ABT Studio Company and Graduates of the Royal Ballet School

NYU Skirball Center
New York, New York

February 11, 2017
Joint Program:
Birthday Offering (excerpts), Kabalevsky Violin Concerto, Concerto Grosso, Chromatic Fantasy, Concerto (pas de deux), See the Youth Advance!, New Scarlett

— by Jerry Hochman

In 2003, the New York-based American Ballet Theatre Studio Company and London’s Royal Ballet School began an exchange program during which dancers periodically visit each other’s schools, live in each other’s homes, take master classes and coaching sessions from the other group’s teachers, and generally feed off their mutual artistic development. This exchange program continues, and the fact that it has lasted as long as it has speaks to its value for the participating young dancers.

On various occasions during exchange visits to their respective countries, each group presents a program to display their young dancers’ progress – as well as to entertain audiences who come to see the cream of the crop of future dancers with ABT, The Royal Ballet, and other professional companies. On Friday and Saturday at NYU’s Skirball Center, the dancers of ABT Studio Company and recent graduates from the Royal Ballet School presented one of their joint performances. The program included six dances that separately featured each group’s future professionals (three each), and one that combined dancers from the two groups.  I saw Saturday night’s program. Although the choreography and execution was somewhat uneven, and some of the choreographic choices questionable, it proved to be a fun way to get introduced (or in one case, reintroduced) to these young dancers.

However, one overriding issue clouded the program, at least for me. For any “first contact” with dancers, it’s difficult to identify them unless they’re named specifically in featured roles, or at least listed as participating in a given piece. RBS elected not to identify its dancers in any dance, except for those in the combined Scarlett piece, and ABT Studio Company inexplicably omitted dancer identification in one of the pieces they performed. Consequently, what I (or anyone in the audience who doesn’t already know them) can gather of a dancer’s identity must come from a process of elimination or online research, and is uncertain. It makes praise or critical commentary difficult at best. I understand that casting flexibility may be necessary in pieces involving large numbers of dancers, but surely there’s sufficient time to have provided program inserts.

I’ll discuss the evening’s highlights first.

Liam Scarlett’s new ballet, which is the one that included dancers from both companies, closed the program, had its world premiere the previous night, and looks a bit like a work in progress – which might be the case considering that the piece has no name: it’s called simply “New Scarlett.” But even if it is a work in progress, it already has lots to recommend it.

Choreographed to the Third Movement of Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 2, “New Scarlett” looks remarkably polished for a piece that was stitched together on separate sides of the pond, with the dancers being given only a week to work on it together. Indeed, while it lacks the complexity of his dance for New York City Ballet (Acheron) and the senselessly arrogant audacity of his piece for ABT (With a Chance of Rain), it has the authority and energy of the ballet he created for Miami City Ballet (Viscera), which remains his finest work of those I’ve seen.

At first, “New Scarlett” appears to have a structure of little structure; of being strange for the sake of being strange. It’s a large piece (consisting of six men and five women), and initially looked more gimmicky than anything else, with a solo yielding to a duet; with one dancer facing backwards while others dance… But soon these images begin to look meaningful and structurally (as well as visually) significant. The dancers shift seamlessly between created and seemingly unrelated subgroups (mostly pairs and solos) as the piece evolves. That’s not particularly unusual. But the way that Scarlett weaves his dancers into and out of various groupings, and his facility with presenting different groups dancing concurrently, but differently, on different parts of the stage, yields a glorious visual tapestry. There may have been an arithmetic (or geometric) progression going on, but one viewing didn’t allow for certainty – and whether it did or not isn’t really significant. That it maintains visual interest is.

My only concern was the unevenness of the division between the men and women– which resulted in a somewhat awkward looking imbalance and sense of ‘odd-man-out-for-no-reason’ when all appeared together at the dance’s conclusion. The listed dancers (Sierra Armstrong, Zimmi Coker, Virginia Lensi, Luigi Crispino, Joao Menegussi, and Mattia Santini from ABT Studio Company; and Alice Bellino, Sae Maeda, Sean Flanagan, Albjon Gjoillaku, and Augustus Payne from RBS), all did fine work.

For me, the evening’s strongest piece was Marcelo Gomes’s Kabalevsky Violin Concerto, which had its New York City premiere the previous night. It’s a delightful piece of work for two couples that plays on the details in Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Concerto for Violin in C Major, Op. 48 without losing sight of the unity in the composition. It’s especially rewarding to see how Gomes has progressed as a choreographer over the years; he’s developed not only a fine choreographic sense, but, equally important, sensitivity both to what works best for a piece of music and for the dancers in it, and   what will be satisfying to an audience.

Kabalevsky Violin Concerto could have been merely an exercise in translating the composer’s simple-sounding music into simple-looking visual images, but it’s more than that. Gomes’s choreography, though not complex, sufficiently challenges the dancers and provides variety for the audience. And his choreography here is what I describe as circular rather than linear – it doesn’t simply end (which might be appropriate in certain circumstances); it brings the different segments together, and does so in a surprising way that tickles the mind and provides an unexpected visual punch.

Like the composition, the piece is divided into three parts: the first is filled with playful, quicksilver movement that mirrors Kabalevsky’s playful, rapid-fire rhythms; the second movement is lyrical and fluid and as enchanting as a fairy tale pas de deux ; and the third combines aspects of the first two.

At this performance, the first two movements were danced respectively by Lea Fleytoux and Menegussi, and Coker and Crispino), and in the third they dance together (sometimes switching partners; sometimes not). Fleytoux and Menegussi, danced with precision and a sense of mercurial friskiness, without sacrificing form. If the opening piece on the program (which I’ll get to later) tended to leave an audience, or at least me, feeling benumbed, these two dancers provided a shot of visual adrenaline.

In the second movement, Coker and Crispino took the piece to an even higher level.

Even if I hadn’t already seen and remembered her from a prior ABT Studio Company performance, Coker would have been instantly noticeable, and hard to ignore. With her shock of red hair and a vivacious stage personality to match, she’s a pleasure to watch. She’s the type of dancer who already can light up the stage and at the same time melt the heart, and she has an endearing and somewhat mischievous quality (befitting her first name) that people would pay to see – and I suspect that ABT knows it. There’s still stuff to work on – to nitpicky me, she looked somewhat round-shouldered, indicating the need for upper body work – but the equipment and talent is all there. And Crispino, who I’d not previously seen, is already a gallant, commanding, and highly capable partner, with a built-in bit of heartthrob. And it’s a measure of the strength and versatility of these dancers that at Friday’s performance, Coker and Crispino danced the first movement.

Not to be outdone, RBS included a duet in the program – the pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto – that highlighted (at times literally) two of their finest. Even as an excerpt, it’s a wonderful example of MacMillan choreography. It has all the rapture of his Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, but without the feverish passion (the full moon against which the dancers’ shadows were sometimes projected – designs by Jürgen Rose – provided all the atmospheric passion necessary). And as executed by Sae Maeda and Joshua Jumper, the piece found very fine interpreters. Maeda has an extraordinary pristine line and extension, and her air of serenity fit the piece exquisitely. Although there were one or two noticeable glitches, Jumper overall did excellent work partnering her while making his portrayal both ardent and credible.

Concerto Grosso, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson to music by Francesco Geminiani (La Follia [after Corelli]) is a powerful dance for five men, here performed by the RBS graduates. Overall, it’s a liberating type of piece – highly athletic but not without form or substance, and it gave each young man a chance to shine. One, wearing a red costume, was the piece’s central figure. Except for overshooting his turn at the end, he did a fine job – and made up for deficiencies in his partnering that I noticed in the opening piece. [It may not be fair comment at this point, but partnering generally was not as strong a quality with the RBS’s young men as it was for ABT’s.]

The other pieces on the program were more problematic.

Ethan Stiefel’s See the Youth Advance! is perfectly serviceable, but not particularly memorable. It was commissioned as a joint work for the dancers from the two schools (the first jointly performed piece in the exchange program’s history), premiered in London last year, and had its New York premiere during this program, danced just by unidentified members of the ABT Studio Company.

What significance there is to the piece is provided by its title, and by the music to which it’s choreographed. In 1746, Handel composed an oratorio in three acts titled Judas Maccabaeus. That piece’s third movement is subtitled See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!, which subsequently achieved a popularity of its own separate and apart from that of the oratorio. Later, Beethoven became one of Handel’s pupils. In 1796, in the process of proving himself to the musical world (and wealthy potential benefactors), the 26 year old Beethoven composed 12 Variations on his idol’s ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!’ So the music represents young Beethoven’s effort to show how much he’d learned, and how great a talent he was. It seems logical to me that Stiefel chose this music as an apt vehicle to make the same statement about these dancers.

Stiefel’s choreography isn’t as significant as the music in that respect, but it gets the job done. After an opening minuet-like dance (more formal than folk; rougher than a court dance – perhaps representative of the students’ raw talent), the piece evolves into variations of varying length and substance involving subgroups – mostly pairs. I didn’t see any choreographic evolution (a la Jerome Robbins’s The Goldberg Variations), but that would have been beyond this piece’s scope. Aside from those segments in which Coker was involved, the piece’s highlight was the work by Armstrong and Jarod Curley (who bears a remote resemblance to David Hallberg, and shows considerable promise).

Choreographed to the Chaconne from Chromatic Fantasy by Dave Brubeck, Dana Genshaft’s Chromatic Fantasy, which also had its New York premiere at Friday’s performance, doesn’t seem to know exactly where it’s going or if it’s going anywhere. Performed by six dancers from ABT Studio Company, it looks like Genshaft was trying to reflect the jazziness in Brubeck’s score (no surprise there), but the choreographic palette is limited, and the imagination even more so. And opening with the dancers upstage center in a scrum illuminated by an overhead light, then scattering in the darkness and replaced by individual dancers going through the motions, and ending not with a return to the scrum, but in a completely different and unsatisfying way, left a sour impression. The six dancers (Armstrong, Kiely Groenewegen, Virginia Lensi, Andrii Ishchuk, Mattia Santini, and Javier Rivet executed well enough, but couldn’t overcome the dance’s dullness – for which the color-block costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung overcompensated.

Which brings me back to the beginning. The evening opened with an excerpt from Sir Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering. I’ve frequently written that I have a prejudice against excerpts unless they can stand on their own (like the pas de deux from Concerto), and this one can’t. And even though it’s elegant fluff (it was created in 1956 for the celebration of the Royal Ballet’s 25th Anniversary), it looks its age at least based on this excerpt: as dated as a birthday cake that’s been kept in the freezer too long. The piece as a whole was reportedly intended as somewhat of an homage to Petipa, but, again based on this performance and this excerpt, it’s more form than soul. Compare similar homages to Petipa and the Russian Imperial Ballet created by George Balanchine. Including an Ashton piece on the program was not inappropriate – his body of work is one of the pinnacles of the ballet in general and, of course, The Royal Ballet in particular, but a different piece might have looked less starched.

Be that as it may, the unidentified RBS dancers did their best with it, but with a few exceptions (the lead couple; and one dancer – I think Amelia Palmiero – who seemed more vivacious than the others but was consistently being pulled off center) the execution generally looked more reverential than robust. The best part were the ornate “birthday cake” costumes by Andre Levasseur. The program improved considerably thereafter.