American Ballet Theatre: Stellar Star Power, Duets

Dance is blooming in New York this season as surely as the flowers in Central Park. To walk through the broad plaza at Lincoln Center where American Ballet Theatre is performing at the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York City Ballet at New York State Theater is to sense the good fortune of New Yorkers with two world-class dance companies based in their own backyard.

American Ballet Theatre opened its annual eight-week season at the Met in May in a gala performance that showcased the riches of the company's roster of stars, as well as the breadth of its repertoire.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, honorary chairwoman of the gala with President Clinton, spoke from the stage about ABT's status as an "extraordinary American company" and remarked that because "ABT has been awarded a grant to present and preserve the treasures of its repertoire" it was "all the more reason to support the National Endowment for the Arts."

A gala evening is about more than just dancing and dignitaries. The excitement of the event is made up of equal parts of the crush of the well-dressed crowd, along with the parade of bits and pieces that makes up the program. There's a can-you-top-this air to the proceedings on stage that is most appealing in its desire to please all comers.

Beginning and ending with company works - the Act II folk dance sequence from the luscious full-length ballet "The Merry Widow," which premired last season, and an excerpt from the company classic "Etudes" - the bulk of the program was devoted to a string of pas de deux performed by one of the most stellar groups of principal dancers ever fielded by a single troupe.

The list of dancers reads like a mini-United Nations, one of the strengths of ABT in recruiting from across the globe.

* The Russian-born Vladimir Malakhov, landing in an amazing deep pli from a high-flying jump partnered American gold-medalist Amanda McKerrow in a duet from "Le Corsaire;" the fragile Julie Kent gave a preview of Act II from "Giselle," paired with Julio Bocca, a native of Argentina.

* The elegant Susan Jaffe and her steady partner, Cuban-born Jose Manuel Carreo, performed "Grand Pas Classique," followed by the exquisite Russian artist Nina Ananiashvili in the beloved solo "The Dying Swan."

* The virtuoso from Buenos Aires, Paloma Herrera, and Angel Corella from Madrid exploded across the stage in the familiar pyrotechnics of the pas de deux from "Don Quixote."

The season of repertory, which runs through July 4, opened the next night with the first of eight performances of choreographer Ronald Hynd's "The Merry Widow," (music by Franz Lehar) led by Jaffe and Carreno.

Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT, was a principal dancer with the company during his performing career. He has determined that it is the full-length works that bring the audiences into the Met each spring.

In June, Ben Stevenson's ballet "The Snow Maiden," co-produced with the Houston Ballet, will have its New York premire (see story, above), followed by the full-length "Le Corsaire," staged by Anna Marie Holmes, artistic director of the Boston Ballet who adapted the 19th-century Russian work for Boston last year.

ABT, which tours nationally as part of its mission, has many more projects afloat this year besides the Met season. There was the May 27 airing of the Great Performances television program on PBS, "Variety and Virtuosity: American Ballet Theater Now." And the three-week summer programs in New York, Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Detroit, are designed to train the next generation of dancers to fill the company ranks.

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