Top 15 in 2017 New York Dance

Jerry Hochman

It’s that time of year.

I’ve resisted the temptation previously, but this year I’ve decided to join many other reviewers and offer my own list of 2017’s top dance performances in New York, partly because so many were delightful surprises, partly because the exercise of reliving visual memories of such a rich dance year is stimulating on its own, and partly because I may not have the opportunity again.

My Top 15 (10 ballet; 5 “not ballet”) includes individual and, where appropriate, group performances, and also choreographic efforts. It is not a listing of the “best” performances of the year, although many – if not most – of them merit that distinction, because I can’t claim to have seen more than a subset of the offerings in the New York area (substantial as that subset may be), and I don’t doubt that there are many more performances that are worthy of accolades.

My criteria included not only my evaluation of the individual performance or dance, but also any extraordinary circumstances that increased the personal or situational “adrenaline factor.” That I remember each performance or dance as if I’d seen it yesterday means something significant to me as well, compared to others I might have enjoyed but can no longer remember why.  And I recognize that comparing a performance in a leading role in a full length, full dress ballet with one in a 20 minute contemporary dance is like comparing bananas and peanuts, much less apples and oranges, but excellence is excellence.

The list does not include the following, which I arbitrarily decided were beyond the scope (a list almost as long as the Top 15): a dancer’s “body of work” for the year, however exceptional it may have been; a company’s overall excellence (e.g., New York City Ballet’s embarrassment of riches, seen in the liberal casting in featured roles that it provides to its rising talent, even – and especially – while they’re still in the corps, like Miriam Miller’s debut as The Siren in Prodigal Son; and by its encouragement of novice choreographers such as Gianna Reisen, evidenced in her Composer’s Holiday); noteworthy events (such as David Hallberg’s return to ABT); individual performances in a competition (e.g., in Youth America Grand Prix’s 2017 NY Finals); a dancer’s commendably fulfilling expectations (as Gillian Murphy did in her long-overdue ABT debut as Giselle); a reprise from 2016 (Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s presentations of Leonid Yakobson miniature gems and Leonid Lavrosky’s version of Walpurgis Night, featuring “unknown” dynamos Koki Yamaguchi and Nina Yoshida); or a piece that comes soooo close to being masterful, but that lost me with its unexpected pulled-the-rug-out-from-under-me ending (Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Old Friends). [Note how I just not so skillfully pared down my TOP list from 22 to 15.]

So with those caveats, here are my Top 15 (links to the pertinent reviews are provided as well):

1) Alena Kovaleva, Bolshoi Ballet, in “Diamonds,” from George Balanchine’s Jewels, at the Lincoln Center Festival, David H. Koch Theater, July 22 afternoon

Sometimes you just know, and with Alena Kovaleva, you knew as soon as she set foot on stage. Her New York debut was a magical, mystical experience – made even more extraordinary because she was only 18 years old at the time, had graduated from the Vaganova School just one year earlier, and because it was her only casting in the Lincoln Center Festival’s high profile celebration of the 50th Anniversary of George Balanchine’s Jewels (as if debuting in New York alone wasn’t sufficiently high profile). I saw eyes tearing among many audience members not because she played the role with unusual pathos (which, to her credit, she did not do), but because it was like watching a dream. She executed the steps to perfection, and projected an enchanting stage personality of youthful innocence and unaffected sensuality in the process.  Since then, she’s debuted with the Bolshoi as Odette/Odile (at all of 19), and made this month’s cover of Pointe Magazine.

Bolshoi Ballet dancers Alena Kovaleva and Jacopo Tissi in "Diamonds" from "Jewels," choreography by George Balanchine, ©The George Balanchine Trust Photo by Bolshoi/Costas

Alena Kovaleva and Jacopo Tissi
in “Diamonds” from “Jewels,”
choreography by George Balanchine,
©The George Balanchine Trust
Photo by Bolshoi/Costas

And if I were not focused primarily on ballerinas, her partner, Jacopo Tissi, would make my list as well. He’s as youthful and impeccably precise as she is (his near flawless partnering, and those multiple landings consistently in perfect 5th), and is Kovaleva’s frequent stage partner – demonstrating yet again how significant and mutually beneficial a regular ballet stage partnership can be.

As much as I disagreed with American Ballet Theatre’s “guest artist policy” in past years, ABT has always had at least one or two guest artists per Met season. Kovaleva/Tissi should be on the short list for ABT’s next guest artist opportunity.

2) Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre, in Giselle, Metropolitan Opera House, May 27 afternoon

After toiling in ABT’s soloist purgatory for over a decade, Sarah Lane was finally given the opportunity to perform one of the several classic roles that she seems born to dance. With everything on the line, she made the most of it, providing an extraordinarily moving and technically exceptional portrayal – and one of the most spiritual, for want of a better word, and genuine, that I’ve ever seen. And this was her Met, and ABT (except for a “test run” in Oman) debut in the role. Granted that I tend to respond emotionally when moved by a compelling performance, but this one moved me to tears.

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

Sarah Lane in “Giselle”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Lane’s partner, Daniil Simkin, deserves accolades as well, delivering one of his finest – and most selfless – performances.

3) Tiler Peck, New York City Ballet, in Swan Lake, David H. Koch Theater, September 27

Those who have watched Tiler Peck dance since she joined New York City Ballet know that she’s world class, with remarkable speed, precision, and impeccable (and impossible) phrasing. In case there were any lingering doubts, she cemented that reputation with her long-awaited debut as Odette/Odile. While Peter Martins’s choreography (after Balanchine and Petipa) limits the emotional expression, she stretched those limits. More significantly, she delivered a technically flawless and sumptuously exciting performance (ably assisted by her Prince Siegfried, Chase Finlay in his role debut), that had the usually staid NYCB audience (or, at most, prone to sitting ovations) cheering – and standing – through curtain calls that seemed unending. All this in a year that was particularly challenging for her.

New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay in Peter Martins's "Swan Lake" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay
in Peter Martins’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

4) Diana Vishneva, American Ballet Theatre, in Onegin, Metropolitan Opera House, June 23

Regardless of whether Diana Vishneva’s final performance as a member of American Ballet Theatre marked the end of ABT’s guest artist era (although she was a company member, she was recognized by many as a “guest” company member), and regardless of whether that performance really represented her last performance in a classical ballet with ABT, it was a milestone in her life – one could see the pressure, and the release of it when the performance ended – as well as a milestone for audiences. Her performance not only didn’t disappoint, it was memorable.

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in John Cranko's "Onegin" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes
in John Cranko’s “Onegin”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

And although it could not have been any other way, having Marcelo Gomes (who celebrated his 20th anniversary with the company during its 2017 Met season) as her partner for this occasion was icing on the cake. His partnership with Vishneva is one of the most celebrated of this century – and although both of them have partnered and been partnered by others, theirs will be the one remembered as long as balletomanes have memories, and demonstrates how significant a perfectly honed and mutually affectionate partnership can be.

5) Joshua Beamish, MoveTheCompany, in Saudade, Brooklyn Academy of Music, October 13

With his all-male dance Saudade, Joshua Beamish took male dancing to a different level. It’s not about power, although power is there, and it’s not about sexual attraction, although that’s there – it’s about relationships that are real, ephemeral, and possibly (or probably) doomed, and it changes the way one looks at male relationships and male dancing. It’s astonishingly good, both in conception and in execution by the members of Beamish’s company, and it’s a dance that anyone with a heart can appreciate.

6) Preeti Vasudevan in Stories by Hand at New York Live Arts, November 2

Every once in awhile a program comes out of nowhere and is so brilliantly constructed and executed that it keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens next. So it was with Preeti Vasudevan’s one-woman program, which turned out to be considerably more than an evening of annotated Indian-dance hand gestures. Stories by Hand is a captivating interplay of the individual and the universal and of seemingly incompatible languages and cultures, and there isn’t a false theatrical or emotional note in it. When it ended, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and at the same time fortunate enough to have shared the joyous experience of seeing for the first time.

Preeti Vasudevan in "Stories by Hand" Photo by Maria Baranova

Preeti Vasudevan in “Stories by Hand”
Photo by Maria Baranova

7) Oleg Gabyshev, Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra, City Center, June 9

Boris Eifman crafts ballets that I describe as neo-romantic. Sometimes the choreography and staging and forced melodrama hit the mark; sometimes they don’t; but you’ll never fall asleep at an Eifman Ballet performance. While I didn’t think his more famous Red Giselle was as fully realized as it could have been, his Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra, an imagining of Tchaikovsky revisiting his life while on his deathbed, was a fascinating piece of dance theater, made even more compelling by the performances by the company as a whole, by its three featured dancers (Maria Abashova in multiple roles, but particularly as the Queen of Spades; Sergey Volobuev as Tchaikovsky’s alter ego; and Lyubov Andreyeva marvelous as Antonina Milyukova, Tchaikovsky’s wife), and especially by a masterful, towering Oleg Gabyshev in the title role. Gabyshev kept his portrayal teetering on the brink of insanity, but never quite pushed it over the line. Given Eifman’s choreography and staging, that was a Tchaikovskian, if not Herculean, task.

Eifman Ballet dancers Oleg Gabyshev and Sergey Volobuev in "Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra" Photo by Evgeny Matveev

Oleg Gabyshev and Sergey Volobuev
in “Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra”
Photo by Evgeny Matveev

8) Christine Shevchenko, American Ballet Theatre, Don Quixote, Metropolitan Opera House, May 17 afternoon

Last year’s Met season proved to be ABT’s most exciting in recent memory, due in large part to the expected, and unexpected, debuts in leading roles by its then soloists. First out of the box was Christine Shevchenko’s Kitri, and it was a revelation. Shevchenko displayed her mettle when she substituted on minutes’ notice at the premiere performance of the third prong of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, and you knew then, if you hadn’t observed it already, that she would be one of ABT’s rising stars if given the opportunities. But nothing prepared one for her fiery as well as technically solid Kitri. It was a spectacular debut.

Christine Shevchenko, Alban Lendorf, and members of American Ballet Theatre, here in "Don Quixote" Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Christine Shevchenko and Alban Lendorf,
in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

9) New Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky for NYCB and ABT: Odessa (May 4); Whipped Cream (May 22), Souvenir d’un lieu cher (July 3), Songs of Bukovina (October 18)

Ok. Forget what I said about “body of work.”

Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography can be maddeningly opaque, and at times too rigidly wedded to an outdated stylistic framework. But he’s perhaps the most talented of 21st century ballet choreographers, and his pieces are always interesting, and, where appropriate, they always capture and emphasize a character’s essential humanity.

This year, Ratmansky delivered four ballets that either were world premieres, or new to U.S. or New York audiences. Souvenir d’un lieu cher, which premiered with the Dutch National Ballet in 2012, is a marvelous little ballet, delivered at its ABT premiere with superb performances by its four leads (Stella Abrera, Gomes, Lane, and Alban Lendorf). That I think I know what Ratmansky is trying to say is significant to me, but it’s wonderful even if one sees no meaning in it at all. Whipped Cream, which had its world premiere in California two months before its New York premiere at the Met, is a reimagining of an early 20th century German ballet. It isn’t highfalutin ballet, but it’s a lot more complex than it appears, and, with its extraordinary sets and costumes by Mark Ryden, it may prove to be the NYC child / parent / grandparent ticket-sale bonanza that ABT has been seeking. Songs of Bukovina, which premiered last fall during ABT’s DHK Theater season, is a lovely, richly textured piece in a similar folk vein to his glorious Russian Seasons for NYCB.

New York City Ballet dancers Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin De Luz (right) and members of the company in Alexei Ratmansky's "Odessa" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin De Luz (right)
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Odessa”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But this year’s Ratmansky masterwork is Odessa, which received its world premiere with NYCB last spring. Odessa is a visually compelling work that illustrates the city’s decay during the early 20th century from the inside out, with a focus on the destroyed (or soon to be destroyed) individuals festering in it. It’s brilliant in every respect, and was given brilliant performances as well by Amar Ramasar, Taylor Stanley, Sterling Hyltin, Peck, an exceptionally compelling Sara Mearns, and in one of his finest portrayals, Joaquin De Luz.

10) Ballet Hispanico in Michelle Manzanales’s Con Brazos Abiertos at the Joyce Theater, April 20.

I was hooked from before the first minute, as Michelle Manzanales (assisted by artistic collaborator Ray Dones), in her first dance for the company, wove a visual cultural tapestry about being a young Mexican girl living in Texas caught between two cultures. The subject isn’t anything new, but here it’s highly entertaining and done with sensitivity, pride, and unusual recognition that although her focus is from the Mexican point of view, cross-cultural lures cut both ways. And the Ballet Hispanico dancers are a particularly impressive group, which they also demonstrated in the other two the pieces on the program.

Ballet Hispanico dancers in Michelle Manzanales's "Con Brazos Abiertos" Photo by Paula Lobo

Ballet Hispanico dancers
in Michelle Manzanales’s
“Con Brazos Abiertos”
Photo by Paula Lobo

11) Lauren Lovette, New York City Ballet, in The Sleeping Beauty, February 16, AND choreographing Not Our Fate, September 28.

Back to “sometimes you just know.” And sometimes you had no idea.

That Lauren Lovette would likely become a principal dancer with New York City Ballet was evident upon seeing her in her first featured role (in Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia). Her debut as Aurora, however, was more than just another in her, yawn, string of fabulous debut performances. It was scary sensational.

New York City Ballet dancers Lauren Lovette and Gonzalo Garcia in Peter Martins's "The Sleeping Beauty" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Lauren Lovette and Gonzalo Garcia
in Peter Martins’s “The Sleeping Beauty”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But what has proven surprising is Lovette’s growing facility as a choreographer. Hot on the heels of her first choreographed effort for NYCB, last year’s For Clara, with Not Our Fate she shows a level of choreographic facility and an ability to effectively communicate her point of view that more experienced choreographers are not always able to accomplish. While I quibbled that Not Our Fate was somewhat predictable, that doesn’t detract from the quality of the choreographic accomplishment. And in tandem with Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing (which premiered last spring), the pieces can be seen as anthems for a new generation.

12) ABT’s unanticipated leading role debuts: Skylar Brandt in Le Corsaire, June 8; Christine Shevchenko in Le Corsaire, June 7 afternoon; and Sarah Lane in Swan Lake, June 15

Yea, I’m cheating by combining these.

As demanding as a debut in a leading role in a full length ballet can be, and as exciting as it is for a viewer to see an exquisite debut performance, it’s something else entirely when the debut performance is unexpected, the usual rehearsal/mental preparation time is limited, and the result is an exceptional performance that would be exceptional under any circumstances. I saw three of them: Skylar Brandt’s portrayal of Medora (in her second outing in the role; she had her unscheduled debut a few days earlier); Christine Shevchenko’s debut in the same role; and Sarah Lane’s debut as Odette/Odile.

American Ballet Theatre dancers Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo in "Le Corsaire" Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo
in “Le Corsaire”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

That all three have room for improvement is considerably less important than the fact that they each performed … exceptionally. And Lane, who wasn’t formally cast in this iconic and defining dual role until two days before the performance (and who was aided, again, by another selfless outing from Simkin) gave the most miraculous unexpected debut of them all – including an impossibly moving White Swan pas de deux. ABT’s failure, at least based on the current 2018 Met casting, to give her the opportunity given to others to grow in the role is artistically incomprehensible.

13) Devon Teuscher, American Ballet Theatre, in Swan Lake, June 14 afternoon

Every role that Devon Teuscher has danced with ABT is done well, from Caroline in Jardin Aux Lilas to Myrta in Giselle. Her New York debut as Odette/Odile (she debuted in the role a few months earlier at the Kennedy Center) was no different. While I may quibble about a seeming absence of discernable stage persona, that’s probably more my lack of perspicacity than any deficiency on her part. This Met debut was stunning, marred only by what I saw as unfortunate decisions in the course of her Black Swan that negatively impacted my view of her Odile – but then, the role of Odile seems always to be one that requires more than the usual period of growth and evolution before the dual role can be said to be fully realized.

American Ballet Theatre dancers Devon Teuscher and Alexandre Hammoudi, here in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Devon Teuscher and Alexandre Hammoudi,
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

14) RIOULT Dance NY in Fire in the Sky at the Joyce Theater, June 1

I don’t know how to characterize Pascal Rioult’s Fire in the Sky, except to say that it dragged the Joyce audience into an Experience that perhaps many of them would prefer not to have seen, but that became their guilty pleasure. Here Rioult didn’t just recreate a memory by taking the audience back in time, he recreated memories, real or imagined, that the audience never knew it had, and did it in a way that was visually exciting, and which seemed to be just as much fun for the company’s dancers as it was for the audience. Jere Hunt’s performance as the band’s unlikeable, unsympathetic, and somewhat Morrison-like front man was galvanizing.

RIOULT Dance NY dancers in Pascal Rioult's "Fire in the Sky" Photo by Sofia Negron

RIOULT Dance NY dancers
in Pascal Rioult’s “Fire in the Sky”
Photo by Sofia Negron

15) Paul Taylor Dance Company in Lila York’s Continuum, David H. Koch Theater, March 9

I remember Lila York from her performing days with Paul Taylor Dance Company, but didn’t know she now choreographs. She does. Continuum is a wonderful, joyous dance that may have been a trip down memory lane for her, but it appeals universally as a continuum of time and a Taylor-ish exploration of the seasons of one’s life. Eran Bugge delivered an exceptional performance as the “younger” incarnation of the character I saw as York as a young dancer, as did Parisa Khobdeh as perhaps York’s more experienced surrogate, but the entire cast – and particularly the men – injected Continuum with the strength and passion it deserved. That the piece premiered on the same program as Taylor’s very different depiction of memories, The Open Door (which I enjoyed despite its quirkiness), was a bonus.

Here’s to an even better 2018!