Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; July 5 (m & e)

Jerry Hochman

Sascha Radetsky's farewell curtain call with the cast of 'Coppélia' on July 3, 2014. Photo © Kent G. Becker

Sascha Radetsky’s farewell curtain call with the cast of ‘Coppélia’ on July 3, 2014.
Photo © Kent G. Becker

The final performances after a long season are supposed to be celebratory, and maybe a little bittersweet. The final performances of American Ballet Theatre’s 2014 Met Season were certainly celebratory, but, despite memorable portrayals and a personal milestone event, they were also more bitter than sweet.

ABT’s final programs consisted of three more performances of “Coppélia”, supplementing the three earlier this season. The two Saturday performances featured Yuriko Kajiya and Joseph Gorak as Swanilda and Franz in the matinee, and Paloma Herrera and Jared Matthews in the same roles in the evening. At the July 3rd performance, which I was unable to see, these roles were played by Xiomara Reyes, opposite Sascha Radetsky. After ABT unveiled the scheduling and casting for the season, Mr. Radetsky announced his retirement, and both Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews, who are a couple offstage, announced that they were leaving to join Houston Ballet. Subsequently, these three performances morphed into their farewells.

My understanding from people in a position to know is that Mr. Radetsky’s portrayal was superb, that the performance was attended by a slew of current and former dancers, and that the following celebration was marked by repeated floral salutes and curtain calls. Mr. Radetsky, who was promoted to soloist in 2003, has always been a highly competent and respected danseur, leaving memorable impressions in each of his roles. My particular strong memory is of his previous portrayal of von Rothbart (the ‘human’ one), but also of his performances in prior seasons of Tybalt, the Champion Roper (in “Rodeo”), in “Fancy Free,” and in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Symphony No. 9”.

Each of the Saturday performances was a memorable valedictory for the departing dancers.

Simply put, the matinee performance was one of the finest of the season. I wrote previously that the portrayals of Swanilda by Sarah Lane and Gillian Murphy earlier were exceptional – and they were – but Ms. Kajiya’s Swanilda was that and more.

I tend to use words like ‘remarkable’ and ‘superb’ and ’extraordinary’ all too frequently – there are only so many ways to express the same thing. But on Saturday, Ms. Kajiya’s Swanilda was better than outstanding, and her dynamic characterization reflected that quality of effervescent joy that has marked her stage persona since I first saw her dance. As I once observed, you can’t watch her dance and not smile. And although roles like Amour and the Fairy of Joy  (in “The Sleeping Beauty”) were particularly brilliant, she’s also succeeded at roles that require more nuanced, and more dramatic qualities, including Clara in “The Nutcracker”, Olga in “Onegin”, Giselle (outside New York), and her extraordinary ‘Prayer’ in “Coppélia” earlier this season.

At this performance, her technique was impeccable, and her acting was every bit as fine as Ms. Lane’s earlier in the season, but broader. And although she didn’t quite look like the ideal Swanilda as Ms. Lane did, by the strength of her acting and the effortlessness of her dancing, this didn’t matter in the least. I can’t single out one example of anything Ms. Kajiya did that was better than anything else – everything she did was magnificent.

Although most of her character’s qualities are those she displayed on her own, certainly Mr. Gorak’s polished partnering and demeanor helped make Ms. Kajiya’s performance as memorable as it was. Although his partnering had previously been somewhat tentative, whatever issues caused this appears to have passed; his portrayal of Franz was pitch-perfect in every respect. Recently promoted to soloist, a development that surprised no one, he is well on the way to fulfilling the promise I saw two years ago, when I characterized his future as ‘the sky is the limit’.

In 2010, I wrote that Mr. Matthews was an ‘unfortunate choice’ for the role of Espada in “Don Quixote”. In the four years since then, he has developed far more consistently, and far more splendidly, than anyone could have dreamed possible – other than perhaps Mr. Matthews himself. He now owns that role, and dances exceptionally well in every role in which he’s cast, including his deliciously fiendish von Rothbart and his youthful and passionate Albrecht this season. His performance Saturday evening as Franz was on the same level.

Until Act III, the role of Franz is significant more for his mere presence as a foil to Swanilda and Dr. Coppélius than his acting or dancing. So throughout Acts I and II, except for appearing, appropriately, to be one of the duller knives in the drawer, there was little for Mr. Matthews to do except again demonstrate his skill at creating a character. But he came alive when the choreography did, in Act III (which is also when Ms. Herrera did), and delivered a performance in the pas de deux that had the audience cheering. His circle of leaps, for example, was full-throttle into the wings – and looked like they’d continue all the way to Houston had he not had to return to the stage for the coda.

When the afternoon and evening performances ended, Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews each received ovations from their casts, and were presented with enough floral bouquets to fill a warehouse – not only stage bouquets and a blizzard of them tossed from the standing and cheering audience, but also what appeared to be matching little stuffed teddy bears. After the matinee curtain fell for the last time, a friend heard a cheer from behind the curtain. Amid the evening’s post-performance celebration, that audience learned what the cheering was for: Ms. Kajiya, with a big smile on her face, even bigger than usual, flashed the engagement ring she’d been presented with by Mr. Matthews a few hours earlier.

This, their quality performances, and the genuine enthusiasm from fellow cast members and the respective audiences, would seem to have made these farewells happy occasions. And they were – to a degree. But they were also terribly sad – presumably for the dancers, but also for ABT and its audience. Given the timing of their announcements, losing these highly competent and engaging dancers must have been, to at least some extent, a consequence of the company’s failure to provide them with casting opportunities in leading roles that they had earned and for which they were well qualified.