American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

May 16 and 17 afternoon, 2017
Don Quixote

— by Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre opened its Spring 2017 season at the Metropolitan Opera House on Monday with a week of Don Quixote.

I’ve previously discussed the plusses and minuses of ABT’s current production, staged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones, with choreography after Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, and won’t rehash that now. Suffice it to say that it lacks most of the entertainment, excitement, and even humor level of ABT’s first Don Quixote, choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov. But for those not familiar with that exceptional version, this is a serviceable, and at times spirited incarnation, and certainly superior to the staging by Vladimir Vasiliev that preceded it. And bringing in some students from the company’s affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School this season as “mini-Amours” to freshen things up (and maybe sell some extra tickets) helped.

However, as is the case with most established ballets, classic or otherwise, and unless one prefers to see only established stars dancing in them, the real story to be told here, and the rationale behind seeing a ballet multiple times, is in watching dancers grow as artists over time. The two performances I saw this week (Tuesday and Wednesday matinee) provided ample opportunity for that, almost exclusively from a plethora of outstanding role debuts.

Tuesday night, if you were visiting from another planet and didn’t know the players, but knew that the female lead, Kitri, is supposed to be a Spanish spitfire with an outsized personality that dominates the stage – and you saw this vibrant, saucy ballerina flashing personality aplenty, you’d think she was the quintessential Kitri. She wasn’t: that was Luciana Paris sparkling in her debut as Mercedes.

To be fair, Misty Copeland’s Kitri, which Paris’s Mercedes overshadowed in Act I, got better as it went along, was more than adequate, and was superior to her prior outing. I’ll discuss it at greater length below. But the most noteworthy of the performances was delivered  Wednesday afternoon and must be recognized up front.  Christine Shevchenko’s outstanding debut as Kitri provided enough celebratory fireworks to satisfy avid balletomaniacs for … at least a week.

Sometimes an extraordinary performance can move an audience to joyous tears.  Shevchenko’s Kitri did, because the overall quality was so unexpectedly good – even though it shouldn’t have been unexpected at all.  There’s room yet for growth, but hers was an exceptional performance, particularly (but not only) for a debut, once again validating the proposition that if you want to see where a company is going and who is going to be leading it, one way to do it is to attend a matinee.

If one didn’t notice Shevchenko soon after she joined ABT’s corps in 2008, one did when she replaced a suddenly injured Gillian Murphy on extremely short notice (too short even to prepare a sign or program insert) to take one of the lead roles in Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the third prong of his masterful Shostakovich Trilogy, at its Met premiere in May, 2013. She nailed it, earning stage applause from her colleagues during the curtain call and roars from the thrilled audience. In a different company, she would have been promoted to soloist on the spot; with ABT it took another year. But her capability has never been in doubt.

Also, within the past 6 months or so Shevchenko has been a ballerina physically transformed. It’s as if she’s somehow been reassembled and now looks more elongated than she did before, and tighter than a drum – a cross between a ballerina and a gazelle. Having watched her grow as an artist for many years, the metamorphosis is truly amazing. And it comes with no loss of power – she’s an exceptionally strong dancer without having to make a point of proving it.

So all the predicates for a super performance were there – all she needed to do was deliver it. She did.

Shevchenko’s Kitri was everything the previous night’s portrayal was not. From her first moments, she was fiery, with elevation, extensions, timing, and equally important, attitude (as in characterization) to die for. Even a Wednesday matinee audience where my presence brought down the average age recognized it immediately, applauding her enthusiastically for her unusually strong opening frontward kicks (releve developpes to the front) that soared effortlessly up to her head. And her performance continued at that level throughout.

If anything, Shevchenko might have been too pumped. She zoomed out at full throttle – which to some extent is a necessity from the outset in this role. Dancing slightly ahead of the music (which much of the time was conducted at way too slow a pace – she was leading the conductor), she almost overplayed it – at one minor point slightly two-stepping a landing. But that, and briefly (and insignificantly) losing contact with her fan during her Act III pas de deux solo, were the only really obvious issues. She even converted an awkward-looking off-center position as she was lifted and held aloft (twice) toward the end of Act I by her Basilio, Alban Lendorf, into a plus. Impossible as it seemed, she maintained her balance, and he maintained the gasp-inducing one-hand overhead lifts without having to travel.

There’s work that needs to be done – on characterization (at times being sassy and temperamental comes out looking too pensive and mean-looking) and choreographic nuance, but that will come with time and additional opportunities. Some I’ve spoken to thought her outsized smile might have been overkill, but to me it was both essential and perfectly done, never looked pasted-on like a spit-curl, and was moderated appropriately. And all the technical basics were there.

But Shevchenko’s Kitri was more than technical basics. Of even greater significance were the indicia of superlative ability.

There are essential components of technical superiority that ballerinas (and danseurs) at a certain level achieve – some better than others; some with more zest and individual exceptional variations than others; but in one form or another they’re part of a principal-level performance. Shevchenko did them all. Her Act II diagonal hops were perfectly done; her “leap” elevation was high; her “Plisetskaya leaps” reached the back of her head; she “added” to the choreography (including an extra turn, for example) when the music was slow enough to allow it; her pas de cheval in the wedding scene pas de deux was crisp and tightly controlled; her “pushed-spin” en pointe at the close of the first part of the Act III pas de deux was clean and smooth, and she did a double unsupported pirouette; and her concluding fouettes were electrifying – she did a full 32 of them, every other one a double, ending with a triple, maintained within at most a two foot range from their initiation position, and delivered at a point at which many ballerinas understandably run out of gas. Are these make or break determinative of superior performances? No. But they’re skills and accomplishments that take a performance to a higher level, they’re ingrained in the choreography as it has evolved over decades, and they’re what knowledgeable audiences expect to see.

Copeland’s Kitri did not reach this level. The most egregious problem, discounting the indicia mentioned, was apparent from the beginning of her performance.

Kitri’s initial impression is critical – it sets the essential tone. But when Copeland first entered the stage and through much of the first act, her personality was bland. And it wasn’t just characterization. Her leaps didn’t take her far off the ground (I was sitting in the orchestra, and had a clear view); there was nothing “special” about her developpes or her “Plesetskaya leaps;” she still tenses up (purses her lips and drifts off character) when she thinks the audience can’t see, and perhaps most significantly, she was always a split second behind the beat. It was particularly noticeable when she danced in sync with her Basilio, Jeffrey Cirio. His feet would hit the beat exactly; she’d follow a split second later. Consistently.

Was it fatal? No. Copeland significantly upped the characterization ante and apparent energy level as the performance progressed. Her diagonal toward the end of Act I, her hops en pointe diagonal in Act II, and her execution in general in Acts II and III (with exceptions) were all quite good. But the first impression in Act I is critical in this role, and resulted in the unpleasant comparison with Paris’s Mercedes.

It’s certainly possible that Copeland was pacing herself. That would have been an understandable, although in this ballet an unwise, decision – particularly since the indicia of principal excellence that she might have been saving her energy for weren’t there. Lack of character luster and execution flair aside, at the end of the Act III pas de deux, the “pushed” turn, she couldn’t stay en pointe more than half a revolution; her pas de cheval, though she did the steps perfectly well, were stretched halfway across the stage – there was no filigree or finesse; and her fouettes were abysmal – I counted 22 singles (others I subsequently spoke with counted a few more), and most importantly, she travelled halfway to the wings while doing them.

I must emphasize that none of these “deficiencies” are critical to an audience’s enjoyment of the ballet — indeed, the curtain call ovations were rapturous. They’re just indicia of excellence that are or are not there, and that many in an audience unfamiliar with what’s expected might not be aware of.  And it’s undeniable that her performance was an improvement over two years ago, and certainly the fouettes were an improvement over the virtually non-existent ones in her Swan Lake New York debut. The role of Kitri should be a natural one for Copeland. So maybe eventually, and with the benefit of the additional opportunities she’s being given, she’ll be able to take her performance to a higher level.

Cirio did a very fine job in his Basilio debut – when he was on his own. But he was unable to sustain the Act I overhead lifts more than a half a second for the first lift; the second lift lasted maybe a full second – but he had to travel slightly to keep her aloft. The fish dive in Act III was near disaster – it looked like he was going to drop her. These weren’t Copeland’s “fault” – or Cirio’s: the partnering assignment was not a fortuitous one. But when he was by himself, he excelled. Superior characterization, brilliantly milked pirouettes, leaps with zest – and not a few tricks thrown in to get the audience cheering.

Lendorf’s Basilio on Wednesday afternoon was quite different. His was a more subdued and refined barber, with little of the flair in his turns and leaps that Cirio demonstrated. But this is consistent with the low-key, understated, more elegant demeanor he’s demonstrated since his first appearance as a guest artist with ABT. And his partnering – and particularly those lifts – was superbly done.

Both performances were chockablock with significant debuts in other roles as well.

On Tuesday, Paris, who has been fairly invisible since her promotion to soloist, debuted as Mercedes, and knocked it out of the park. She had the energy, the pizazz, the sauciness – and the technique. The only disappointment with it was that she did not also dance the Dryad Queen.

In this production (as opposed to the Baryshnikov version), Mercedes and the Dryad Queen are different characters. I don’t have a problem with that at all – in fact separating them makes considerable sense – as long as they’re danced either as different characters by the same ballerina, or with different dancers assigned to the two roles consistently. On Monday’s opening night, Hee Seo performed both roles. On Wednesday afternoon, Devon Teuscher also danced both roles. But on Tuesday, Paris danced Mercedes, and Veronika Part danced the Dryad Queen. Both Paris and Part are highly capable of dancing both roles (although I concede that I have no recollection of seeing Paris execute Italian fouettes, which are essential here), so the reason for the change, other than to give an underutilized ballerina something to do, is a mystery.

Part danced the Dryad Queen role well, as she always does, but looked like she really didn’t want to be there, and I couldn’t blame her.  On the other hand, Teuscher’s debut (in both roles) marked yet another notable afternoon performance.  While she lacked Paris’s sensuality, her Mercedes was equally pitch-perfect, and she dances whatever role she’s given, these included, smooth as silk. I look forward to her New York Odette/Odile debut later this season.

In Tuesday’s performance, Calvin Royal III’s debut as Espada showed considerable promise. Espada is a difficult role to do right. Aside from the technique involved, Espada should convey rock-star swagger and unfettered confidence (particularly as opposed to Basilio, who’s something of a underachieving nebbish), but also a measure of refined style. Royal had the first part; the patina of polish will come later. The next afternoon, Blaine Hoven danced a distinguished Espada, one with a noble pedigree. His portrayal lacked the magnetism and sensuality of Royal’s, but it showed superb technique delivered with class and clear as a bell.

In this version, the roles of the Flower Girls have increased stage time and significance, and both casts delivered. The better of the two – but not by much – was Tuesday night’s pairing of Skylar Brandt and Catherine Hurlin (in a role debut). Brandt is a joy to watch in anything – verve and technique combined. Hurlin, who’s been on everyone’s watch list since she was ABT’s first Clara in Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker, was quite impressive. She doesn’t just stop traffic – stage or street – because she’s drop dead gorgeous; she earns it. And the two of them executed in perfect sync throughout – as it’s supposed to be – but never looked mechanical. Wednesday afternoon’s pairing was slightly less successful in terms of synchronization (which isn’t really a big deal), but each dancer – Melanie Hamrick, returning to the company following a pregnancy absence and looking like she hasn’t missed a beat, and loose-limbed Kaho Ogawa, who I don’t recall seeing previously — provided superlative performances.

Cassandra Trenary and Rachel Richardson, respectively Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon’s Amour’s, both enjoyed smashing debuts — Trenary’s  was particularly accomplished-looking, and Richardson, whose performance in Benjamin Millepied’s Daphnis and Chloe I glowed about last fall, was crystalline.  Also in role debuts, Betsy McBride and Jonathan Klein on Tuesday, and Lauren Bonfiglio and Zhiyao Zhang on Wednesday afternoon each danced Act II’s Gypsy couple well. Klein and Zhang seemed temperamental opposites – Klein’s execution, though certainly appropriately spirited, looked almost out of control, while Zhang’s showed almost too much control. But all four did fine work.

There also were a bevy of “new” corps dancers who assumed roles, primarily at Wednesday’s matinee. Several of them, on initial view, I’ll look forward to watching grow – including some who appear to be apprentices. I’m as yet unable to identify definitively each of those I noticed, but I’m reasonably certain of two: Nastia Alexandrova, and Xuelen Lu. Keep an eye on both of them.

The abundance of role debuts in these performances reflects what I’ve previously described as an apparent sea change in ABT’s casting policy: fewer guest (and pseudo-guest) artists, and more casting opportunities in leading roles for company dancers spread across a wider spectrum of soloists and corps dancers than had been the case previously, when it appeared as if one anointed soloist a season was given all available role opportunities that didn’t go to a guest or a principal. It’s come unfortunately late for some – ABT has lost many superb soloist-level dancers over the years because of limited role opportunities. But it’s a welcome change, long overdue, and not too late for those soloists still with the company.