David Hallberg in David by Pam Tanowitz and Jeremy Jacob

ABT Rising

American Ballet Theatre's new films and RISE initiative

The American Ballet Theatre broadcast a program of world premieres free over YouTube last week. I liked everything about it except for its ridiculous title: “ABT TODAY: The Future Starts Now.” Um, the future starts soon. More like tomorrow. But I got their gist. ABT, more than most ballet companies, has pledged systemic transformation. This year marks the company’s 80th anniversary, and they chose to celebrate their past with a performance dedicated to change in their future. This show launched their RISE initiative, or Representation and Inclusion Sustain Excellence. Donations accrued during the performance went to their DEI—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—efforts. The four new works were representative of this mission: two were by women and two were by Black men.

Host Tamron Hall explained that these ballets were created in quarantine bubbles with protocols modeled after the NBA. Each film was prefaced by an acknowledgment that the land on which it was shot was forcefully taken from certain indigenous tribes. There were feel-good celebrity cameos: Naomi Watts introduced a video about ABT’s education programs, and Billy Porter introduced the ABT Studio Company’s upcoming trio of new works by female choreographers. Clearly, the company is not just piling up virtuous acronyms for show; they are practicing what they preach.

The first ballet, Convivium, was by former company member Gemma Bond. It was commissioned pre-Covid. Bond said she had wanted to make a celebration piece until she “couldn’t avoid what was now our new normal.” Appropriately, the piece was shot in grayscale and it was set to a moody score for clarinet, violin, and piano by John Harbison. Her quartet of dancers—Thomas Forster, Carlos Gonzalez, Breanne Granlund, and Katherine Williams, all excellent—were dressed in simple practice clothes. Bond is very good at fast/slow dynamics and canons. Before a final cooldown section, the women froze in à la seconde on pointe holding onto their partners’ shoulders and peering over them. They appeared to hover on a precipice, an apt metaphor for this time. But they found strength in each other, solemnly putting their heads together in a last pose.

The second work, Touché, was a groundbreaking duet by Christopher Rudd. In an introductory video, Rudd said that “the mission of Touché is to normalize gay love and lust in society.” This piece was also commissioned over a year ago. But unlike Bond, Rudd stuck to his original plan. He thanked ABT for creating a “brave and safe space” for this work. Touché was beautifully performed by Calvin Royal III, ABT’s newest principal, and João Menegussi, a member of the corps. Their acting skills were on par with their immaculate dancing. The men began in cashmere sweaters over collared shirts and dress pants, but then they stripped in silence down to flesh-colored underwear. While clothed, the men appeared fraught—their desire butting up against societal mores. But in near-nudity they were alone and unbound; they became rhapsodic. Although this pas de deux was erotic, it was never pornographic. Ennio Morricone’s soaring score (from the film Malena) contributed to the loftiness of the intimate latter half. Rudd employed lots of counterweighted partnering and human shape-making. The Pilobolus troupe came to mind, particularly in a motif in which the men sculpted themselves into a series of shifting rectangles. Touché ended with a tender kiss.   

These first two pieces were shot in a dance studio at the Silver Bay YMCA. The walls were covered with curtains like in a David Lynch set, and the camerawork was occasionally circling, but both works appeared to be translatable to the stage. The last two pieces on the program were more filmic, with changes in costuming and sets that could not occur in a live show, even though the final work, Indestructible Light, was partly set on an actual stage (at P.S. 21 in Chatham, N.Y). This jazzy closer was choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie and set to songs by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Neal Hefti, and Billy Strayhorn in deference to Moultrie’s Harlem upbringing. It was full of T-Rex tendus, flip-top head tosses, and shoulder rolls. I especially liked the section in which four dancers slunk along a wall, apathetically partnering themselves in adagio steps. The camera sometimes followed the dancers into the wings and backstage in the finale, capturing their offstage hijinks. The six dancers in the cast were great: corps members Jacob Clerico, Anabel Katsnelson, Erica Lall, Betsy McBride and apprentices Melvin Lawovi and Duncan McIlwaine.

David Hallberg in David by Pam Tanowitz and Jeremy Jacob

Best of all was the experimental film, David, by Pam Tanowitz and Jeremy Jacob. “What’s really interesting to me in this format is to create something that can’t be done live,” Tanowitz said in introduction. David is an ode to David Hallberg, ABT’s longtime star, who is leaving the company to direct the Australian Ballet. It takes Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (from 1963), a film about the bitter dissolution of a marriage, as its jumping-off point. What does Hallberg’s storied career have to do with a pouty French breakup? Nothing. Rest assured he is leaving ABT on excellent terms. Rather, Tanowitz interacts with the source material in a purely aesthetic way.

No detail has escaped her, right down to the typeface of the titles. David was filmed at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT. This modern architectural touchstone was as much a star of the film as Hallberg himself, in the same way that the stunning Casa Malaparte in Capri functions as a character in Godard’s film. The dissonant chords of the score, by Lawrence Baldwin and Luigi Boccherini, cut in and out as melodramatically as George Delerue’s music in Godard’s film too.

David is a brilliant riff on Contempt, with golden-maned Hallberg as a perfect analog to blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot. The camera ogled his many balletic curves—the arch of his foot, the hyperextension in his knees—in the same way Godard scans Bardot’s naked figure. Hallberg was costumed, by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, in a pastel candy-striped leotard in a nod to one of her blouses. And his finicky little moves around the Pavilion on the Pond were as silly and capricious as Bardot’s petulant fits. I laughed when he linked his arm around a column and sharply turned his head, his nose an inch from the stone. His features, which are beautiful in a severe way—the opposite of Bardot’s pillowy attributes—were aptly set off by the chiseled cement pillars. He was impeccably shot by cinematographer Daniel Rampulla in the filtering sunlight.  

Shots of Greek ruins quoted Fritz Lang’s botched Odyssey film-within-a-film in Contempt while also serving as a basis of comparison for Hallberg’s sculpted physique. The figures’ fragmentation—a torso here, a nose-less face there—was approximated by the camera’s oddly framed closeups of Hallberg’s thighs and groin, or the back of his head. In a hilarious meta-moment, Hallberg flipped through a coffee table tome on Michelangelo’s David. He was dressed in a mod turtleneck in the same ocher shade as the mid-century modern chair upon which he sat, as if both he and his perch were just part of the room’s decor. This framing of Hallberg, one of ballet’s foremost classicists, as he perused an art book about a Renaissance sculptor’s idea of male perfection, was simply wonderful. For Hallberg is as much a masterpiece as the designer furniture, the sleek house, and the antiquated statuary. Tanowitz’s arch juxtapositions prompt myriad questions about art, style, design, modernity, classicism, aesthetics, and certainly kitsch. 

The film’s closing shot was of Hallberg lying on his belly on a sheepskin rug, looking straight at the camera—just as Bardot does, albeit in the nude, in Contempt. Hallberg has long been fetishized by ballet audiences around the world for his perfect lines, his flawless technique, his princely coiffure. He has, in a way, been a pinup like Bardot. How great that Tanowitz has captured him on film on the eve of his retirement, thereby immortalizing his fleeting godliness much as Godard preserved a youthful Bardot. David is a marvelous sendoff. It is absurd, funny, thought-provoking, yet also serious and beautiful—trademark Tanowitz at her best. Hallberg will be missed at ABT. But it will be interesting to see what he does next, as he steps out of the spotlight and assumes the Godard role behind the scenes on the other side of the world.