Performing Arts: Dance
May 13, 2015
Ric Burns fell in love with ballet, and that passion feeds into his new documentary American Ballet Theatre: Very slow motion shots of ballet dancers alternates with archival footage, photographs and individual narrators. On many levels, it's more about the rise of ballet in America, its relationship to the Russian ballet tradition and how those forces fed into the creation of American Ballet Theater. Mostly, the narrative thread follows dance historian Jennifer Homans' comments about the 400 year European ballet history. Former chief dance critic of the NY Times, Anna Kisselgoff contributes insightful descriptions of ABT's repertory starting in the 1940's while the British dance and theater critic Clive Barnes adds levity to the earnest commentary.

Altogether, there's relatively little footage of the dancers. Snippets of ballets are extended into dramatic extensions through the slow motion passages accompanied by a Philip Glass type chord repeated over and over. Homage is paid to the company's three influential choreographers, Antony Tudor, Agnes deMille and Jerome Robbins. A few of the ABT dancers speak as well, including Julie Kent, Susan Jaffe, Gillian Murphy, Marcel Gomes, choreographer Alexi Ratmansky (bridging contemporary Russian and American ballet) as well as the elders like the remarkable Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso, Frederic Franklin, and Donlad Saddler.

Today ABT is led by Artistic Director, and former ABT Principal, Kevin McKenzie. The camera catches him in rehearsal, laughing easily as a dancer struggles for perfection. He finds ways to encourage the dancer's progress and reduce her stress. Of course, the two Russian ballet heavyweights, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makorova appear because they were part of the Russian ballet invasion (in a good way). Baryshnikov does not speak, but the couple of performance snippets underscore his celebrated talent and Makarova is seen passing on dance to a younger generation.

An American Masters Series program, "American Ballet Theatre: A History" peers into the beauty and hard work of dance, outlines ballet's roots and yet, leaves much unsaid. Perhaps there will be a sequel?
Air date: May 15
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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