David Koch Theater, New York, NY; November 7, 2013

Jerry Hochman

When last we visited Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concero #1,” it was the third ballet in Mr. Ratmansky’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’, which premiered during American Ballet Theatre’s Spring, 2013 season at the Metropolitan Opera House. At that time, I saw it as being the most abstract of the three ballets, but nevertheless having significant connections to the overall theme of the Trilogy.

As the most abstract of the three, “Piano Concerto #1” is also is the most easily excised from the Trilogy. This ABT has elected to do, and the piece, now independent, began a brief run in the course of ABT’s Fall 2013 Season at the David H. Koch Theater last night. It was a wise decision. It appears to me that certain modifications have been made since its premiere, which would not be surprising since the composition selected for the third piece in the trilogy was changed at the relatively last minute. But in addition to any minor tinkering that may have been made, pivotal connections to the Trilogy theme that I observed last year aren’t there, or have been modified to eliminate any sense of missing links. The only remnants are the cut-out floating red symbols draped in front of the back curtain, the costumes (unitards for the corps that are grey on one side and red on the other, and red leotards for the lead women), and an unsettled overall atmosphere that moves from celebration to apprehension at the drop of a musical phrase.

But the changes, at least in terms of “Piano Concerto #1” being a standalone, have been for the better. As an independent piece, it now appears purely abstract, with sweeping movement quality, compelling if meaningless modulated phrasing, and differences in choreographic style and visual emphasis between the two lead couples that now needs no explanation. And it’s wonderful – on its own, it is one of Mr. Ratmansky’s finest abstract works.

The cast made a difference as well. Last night Gillian Murphy undertook the first couple’s lead female role (as she was supposed to have done last spring until she was sidelined with an injury). Both she and Mr. Royal, who reprised his role, executed Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography with vigor, and without the inappropriate majesty that last year’s first cast brought to the roles.

But the story of Thursday’s performance was the second couple, this time assayed by corps dancers Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer.  Mr. Shayer, who joined the company as a member of the corps only a year ago, is a dancer with a naturally engaging quality of youthful enthusiasm. He’s also an excellent partner and crisp stylist, and looked perfectly at home with the Ratmansky choreography.

Ms. Brandt’s performance was another matter. In a word, this young corps dancer, whom I highlighted a few seasons ago following her performance in Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” was sensational. Without any apparent sense of hesitation or apprehension in her first featured role, she lit up the stage, moving with fearless attack, quicksilver speed and the precise footwork that marked her performance in the Tharp piece. In the overall scheme of things Ms. Brandt is relatively new to the company (she joined ABT’s corps in June, 2011), and there are many extremely capable dancers ahead of her in the pecking order. Consequently, her assignment to featured roles may be limited for awhile. But she exemplifies the quality of the young ballerinas that ABT has at its core.

An example of a dancer still in ABT’s corps who might be considered ahead in the pecking order is Gemma Bond, who joined the company in 2008 after a stint with The Royal Ballet. Ms. Bond, who is also a nascent choreographer, should be given more roles than she gets. On Thursday night, she was a superb Vera in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country,” dancing with all the combination of youthful vibrancy and petulance, as well as precise execution, that Sarah Lane brought to the role last spring.  But Ms. Bond also looked more appropriate in the role because the overall cast was more convincing.

As I mentioned in a prior review, to me it’s not only critical for a ballerina in a ‘story’ ballet to be able to dance the steps flawlessly, she must also be able to act the part and look the part in order to make the role work.  Here, Ms. Kent, in the pivotal role of Natalia Petrovna, satisfied all three criteria. Although I felt Ms. Kent’s portrayal was overly mannered, to an extent that’s in Ashton’s choreography, and her execution was impeccable.

But more than the execution of the steps, having a more realistic-looking Natalia Petrovna made the relationship between her and the other characters naturally make visual sense, without any necessity to suspend disbelief.  Ms. Kent looked like she could have been the young, bored wife of her husband Yslaev, played by Victor Barbee, rather than his child bride (at the performance I reviewed last year, Hee Seo, ABT’s youngest principal, danced Natalia Petrovna). And she looked like she could have had a significantly younger teenaged ‘ward’, and rival, in Ms. Bond. As a consequence of the more proper balance between Natalia and Vera, their respective attraction to Beliaev, Natalia’s son’s tutor, appeared more realistic as well, compared to the previous cast I reviewed. And even though Daniil Simkin, as Natalia and Yslaev’s young son, did his best to steal the performance, a young child’s trying to be the center of attention is not unusual, and the appropriate balance among the lead characters was maintained.   And his pas de deux with a rubber ball, which required dexterity rather than partnering skill, was both childlike and edgy, and was a highlight of what was an extraordinary portrayal.  Finally, guest artist Guillaume Cote was effortlessly correct and sufficiently passionate as the tutor and object of both women’s fantasies. Although I still find the ballet both affected and ponderous, a month in an evening, the different cast made it reasonably believable.

The evening began with a repeat performance of George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” led by Polina Semionova and Cory Stears, which I previously reviewed. The conducting by Ormsby Wilkins, who also conducted the performance with this same cast last week, is somewhat more upbeat than the conducting in other performances I’ve seen this season, but it’s still considerably slower than as presented by New York City Ballet. And the ballet as ABT presents it is filled with dead space (periods of silence during which dancers move into position, or just catch a breath) that would be unthinkable in the NYCB version. Regardless of whether one or the other is a more accurate rendition, the NYCB version looks better.