History or Eccentric Meditation? PBS film celebrates 75 years of American Ballet Theatre

A voluptuous new dance film airs Friday on PBS stations nationwide, timed to coincide with American Ballet Theatre’s 75th anniversary celebration, and the opening of its season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Tune your DVR’s and raise your champagne flutes.

American Ballet Theatre dancer Alicia Alonso in "Swan Lake," 1945. (Photo by Maurice Seymour)

American Ballet Theatre dancer Alicia Alonso in “Swan Lake,” 1945. (Photo by Maurice Seymour)

Here’s an exclusive preview from the film, featuring Misty Copeland:

 

Nearly a decade in the works, American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History feels more like an eccentric personal meditation, or a love letter to the art form, than a historical trek through the company’s 75 storied years.

The slow-mo sequences captured in this film are breathtaking, revealing the “deep intimacy” that, in Homans’ words, is the province of great ballet. Burns captures the fierce beauty of Herman Cornejo as Le Spectre de la Rose. The unexpected poignancy of Hee Seo’s hand slipping lightly out of Cory Stearns’ in Romeo and Juliet. We share Seo’s ecstasy when Stearns catches her in mid-flight and supports her lightly under the rib cage as she floats around him, as if carried by a breeze. We are tempted to call 911 when a distressed Gillian Murphy tries to escape the clutches of the evil Marcelo Gomes in Pillar of Fire. We root for Daniil Simkin, as he battles his own invisible demons in Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once.
 

American Ballet Theatre dancers Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," filmed for "American Masters - American Ballet Theatre: A History" at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, N.Y., 2013. (Photo: Buddy Squires, ASC)

American Ballet Theatre dancers Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” filmed for “American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History” at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, N.Y., 2013. (Photo: Buddy Squires, ASC)

 

Viewers who find all the back and forth between eras and color commentators dizzying are urged to seek shelter on ABT’s 75th anniversary website.  The succinct, year-by-year timeline you will find there is perforce dry, but a welcome and essential anchor for the company’s rich, sweeping history.

The historical focus of this film is on choreographers rather than on individual dancers. Yet the biggest draw at ABT has always been its star dancers: the Russian defectors of the 20th century, the Russian jetsetters of the 21st century, the Cubans, South Americans, and a formidable brigade of homegrown American talent, including matinée idol Ethan Stiefel, and media sensation Misty Copeland. It is mainly the current crop of rising stars who are seen dancing in this film, but celebrating 75 years with so few clips of the stars of yesteryear feels like an egregious omission.

Here’s hoping that Burns – who had a hand in the epic series The Civil War with brother Ken, and, more recently, Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer, a look at America’s obsession with gossip and the cult of celebrity – will film a prequel and give some of the legends their due.

Click here for more fabulous photos and our full review of the film on the Huffington Post.

 

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