternoon). For tickets, call the box office at (800) 444-1324, or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.