[No company photographs were taken of the performance that is the subject of this review. The photographs provided are from other performances and casts.] 

American Ballet Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

October 26, 2018
Symphonie Concertante, Other Dances, AFTERITE

Jerry Hochman

On paper, American Ballet Theatre’s Fall 2018 season seemed one of the least interesting in many years (notwithstanding the trumpeting of its welcome but belated commitment to the “Women’s Movement” in ballet). Regardless of the truth of that initial assessment, Friday night’s program, the last that I will be able to see of this very brief residence, made the season. While I’m less than enamored of one of the dances on the program, and still angry that another was exhibited in its present form, all three dances featured superb choreography and execution by ABT’s dancers that was sensational in every respect.

By far the most noteworthy of these sensational performances was by Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo in Jerome Robbins’s Other Dances, the middle piece on last night’s program.

I’ve been privileged to have seen many performances of this Robbins masterwork, including the original cast’s Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. But I don’t recall seeing another performance that illuminated this dance quite like the one I saw Friday night. I’ll spend the first part of this review attempting to explain why.

With rare exception, the essence of a Robbins ballet is the sense of humanity he infuses within it. It’s never by-the-numbers or movement for movement’s sake. Amid the choreographic ingenuity there’s a beating heart (and maybe a giggle or two). The essence of Other Dances, aside from it being a suite of dances to Chopin piano music that Robbins had not previously used in his Dances at a Gathering, is that humanity: even though there’s no “story” per se, the ballet tells one something about the characters (and the dancers) in the dance at given moments in time.

Much has been made of dancers being “in the moment” during a particular ballet, which enhances the experience for them. But being “in the moment” isn’t a concept limited to the dancers on stage. Being enabled by the choreography and the dancers’ execution to be “in the moment” enhances the experience for audience members as well (and applies as much to non-narrative dances as to full-length story ballets). It’s an emotional and maybe kinetic transference the effect of which is to bring the audience in rather than making them static observers. Without this connection, audience members watch the performance from an emotional and/or intellectual distance, and even the most brilliantly-crafted of ballets can appear uninteresting at best, and boring at worst.

I’ve attended many performances of Other Dances where, at a certain point in time you can begin to hear the fidgeting. The execution of the steps may be first rate (and at this level, it would be surprising if it was not), but there’s nothing beyond that to grab you. The best performances, however, are transporting experiences.

Two weeks ago I attended a memorable performance of Other Dances by New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz. The performance had particular significance because of De Luz’s imminent retirement, but the “grab” was beyond that. The performance not only showed the talents of both dancers, but it also conveyed the sense of being in the moment with them. As fine as their execution of the steps was, it was the joy they brought to the performance, evident by the emotional connection registering on stage, that made it both memorable and one of the finest I’ve seen. Last night’s performance by Lane and Cornejo was equally memorable, if not more. But the two performances were the product of different impressions that the dancers (particularly the ballerinas) created, which perhaps can be described as the difference between appearing perfect and appearing magical. [And although in the ensuing discussion my focus will be on the ballerinas, that’s not to ignore that De Luz and Cornejo (in his New York role debut) executed brilliantly, with exceptional (but differently manifested) connections with their ballerinas.]

Peck is dominating on stage, but unlike other similarly commanding ballerinas, her appeal is that it never comes across that way. She brings to her performances flawless command and a consistent sense that she’ll take her level of execution to another, rarified dimension of technical brilliance every time she steps on stage. And in that performance of Other Dances she went beyond that basic stage persona and with De Luz created a joyous atmosphere which was impossible not to be drawn into and feel a part of. They enjoyed each other’s stage company, and each other’s excellence. They both glowed, and the audience shared the experience.

Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo during the curtain calls for American Ballet Theatre's production of "Don Quixote" last season Photo by Jerry Hochman

Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo
during the curtain calls
for American Ballet Theatre’s
production of
“Don Quixote” last season
Photo by Jerry Hochman

Lane’s stage persona is quite different. The same level of perfection can be there, and certainly was on Friday night (which was to have been her New York role debut as well, but she replaced injured Hee Seo in the role earlier in the week, partnered by Cory Stearns), but it’s masked by an appearance of vulnerability, so when you see the perfection in execution, her technical strength comes as a shock – although by this point it no longer should. The same extravagant phrasing as Peck, the same impeccable sense of timing, the same quality of execution was fully evident, but when it happens, as it did last night (and as it did with her Giselle), it takes your breath away. Together with the security she obviously feels being partnered by Cornejo, and the care he obviously takes partnering her, came a sense of mutual admiration that was impossible not to join in, and be transported by.

But there’s more to the difference between these two masterful performances than that.

When one thinks of folk dances, one sees certain imagery, but one also tends to see how different folk dances appear from ballet. One way to describe the difference is that folk dances tend to be pulled into the earth, while ballets tend to be pulled into the air. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but I think the distinction is valid. Typical folk steps are pushed downward, often pounded into the ground, while ballet is light and airy.

Sarah Lane and members of American Ballet Theatre in a prior performance of "Giselle" Photo by Erin Baiano

Sarah Lane
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in a prior performance of “Giselle”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Other Dances is not a suite of folk dances; it’s a ballet with folk images coupled with images that soar. To the best of my recollection, however, in all of the performances of it that I’ve previously seen it’s primarily the folk connection that is emphasized, with the accompanying sense of being grounded to mother earth. That’s not a bad thing: on the contrary, superb performances of it, including ones that enable the audience to be transported, can be exceptionally exhilarating – as that Peck / De Luz performance was. But Friday night, with Cornejo’s support and confidence, Lane provided that other aspect of Other Dances that I’ve not previously seen. The steps were the same – the folk images were all there, the “into the ground” folk emphasis was not insignificant – but at the same time she infused the performance with a sense of impossible airiness (gorgeous extensions into space at every appropriate moment that gave the illusion of weightlessness while concurrently being of the earth) that was equally important, that had been a component of the choreography all along, and that changed the perception of the ballet from being an example of impeccable craft to being an enthralling experience. And I can’t help but think, given that Other Dances clearly is more than just its folk references, that this is what Robbins wanted, and that somewhere he’s smiling. [The ballet was staged, and the performances coached, by former Paris Opera Ballet etoile Isabelle Guerin. I never saw Guerin dance the role, but I suspect if I had the performance would have delivered a similar impression.]

When the Peck / De Luz performance ended, I recall a sense of sharing in the joy that both communicated. It was a celebration of incomparable excellence that they invited me to share. When the Lane / Cornejo performance ended, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the impossibly magical moments in time that their performances had invited me (and others in the audience) to share. Both are what make attending ballet performances over and over worth it.

Christine Shevchenko and members of American Ballet Theatre in George Balanchine's "Symphonie Concertante" Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Christine Shevchenko
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in George Balanchine’s
“Symphonie Concertante”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

When I saw Symphonie Concertante earlier this ABT season, I recognized its technical artistry, but unlike other Balanchine masterpieces, it left me not feeling much of anything except respect for Balanchine’s craftsmanship and the dancers’ talents. On second view this season I ignored the opening segments of the first allegro movement that appeared so rigid and clunky to me, and focused on how the ballet evolves thereafter. And even though I still don’t consider it the equal of other Balanchine masterpieces, I clearly see what Balanchine was doing with Mozart’s musical roadmap, and the genius in what he accomplished. Just like the Mozart score (Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat major for Violin and Viola), it grows – albeit within an overall context of mirror musical phrasing, and his visualization of the counterpoint between the violin and viola is astonishing in its complexity and grandeur.

But Symphonie Concertante’s real significance to me is how it fits into the Balanchine oeuvre, which was triggered in my mind, at least in part, by what I heard as Tchaikovsky’s “sampling” of a bit of Mozart’s composition. [During the Sinfonia’s second (andante) movement, one can hear, twice (once about a quarter of the way through, the second time toward the end), brief musical phrases, a theme, played at a tempo that bears a remarkable similarity to a thematic variation, and the tempi at which it’s’ played, in the adagio movement of Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations (corresponding to the point in Balanchine’s ballet when the orchestra reenters and begins to open into the concluding section of that movement).] And as Tchaikovsky seemingly appropriated a melodic phrase from Mozart, Balanchine appropriated choreographic phrases from himself, all while catering to the peculiarities of the music to which he was choreographing. Consequently, as I watched the piece evolve, echoes of other Balanchine ballets seemingly materialized like apparitions of ballets past and future. A brief observation of Balanchine’s choreographic career at that point allows for no other logical conclusion than that this was intended.

Symphonie Concertante was initially created for students of the School of American Ballet in 1945, and in its complete form it premiered with NYCB’s precursor company, Ballet Society, on November 12, 1947. Two weeks later, on November 26, 1947, Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (later to become a component of his Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3) premiered with ABT. Four months earlier, on July 28, Le Palais de Cristal (Symphony in C) premiered with Paris Opera Ballet. All three are distinguishable from each other by admittedly not insignificant differences, but all three are of a piece – there are choreographic paradigms common to each – and the differences are a product of the same overall approach applied to, and reflecting, different musical compositions.

Devon Teuscher, here with Alexandre Hammoudi, in American Ballet Theatre's production of "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Devon Teuscher,
here with Alexandre Hammoudi,
in American Ballet Theatre’s production
of “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

I don’t pretend to be a music scholar, and this isn’t a thesis, but exploring the similarities between Theme and Variations and Symphonie Concertante provides an intellectually compelling detour that merits further discussion. I can, however, evaluate the performances with greater confidence.

Last week, Christine Shevchenko replaced Hee Seo on short notice, and I found her performance in one of the two lead ballerina roles to be fabulous. At Friday’s performance, Shevchenko’s brilliance was matched by her partner, Devon Teuscher. Both not only executed Balanchine’s fiendishly difficult footwork immaculately, they both injected their roles with extraordinary flair. During the piece’s opening and closing allegro and presto movements, each looked like she was having a blast. And although the overt enthusiasm waned (appropriately) during the andante, the indicia of security and the absence of any sense of one-upmanship in the semi-mirror counterpoint of the violin and viola that their movement visually amplified made their performances sensational. It was an extraordinary display of technical excellence, which Thomas Forster, as the lone danseur, replicated. The danseur character appears relatively superfluous here, but he’s essential not for any thematic element, but as a moving pillar around which the lead ballerinas occasionally lean (although, with obvious choreographic intent, they do perfectly well on their own), and a participant in unexpectedly engaging images (like “flicking” his ballerinas extended hand in arabesque upward, as if pushing them higher into the air). In a relatively thankless role (it reminded me a bit of the “poet” in Fokine’s Les Sylphides), he excelled.

But the performance excellence here did not stop with the lead dancers. The six featured ballerinas – Alexandra Basmagy, April Giangeruso, Catherine Hurlin, Luciana Paris, Lauren Post, and Katherine Williams – each took their roles beyond being mere frames within a frame. Williams in particular somehow always manages to inject a semblance of character into a role that doesn’t have one, and she and Hurlin, who frequently were in mirror positions, seemed to feed off each other’s energy synergistically.

Members of American Ballet Theatre in Wayne McGregor’s "AFTERITE" Photo by Marty Sohl

Members of American Ballet Theatre
in Wayne McGregor’s “AFTERITE”
Photo by Marty Sohl

Following its world premiere during ABT’s Spring Met 2018 season, I considered McGregor’s AFTERITE at length. I admired his choreography (the best of his pieces that I’ve seen to date), but disliked the piece intensely. A second exposure has not altered either prong of that opinion.

I have a minor quibble with McGregor’s choreography. If one of the novel components of AFTERITE is transporting the event, the Rite, to some alien–like metaphor for its more common earthly counterpart, as I presume it is, that’s fine. But the concept of “tribe,” and religion-tinged superstition that leads to a sacrifice should be the same regardless of venue. Here, however, the sense of “tribe” (or human settlement on another planet, or after some environmental calamity on earth) is more diffuse, and the sense of tribal unity is diluted.

But McGregor works this to his advantage, allowing for more staging variety than is usually present in a dance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This is McGregor’s finest choreography (of those pieces of his that I’ve seen), with not a dancer in sight contorted into a pretzel and not a step that’s superfluous – and it’s dramatic, almost vicious choreography that pushes its cast to the limits. It’s the most exciting incarnation of Rite of Spring that I can recall seeing. [And the extraordinary lighting by McGregor’s frequent collaborator Lucy Carter, which somehow escaped my view last year, manages to be both meaningful and mesmerizing.]

The ABT dancers executed AFTERITE at Friday’s performance with frenzied clarity far beyond what was evident in the dance’s initial run. Cornejo, following immediately upon his superlative performance in Other Dances, here is equally extraordinary in a radically different role apparently as the Father who initially resists the village’s (or its shaman’s) order, but bows to the will of the others and eventually becomes an active accomplice to the sacrifice. Ferri, whom I saw as little more than a concerned mother last year, now explodes with passion throughout the ballet, delivering a performance of extraordinary emotional resonance. But the revelation was Isabella Boylston’s leader/shaman/executioner. I’m not aware that McGregor altered the choreography since the piece’s premiere, but Boylston made the role much more compelling and frightening than I saw it portrayed last season. Here Boylston brings her undeniable power and command to optimal use, delivering a callous – but somehow comprehensible – interpretation of the role. While other cast members excelled as well (particularly Cassandra Trenary, Blaine Hoven, Duncan Lyle, and Garegin Pogossian), those three made the choreography as shattering as it appeared.

But beneath all this choreographic wizardry and brilliant execution is a concept that should have been nipped in the bud.

AFTERITE modifies the theme of a primitive “rite of spring” human sacrifice, the essence of Stravinsky’s score, Nijinsky’s original, and most of the dance incarnations of it that I’ve seen, by making the purpose of the sacrifice more explicit (to make crops grow), and by changing the nature of the sacrifice from a chosen victim, to a “chosen” mother who in turn must decide which of her two children should be sacrificed. Revolting a concept as that is, if McGregor felt that seeing yet another “chosen” victim is something that audiences have become too accustomed to, or if he simply felt the need to show the sacrifice differently, I can understand the motivation. And there’s no question that the sacrifice of an innocent child creates more audience concern, and accordingly more audience interest, than would “standard” versions.

But McGregor takes the concept too far. This isn’t the sacrifice of a child (and the saving of another) as much as it is a revisiting of Sophie’s Choice. And if the allusion to that novel (written by William Styron) and film (directed by Alan J. Pakula) is not sufficiently obvious, McGregor cements it by having gas fill the enclosed space in which the condemned child is confined. The audience can see the child (a young dancer, like the child that Ferri’s character selects to live, from ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School) enveloped by this smoke/noxious gas within the “greenhouse” erected on stage, and then fall to the floor dead, presumably to become human fertilizer.

This ending destroys any good that might be gleaned from McGregor’s piece. Either he had no knowledge of Sophie’s Choice, which I find impossible to believe, or he deliberately chose to proceed with his concept knowing the reception it would likely receive, including the argument – valid to me – that equating the death of millions of people with some primitive ‘rite of spring’ trivializes the event’s horror (and its universal applicability — the character Sophie was Polish, not Jewish).

I’ve heard a theory that McGregor’s decision to proceed as he did was not made with the intention to trivialize the death of millions, but to in some way honor it. That’s nonsense. I think a more likely explanation beyond astounding ignorance or astounding insensitivity is that McGregor was looking to create the same audience revulsion that greeted Rite of Spring at its Paris premiere. If that was the reasoning, he succeeded.

It’s unfortunate that ABT’s Fall 2018 season ended on this note, and I’m aware of many in the audience who left the DHK Theater on Friday night angry. But if one can focus on the dancers and their execution of whatever choreography they’re asked to perform, the season, encapsulated in Friday’s program, was a noteworthy display of talent by a noteworthy assortment of dancers. The only downside: if one focused on ABT’s promotional efforts, one would think that the company consists of maybe two or three dancers who dominated the season’s announced casting. If ABT is to evolve as it should, both artistically and financially, focusing on casting and promoting only a small group of favored dancers (or those determined, rightly or wrongly, to be more potentially bankable) to the exclusion of others is self-defeating: the goal should be to promote audience awareness of, and interest in, them all.

Finally, an aside. This year was the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jerome Robbins, one of the seminal choreographers of the twentieth century. New York City Ballet devoted a hefty portion of its Spring season to Robbins’s work, and one full program performed on multiple evenings this past Fall season surrounding the actual date of his birth. Other companies worldwide scheduled similar celebrations. Not ABT. On Opening Night, one of the two dancers addressing the audience (Misty Copeland) announced that ABT would be commemorating Robbins’s birth with the performance of two of his dances this season. That was it. It sounded like a post-scheduling afterthought. I saw nothing to this effect in any publicity, and if one didn’t attend that opening night gala performance, one would never have known that the two Robbins dances (Fancy Free was the second) were purportedly scheduled for that reason. And while Lane and Cornejo’s performance in Other Dances may be seen as providing more than sufficient honor to Robbins’s memory, the company’s decision to essentially ignore it is shameful – not even one full evening’s programming devoted to his dances. But it’s also not inconsistent. Last Spring ABT ignored the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Marius Petipa as well.