The Barcelona Ballet
The lights dim at City Center and the audience hushes in anticipation of a Barcelona Ballet world premiere. Tinkling sounds fill the theater, followed by a flamenco singer’s voice that resounds like the plaintive cry of history.
The curtain rises to reveal a comely ensemble clad in caricatured Spanish threads, led by a strutting alpha male in a flowing blouse and tight pants. It’s at that moment that it all starts looking familiar: it’s "Riverdance," but with a Spanish accent.
Such was the disappointment of "Pálpito," with Ángel Corella in the role of an Iberian Michael Flatley and an extravaganza of lace, fans and bullfighter capes replacing the tropes of the Irish troupe.
It’s not that it wasn’t entertaining. It was. But if it is the founding mission of Barcelona Ballet to "provide a place for Spanish dancers to develop their art form," then this is not the way to do it. As the company’s founder and artistic director, Mr. Corella can and must do better with the Spanish talent he champions.
The good news for Mr. Corella is that he seems to have all the resources to realize the company’s mission: charisma, connections, a stable of gorgeous dancers, and a blank canvas on which he has the unique opportunity to define Spanish ballet. His is the only classical ensemble in Spain; in fact, it was his determination to stop the exodus of talent from his native country that prompted him to start the company in the first place.
Additionally, there is a wealth of inspiration to be gleaned from Spanish culture, particularly its dances and music. Folk traditions in general have always influenced ballet, starting with its inception in imperial French courts and continuing right through Ratmansky. But whereas Ratmansky’s folk adaptations serve to modernize tradition while evolving the balletic art form, "Pálpito" choreographers Ángel Rojas and Carlos Rodriguez cheapen the former while ossifying the latter.
What’s ironic is that "Pálpito" was created with the opposite intention. According to a program note, the "new creation denotes the maturity of a generation of Spanish creators and dancers," featuring a main character (Corella) who is "trying to free himself from the strings that have bound him to his former role of a dancer," so that he may "discover new horizons."
In actuality, though, the American Ballet Theater darling seems less anxious to cut strings with the past than to tug at the ones connected to the hearts of his fans. Applause roars following passages of signature bravura, with soaring jumps and crisp pirouettes doing little to suggest his alleged anguish.
Instead, "Pálpito" relies on other production elements to tell the story, notably a dramatic score by Héctor Gonzalez, whose six movements are matched by choreographic passages flavored with flamenco and Spanish classical dance. Combined with black lace unitards, peinetas, fans, and scantily clad seduction, the effect is a PG-rated Spain in Epcot’s Small World - with fouettés, sparkling diagonals and other ballet tricks providing the nightly fireworks.
Tricks also featured prominently in the two other works in the program, reinforcing the impression that the company is treating ballet less as art than entertainment.
Clark Tippet’s "Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1," originally choreographed for ABT in 1987, was all frilly tutus, pretty pointe work, and crowd-pleasing lifts, jumps, turns and balances. Composed of pas de deux in aqua, red, blue and pink, the neoclassical spectacle also featured a corps in yellow that would periodically scurry on stage to perform canons and other elaborate motifs reflected in the music.
On a modern stage, the only purpose the dated and deeply flawed "Bruch" serves is displaying the virtuosity of its dancers. And that it does - particularly for the brilliant Kazuko Omori and the glamorous Carmen Corella. Still, pasted-on smiles reflected discomfort with the sheer artifice of this piece, and though it gave the dancers ample opportunity to demonstrate their athleticism, it begged the question of who they were as artists.
Fortunately, Christopher Wheeldon’s "For 4" shed some light on this question, although at unexpected moments. Originally choreographed for "Kings of Dance" (an annual showcase of the world’s greatest male ballet dancers), "For 4" unfolds like a competitive figure skating program, with its four men together and separately executing a series of challenging technical elements.
Although it’s obvious that the four young dancers are not yet the kings for whom the work was created, their potential to become them is clear. Especially notable were Dayron Vera with his handsome and magnetic stage presence, and Alejandro Virelles with his gorgeous lines and exquisitely controlled turns.
For all the showmanship, though, it was in the piece’s quieter moments - the silhouetted introduction and the more restrained and sensitive passages between tricks - that the dancers were at their most radiant. Wheeldon’s contemporary vocabulary brought out the best in these artists of the 21st century, which is precisely what any sustainable dance company should encourage them to be.
In the future, hopefully Mr. Corella will make wiser programming decisions - so the dancers of Barcelona Ballet can continue developing as artists, and not merely as entertainers.
The Barcelona Ballet ran through April 20 at New York City Center. For info visit http://www.nycitycenter.org. .