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American Ballet Theatre at the Abu Dhabi Festival

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Photo © American Ballet Theatre.

For its debut performance at the Abu Dhabi Festival last week, the American Ballet Theatre wanted to introduce Emirati audiences to the classical repertoire, since there wasn’t much of a ballet tradition in the region. (In fact, there was zero ballet tradition, since, until oil was discovered there about 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi was a tiny outpost of pearl divers and Bedouins.) That ruled out modern dance. The company was also told to present something “family friendly,” according to ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie, so there went Swan Lake, with its tragic ending and hints at bestiality. (More importantly, says McKenzie, the auditorium at the Emirates Palace, where the Abu Dhabi Festival’s performances were held, could not support the technical requirements involved in ABT’s elaborate production of the classic.)

With those restrictions in mind, McKenzie chose to put on Léo Delibes’s Pygmalionesque comedy Coppélia, based on the late Frederic Franklin’s staging, which itself owes much to the original 1870 production. During Friday’s performance, it was as classical as it gets: all tutus, grands jetés, pas de chat and men in tights. More notable, for fans of ABT, was the casting of Misty Copeland as Swanhilde, the New York ballet sensation’s debut in the role. Copeland, the company’s first African American female principal dancer, who has gained national attention with her new memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Touchstone), will premiere the role in New York in May. During last week’s production, aside from a few wobbly poses that will no doubt be smoothed out before next month, Copeland exuded a star’s grace.

One sure sign of the locals’ unfamiliarity with the form was the uncontrollable giggling from the women dressed in black abayas behind me, at the sight of dancer Herman Cornejo’s decidedly non-family-friendly bulge. (To be fair, it did seem in need of a codpiece.) But overall the production, backed by the Dresden Philharmonic, transcended the tameness of the material and earned a standing ovation.

As McKenzie put it in an interview that morning: “Dancing to music—who in the world cannot relate to that?”


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