Sizzling sensuality at American Ballet Theatre 

Sex sells for a reason. Everyone has it, or wants it. It relates to the ever-unifying theme of love, and all art forms have capitalized on it. Ballet is no exception.

American Ballet Theatre’s “Lady of the Camellias,” a tragic love story based on the same novel that gave birth to “La Traviata,” is full of the heavy-breathing, necking, nuzzling and bodice-ripping passion that great romance is made of, and choreographer John Neumeier doesn’t shy away from the specifics.

The lovers’ choreography is rough yet elegant, swift and sweaty, never crude, yet startlingly sensual.

Now in her 25th season with ABT, Julie Kent remains a technical and dramatic powerhouse of a dancer, performing the role of the doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier with a deep, almost grave, sense of humanity.

It is apparent that Roberto Bolle, in the role of Marguerite’s lover Armand Duval, has made a point to study the finer dramatic qualities of a great male danseur. One moment he echoes Nureyev’s nuanced, dramatic carriage and tenderness, the next there is a glimpse of Anthony Dowell’s inward, tragic elegance.

Their eye contact alone seems almost pornographic, and a 19th-century bedroom in France comes to life. Bolle whips Kent’s body around him, spiraling around the stage with centrifugal force, her body weightless — lovemaking as levitation.

But as in all great love stories, things get complicated.

Marguerite is persuaded to leave Armand not once, but twice, and in her deathly consumptive fevers believes her parallels to the title character of the tragic novel/ballet “Manon Lescaut” to be true and inevitable.

Neumeier’s greatest passion, alongside dance, is the art of storytelling.

The traditional story ballet, sometimes considered the passe relic of a bygone era, has captivated Neumeier since the late 1960s, and ABT’s current production of “Lady of the Camellias” is an example of Neumeier’s dramatic side at its most polished.

Originally staged in 1978 and choreographed to some of Chopin’s most familiar works, “Lady of the Camellias” has aged well. ABT’s revised production premiered last year, and with Jürgen Rose’s sumptuous costumes and Ralf Merkel’s refined lighting, the production is a visual delight and feels fully contemporary.

Neumeier uses flashbacks, dream sequences and the Met’s vast stage depth (downstage is present, upstage is past) to visualize simultaneous narratives. The ballet-within-a-ballet characters of Manon and Des Grieux are distinguished from the present-time characters with shiny 18th-century costumes, greasy pancake makeup and stronger lighting, all of which makes for an effective, distilled sense of storytelling.

Pianists Koji Attwood, Nimrod Pfeffer and Emily Wong give inspired renditions of Chopin’s elegiac music under the direction of conductor Ormsby Wilkins, and Victor Barbee emanates a strong, distinguished presence as Armand’s father, Monsieur Duval.


Lady of the Camellias

Presented by American Ballet Theatre

Where: Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

When: Today through June 8

Tickets: $20 to $145


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Lauren Gallagher

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