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

October 18 and 20, 2023: Piano Concerto No. 1, Petite Mort, Études

October 22 and 25, 2023: Ballet Imperial, The Dream

October 28, 2023: Single Eye, Depuis le Jour, On the Dnipro

Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre’s twelve-performance/three program (plus Gala) Fall 2023 season at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, though brief, was quite successful overall, and had several distinct highlights. First were the collective performances of Jake Roxander, ABT’s brilliant young member of the corps (at least for now) who excelled, again, in every piece in which he appeared. Equally noteworthy, and the most memorable ensemble piece this season, was the last dance on the season’s last program: Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnipro, featuring extraordinary performances by Cassandra Trenary, Catherine Hurlin, Jared Curley, and Michael de la Nuez. The season’s other highlights were the October 25th performance of Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, led by Trenary, Daniel Camargo, and Roxander; and the performances on the season’s first program of Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (though its presentation as a standalone is of considerable concern) and Jiri Kylian’s kinky Petite Mort.

After a brief discussion of Roxander’s performances, I’ll address the programs in rough performance order.

Jake Roxander in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Last Spring, ABT devoted the second week of its 2023 Met Season to Giselle. In my subsequent review of those performances, where one might have expected it to begin with a discussion of the ballet or the individual lead dancers, it began instead with a discussion of a male dancer who had only recently joined the company (in September 2022) who I’d not previously seen. Of course, it was Roxander, who danced in the Peasant Pas. This was long before some other critics joined the bandwagon.

I’ve gone out on a limb before with young ballerinas relatively new to the company with significant potential who, often based on largely unquantifiable qualities of my own determination, I consider to be dancers to watch. Over the years I’ve had a very good batting average. This was the first time I’d been similarly impressed by a young male dancer. [“Laterals” don’t count.] Now everyone in the New York ballet-audience-world knows who he is, and he draws audiences regardless of the ballet in which he appears. I’ve even noticed comments on social media wondering how it could be that he’s not a principal. Barring unexpected developments, it’ll happen.

As I’ve said before, sometimes you just know.

This fall Roxander continued to impress in each of his roles: in Piano Concerto No. 1 and Etudes in the first program, and as Puck in The Dream in the second.

He has a long way to go yet. His partnering ability hasn’t really been tested (although he partnered well in that Peasant Pas) – indeed, the only flaw in his performances this season was a partnering issue in one of his opening night performances (though that may not have been his doing). And he’s relatively short; whether he’d be able to communicate any sense of nobility in appropriate roles in the classical repertory remains to be seen – though other short male dancers have successfully overcome any such issue (and there are plenty of short ballerinas for him to partner). I suspect we won’t have long to wait to find out. As of now, Roxander is like a hyperactive (and very well-trained) feral puppy, with boundless energy and thrilling technique.

It’s been a very long time since ABT had a male dancer with his obvious potential, inherent magnetism, and star power that could ultimately extend beyond the limited ballet world. And he delivers quality performances without the least indication that he’s forcing (or milking) it or relying on “tricks.” It all looks perfectly natural.

All that being said, there are two areas of concern. First, Roxander goes all out at every performance; literally 110%. Maybe 150%. That’s usually admirable, but he appears to pour so much energy into everything that involves more than walking from one position to another (and even there…) that the concern is that he’ll injure himself or someone else by pushing too hard too often and/or running low on energy late into a performance. Second, ABT has a group of male dancers who have significant potential as well, and in the haste to exhibit Roxander, some of them have been, or in the future may be, passed over for roles they might otherwise have been given. In this situation previously, ABT lost several promising male dancers. As good as Roxander is, ABT must provide equivalent opportunities for, and reasonably equivalent promotion of, other male corps dancers who, over the years, have earned it (e.g., Jonathan Klein, Patrick Frenette, Curley, and more recently de la Nuez, among others).

The October 18th and 20th Performances:

Right out of the box, the first program’s first piece raised concerns – not at all with the choreography or the dancers’ execution, but with presenting the ballet as a standalone.

As originally presented, Piano Concerto No. 1 (hereafter, at times, simply Piano Concerto) was part of Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. I saw it at its premiere on May 31, 2013, and again at its afternoon performance the next day. To say it’s a brilliant work of dance art is an understatement.

The Trilogy is a non-narrative visualization of the impact of Communism in general and Stalin in particular on the people of the USSR (including Shostakovich himself), and the peoples’ ultimate victory, short-lived as it may, in hindsight, have been. It was significant for what it said, for how Ratmansky said it, and for the fact that it existed at all, and I consider it one of the most important ballets of the 21st Century to date.

The titles of the two other dances that were part of the Trilogy were the other Shostakovich compositions that collectively comprised the Trilogy’s score: Symphony # 9 and Chamber Symphony. [Piano Concerto was originally “#1,” but was subsequently changed to “No. 1”.] And although totalitarianism in the USSR under Stalin is its clear target, its message has importance with respect to totalitarianism in Russia, the U.S., or anywhere else, and whether it’s the consequence of one man’s megalomania or the tyranny of compulsory ideology and intentional misinformation.

So I’ve been waiting not very patiently since 2016 (the one time, to my knowledge, that the company reprised it – with, as I recall, all of four performances) for ABT to bring the Trilogy back again. But despite its continuing relevance, the powers that be never did.

So when I saw that the company had scheduled Piano Concerto No. 1 for its Fall 2023 Koch Theater season, my eagerness to see it again was tempered by disappointment that it was to be presented, once again, as a standalone.

Jake Roxander (left) and American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

In my review of the Trilogy following its world premiere performances I recognized that Piano Concerto No. 1 was the most abstract of the three and that it could be presented as a standalone. I said the same thing after ABT did exactly that in its Fall 2013 season.

But though it works as a standalone, it’s not better as a standalone. Something critical – the connection between Piano Concerto and the earlier pieces in the Trilogy – is lost in the process, as is an understanding of why it was part of the Trilogy at all.

Freedom rings throughout Piano Concerto. But it’s a victory, not just a celebration of nothing in particular. And though they’re subtle enough to miss, indicia of life under Stalin as visualized in the Trilogy’s first two pieces are evident in Piano Concerto No. 1 as well.

As presented during this engagement (and presumably in prior presentations), there’s a scene in Piano Concerto in which the two lead pairs are featured on stage alone. After they dance a bit the stage movement stops, and all stand in alignment looking in one direction (angled toward stage right…toward the stage area where the general festivities take place; that is, facing the present and the future. Then, for no apparent reason at all (it certainly doesn’t “say” anything choreographically), all four turn their heads in the opposite direction. The look isn’t so much “behind” them as it’s an over-the-shoulder gaze with no facial indication of anything: just a serious look seemingly for no reason.

But there is a reason within Trilogy context: to see if anyone’s watching them, which, as I recall, is a visual theme (one of several) in the dance that I described as a masterpiece, Chamber Symphony, the second in the Trilogy. Here the unnamed man (maybe representing Shostakovich himself), played with searing power by David Hallberg, struggles to overcome the pervasive impact of Stalin and the fear that Big Brother – Stalin’s KGB cronies and/or his neighbors – might report any nonconforming activity they see to authorities.

But there’s more of a connection than just that steely over-the-shoulder gaze. In the very next movement sequence, one of the two couples, Shevchenko and Royal, move a bit forward and then “fall” together to the stage floor, Royal above Shevchenko, with both their bodies fixed sideways facing the audience, and with Royal holding onto Shevchenko (or protecting her) as they fall. This isn’t some “standard” fall to the stage floor. Rather, the two fall incrementally, as if someone or something was pushing or hammering them down – metaphorically crushing their personal freedom. If Piano Concerto is considered as simply an abstract dance relating to nothing in particular, this is a meaningless sequence, not connected with any other movement quality in the dance. But it’s there for a reason: it’s a direct choreographic quote from the opening piece in the Trilogy, Symphony #9.

There are still more connections to the other components of the Trilogy, but I’ll spare the reader more of my rant.

My point in going into this in such depth is to demonstrate that though it’s abstract and can exist as a standalone, Piano Concerto No. 1 belongs as part of the Trilogy. Otherwise these references back are distinctive images inserted for no good reason. And of all the choreographers now working, Ratmansky is probably the one least likely to insert distinctive images that have no relationship to anything else in the piece for no good reason.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

And it seems that this severance from the Trilogy was done intentionally – the fact that Piano Concerto No. 1 was originally part of the Shostakovich Trilogy isn’t anywhere in the program. [It’s not mentioned in the ABT website repertory summary either, although a pre-season introductory press release mentions that Piano Concerto was part of a “trilogy of works” choreographed by Ratmansky to music by Shostakovich, and nothing more. Even that limited reference was deleted in subsequent season press releases.] Why hide this?

I suppose it’s possible that Ratmansky himself might not want the Trilogy presented again in its complete form or even adequately referenced, but I know of no reason why – except perhaps to strip the final component of its Russian connection. But Piano Concerto was presented as a standalone long before Russia invaded Ukraine, so that explanation doesn’t work. Or maybe the company wanted to bury references to the Trilogy since Piano Concerto No. 1 is included in the repertory program it’s bringing to China next week. If so, this deference represents an opportunity lost.

Be that as it may, Christine Shevchenko, Calvin Royal III, and Skylar Brandt, each of whom danced their roles in prior outings, delivered superlative performances here in both the Program 1 performances I attended. And Roxander, in his role debut, stood out like a star thumb. And I must recognize the appropriately effusive dancing by corps, the sterling solo piano by Jacek Mysinski and solo trumpet by Maximillian Morel, and the vibrant conducting by David LaMarche.

American Ballet Theatre in Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Petite Mort is a strange piece. Created in 1991, I don’t recall previously seeing it – and I’m sure I would have remembered it if I had.

To excerpts from two Mozart compositions (Piano Concerto in A Major KV 488 and Piano Concerto in C Major KV467), Kylian here creates a very interesting and highly theatrical dance with something of a split personality that manages to skewer several different sacred cows and circumvent censorship at the same time. I didn’t like it much, but I liked it a lot (a split personality isn’t supposed to be contagious), more for the stagecraft and the skewering than the actual choreography. And, particular in light of its intentional super-serious veneer, Petite Mort is both highly erotic and flat-out hilarious.

In English translation, “petite mort” means “little death.” But it has another common connotation: orgasm. That, and Mozart, are all the predicate information that a viewer needs to know.

The piece opens with the six men in the cast standing in rows horizontally and vertically equidistant from each other, with each bearing his own sword – the Romeo and Juliet kind – as if preparing for battle. But here there’s no fighting; no confrontation – here the swords have a metaphorical function. The men just move the swords up and down and around and assume aggressive postures, all in tandem as I recall, in preparation for … something. A warm-up before the main event. All this is done in relatively dim light – enough to make out the action, but not to see it clearly – and to the restrained but rigorous Mozart score. Something monumental, perhaps explosive, is about to happen.

Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo
in Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

After the men (each wearing understatedly gilded shorts and a shirt) complete what looks like something of a ritual ceremony (akin to a multi-couple Bugaku without the Japanese – or Balanchine – connection), they run upstage, grab a stage-spanning covering of some sort – effectively a group blanket, and pull it downstage over their heads. Immediately after reaching the limits of the performing area, the covering gets pulled back, and voila, six women appear from underneath the covering, each dressed in a pure white leotard, and each in position to instantly align with one of the six men. They proceed to dance sequentially couple to couple, with intensity flooding from every pore and choreographed position while their faces remain absolutely stoic. Eventually, with the men’s swords repurposed, the couples’ ceremonial coupling begins, with each male dancer’s back to the stage floor and his assigned woman spread-eagled atop him (or perhaps the other way around), their heads facing the audience.

But it’s not over. In “act 2” of this act-less dance, the men disappear (maybe to grab a cigarette) and the women retreat to the upstage darkness, then return dressed in black gowns and proceed to skim their way around the stage like angels in a strange Nutcracker performance. As they move, it eventually becomes clear that the black gowns aren’t worn by the women: they’re a covering for the white leotards that the women were wearing in the earlier part of the piece. Why? The only answer that seems to fit is that this was Kylian’s way of making fun of starchy young women in Mozart’s time – there was a lot going on beneath the frilly, body-concealing frocks. It was a post-faux-coital commentary on women in Mozart’s time (or beyond) the way the sword manipulation was a pre-faux-coital commentary on the men in the same time period.

Petite Mort is a hoot to a viewer with a sense of humor. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a piece of cake to perform. Each of the dancers individually, and each pair of couples, delivered complex performances even If the movement didn’t look that way. The dancers, listed as couples (the same at each of the programs I saw), in couple-appearance order, were Erica Lall and Joao Menendez, Betsy McBride and Carlos Gonzalez, Sunmi Park and Joseph Markey, Trenary and Herman Cornejo, Chloe Misseldine and Cory Stearns, and Hee Seo and Joo Won Ahn, with the choreography for each couple appearing to grow more complex as the piece progressed. Each delivered sensational performances, as did the solo pianist, Evangelos Spanos.

(forward, l-r) Joo Won Ahn, Devon Teuscher, Jake Roxander
and American Ballet Theatre in Harald Lander’s “Études”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Harald Lander’s Études is something of a conundrum. I used to enjoy it a great deal when ABT presented it, but that was a long time ago. I haven’t seen it in several decades, since I was a relatively novice balletomaniac.

Choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet, Études premiered in Copenhagen in 1948, and entered ABT’s repertory in 1961. Each time I saw it in the past, it was more thrilling than educational, though it serves both purposes – which is the reaction the piece is expected to generate.

Briefly, for those unfamiliar with it, the piece begins with the most “inexperienced” ballerinas doing barre work. This elementary difficulty level increases until the ballerinas progress to center demonstrations. Eventually, the ballerinas are joined by male dancers who (out of sight) presumably have undergone their own training. Then, incrementally, this leads to bravura displays by the leading dancers and the pyrotechnics of a prima ballerina. As the dance progresses the excitement level increases with each increasing level of difficulty.

Catherine Hurlin in Harald Lander’s “Études”
Photo by Emma Zordan

But something about it isn’t quite the same anymore. The piece looks different – from the opening focus on a single member of the corps (it used to be filled by a few baby bunheads) to a sense of the stage looking much more cramped and the overall presentation looking darker than I remember. And I vaguely recall more of a transitionary build-up before the glorious concluding series. Whatever the reason may have been for these changes, the piece looked better without them.

The performances, however, were quite good, even though confined to a smaller space. The lead dancers – Devon Teuscher, with Joo Won Ahn on opening night, and Catherine Hurlin, with Sung Woo Han on Friday night – danced well, but that was no surprise. Teuscher was a bit faster and more commanding, a product of greater experience as well as having a more experienced partner; she continues to grow more formidable with each season. Hurlin handled her assignment well; indeed, she was somewhat unexpectedly (but not inappropriately) flamboyant. And then there was Roxander, the third wheel in each cast, who just kept spinning and bringing the house down.

The October 22nd and 25th Performances:

The season’s second program, consisting of Ballet Imperial and The Dream, was not quite on the same level.

It takes guts to dance Ballet Imperial in the same house that presented Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, during NYCB’s Fall 2023 season. [They’re the same ballet. It was originally presented as Ballet Imperial, but Balanchine discarded the set and costumes in order to present the piece as “pure dance,” and changed the title to the title of the composition.]

First, although I consider the performances here on their own merits, nothing that the lead ballerinas in either cast could do could have equaled the spectacular performance by Tiler Peck in this same ballet in this same theater two weeks earlier.

As for the two productions, the Ruben Ter-Arutunian set is quite majestic – appropriate to the Tchaikovsky score. It’s elimination in the NYCB production is unfortunate, particularly since no matter what Balanchine did with it choreographically the music’s imperial connection couldn’t be undone. It looks far better as ABT presents it, with the original NYCB set. [The Ter-Arutunian set was not original to the 1941 Ballet Caravan production. It is original (following the earlier design) to the ballet’s NYCB premiere in 1964.] As for the costumes, that’s a closer call. They’re appropriate, but far too “starchy” for the choreography – leading to a similar observation of the performances.

Skylar Brandt (forward, center) and American Ballet Theatre
in George Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

But the set and costumed are not critical factors; the composition and choreography, and the execution of both, are. Compared to NYCB, ABT’s version is like musical molasses – and it seemed even slower on the 25th then it had been on the 22nd.

Chloe Misseldine in George Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial”
Photo by Kyle Froman

I saw two performances in order to see different casts. On the 22nd, Ballet Imperial was led by Shevchenko, Royal, and Misseldine. On the 25th, the lead cast was Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside, and Brandt. Both lead casts were role debuts when I saw them or a few nights earlier in this run. Shevchenko did fine work on the 22nd, as did Royal, though he looked stiffer than he has in other similar roles: clothes make the man. On the 25th, Boylston started out slower, but improved as the ballet progressed. Whiteside looked even stiffer than Royal, but otherwise partnered very well, as he usually does. Misseldine and Brandt are two very different ballerinas in physical appearance and attack. Misseldine is as interesting and impressive looking now as she was when I first saw her dance; however, although she displayed an exuberant character and executed well, her overall performance lacked the necessary polish, which will come with time. Brandt, though much smaller, was equally expressive but far more buoyant, and moved, or at least gave the impression of moving, quite faster and with greater control.

I used to think that The Dream was one of Sir Frederick Ashton’s finest dances, but, for whatever reason, the last few times I’ve seen it I’ve found it decreasingly impressive. Granted that Balanchine added more to his A Midsummer Night’s Dream than perhaps he should have, but Ashton’s version looks like it took away too much. Everything except the concluding pas de deux between Titania and Oberon looks condensed or overly concerned with things that shouldn’t have been a concern (e.g., why name the individual fairies as Shakespeare does, but then give them nothing individually distinctive to do?).

Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream”
Photo by Kyle Froman

That impression was reinforced with the performance on the 22nd.  Led by Murphy as Titania, Camargo as Oberon, and Elwince Magbitang as Puck, the piece (except for the humans and Blaine Hoven’s Bottom) appeared not only understated, but emotionless. I found Magbitang to be very impressive when I first saw him dance with the company as the Gypsy dancer in ABT’s current production of Don Quixote, but as Puck he looked overextended, and didn’t satisfactorily transmit the comedy and mischievousness inherent in the role. He wasn’t so much Puck as he was trying to play Puck. On him the choreography just looked silly.

But that wasn’t the main problem with the performance. Murphy and Camargo, from what I could see, just didn’t gel. The role is a perfect fit for Camargo, but here, though a dominating presence throughout, he looked uninvolved even when he danced that concluding pas de deux. And Murphy’s performance, a role that she’s executed well in prior outings, lacked the luster and facility that she brought to it previously. Though I didn’t see anything particular wrong in her execution, it looked more of an effort. There was no enchantment – between them or in the production as a whole. When I left the theater, I thought to myself that once you’ve seen Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell dance those roles as exquisitely as they did, nothing else compares.

And then I saw the performance on the 25th, led by Trenary, Camargo, and Roxander as Puck. Everything that the performance on the 22nd wasn’t, the one on the 25th was. Trenary lent an appropriately regal sensuality to her Titania, and Camargo, though equally dominating as on the 22nd, actually smiled occasionally during the pas de deux. The stage magnetism that was missing on the 22nd was there. And then there was Roxander’s Puck (another of his role debuts). A quality of mischievousness seems a component of Roxander’s DNA, and his Puck was about as perfectly executed as it could have been.

The brilliance in this performance was not limited to the leads.  As good as I thought Hoven was, Melvin Lawovi’s Bottom was more impressive – perhaps because the role was new to him (my understanding is that it was his role debut). And as fine as Betsy McBride, Virginia Lensi, Frenette, and Han were as Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander were on the 22nd (and they were), the respective performances of Courtney Shealy, Claire Davison, Duncan Lyle, and particular Roman Zhurbin looked superior – maybe reflecting the tenor of the performance as a whole.

Cassandra Trenary and Melvin Lawovi
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream”
Photo by Kyle Froman

Overall, The Dream still lacks the magic of Balanchine’s production, but it’ll do in a pinch. Except … there are two significant staging issues. The last time I saw The Dream, several years ago, I clearly observed Bottom putting on his donkey head. I didn’t think I was supposed to see that – and a colleague from England confirmed that I wasn’t supposed to. In both performances I saw in this run, from different viewing positions (first in the orchestra, then in the second ring), I could see the same thing: Puck brought out the donkey’s head, and Bottom put it on over his head, effectively neutering any sense of real fantasy there might have been in the piece.

But that’s not the worst of it. Early on, when the plot is tentatively done with the Changeling Boy, he’s not escorted to the wings or behind a section of the set; rather, he’s dumped on the audience-side of the upstage set, in plain view, and there he remains, head out of sight and body confined to the stage floor, not moving a muscle (most of the time) until some 20 or so minutes later he’s rescued and returns, briefly, to the limelight. [I kept looking at him because I initially thought that this mass might have been just a wayward costume.] Aside from whether there are any applicable child labor laws against this sort of thing, why is that allowed artistically? Is that something that Ashton wanted? Like the visibility of Bottom putting on his donkey head, I doubt it.

Each should be an easy fix if someone cared to.

The October 29th Program:

I’ve seen On the Dnipro before (with its original name: On the Dnieper, now changed to its Ukranian spelling), at or soon after its premiere in 2009, but don’t remember much of it. I reviewed it favorably at the time – I know that by a reference in a later review – but that’s about it.

As soon as the curtain opened on the set of scattered ersatz trees, I recognized it. But had I previously seen the performance I saw Sunday afternoon, I would have remembered more than those trees. The artistry demonstrated here by every member of the cast, including particularly the lead dancers, was off the charts.

Catherine Hurlin and Michael de la Nuez (center, forward),
and American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “On the Dnipro”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

On the Dnipro is a beautiful dance; a little bit Tudor (Jardin aux Lilas), a little bit Cranko (Eugene Onegin), but all Ratmansky in terms of choreographic intelligence and optimal use of stage space and time. And, as I’ve had the pleasure of observing many times before, the human quality with which Ratmansky choreographs and imbues his characters is remindful of another choreographer who I credit the same way: Jerome Robbins.

But this performance was more than that too. As with other ballets that sear the heart, it’s the compelling performances that put the ballet emotionally over the top – and Trenary, Curley, Hurlin, and de la Nuez provided that and more. I can’t say that this cast was better than the others. Based on their prior performances in similar roles, I’m sure that both the other casts were brilliant as well. But I doubt that any of the other casts surpassed the emotional free-fall delivered by the cast I saw.

For those unfamiliar with it (or, like me, have forgotten it), the story tells of a young soldier, Sergiy, returning home from a war, who encounters Olga, the local irresistible force. Even though he’s engaged to Natalia, another local girl, Sergiy falls for Olga on sight – and she with him even though she’s also engaged to another. Short story shorter, all the lead characters, as well as their families and other village residents, suffer impossible emotional turmoil before, ultimately, Natalia sees the inevitable, gives Sergiy and Olga her blessing, and then collapses in a heap, alone.

Curley and de la Nuez danced Sergiy and the unnamed “Olga’s fiancé” with extraordinary passion. Curley’s performance was more refined; de la Nuez’s more uncontrolled (with reason, since he was fighting the inevitable too), both appropriate for their roles. Curley looked every bit the nascent danseur noble who recognizes his unavoidable duplicity; de la Nuez every bit the innocent against whom the fates have turned. [Think Albrecht and Hilarion]. Hurlin was stunning, both in her appearance and her personification. There are similarities here to her Gertrudis in Like Water for Chocolate, but they’re superficial – her Olga is just as radiant an image, but far sweeter. More like her characterization of Callirhoe in Ratmansky’s Of Love and Rage. And somehow she looked different here – for a second or two; perhaps because of her hair styling or costume, I didn’t even recognize her when she first appeared. All three were pitch-perfect and memorable.

Cassandra Trenary and Jared Curley
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “On the Dnipro”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Trenary was all that, and more.

In my review of Like Water for Chocolate, I described her performance as Tita the performance of a lifetime. Her performance here, though in a “smaller” dance, was another performance of a lifetime. Trenary mined depths of emotion that I had no idea she was capable of. Every moment was delivered with exactly the right balance between hope and despair, altering the proportions as the dance evolved. And that last scene was the killer. She knew it would be – the whole audience knew it would be (the program included a synopsis) – but it looked fresh and all too believable. [Trenary was one of those ballerinas who I labeled a “dancer to watch” the first time I saw her dance as a member of ABT’s corps in an otherwise highly forgettable piece back in November, 2011.]

The last time I saw a ballerina look like she was crying actual tears in the course of a performance was Hee Seo’s brilliant portrayal (actually, two of them) as Tatiana in Onegin. Unless it was very skillfully applied make-up, Trenary cried real tears here. And speaking of Onegin, and as a friend observed, the casting here would be perfect for Onegin if/ when ABT returns it to the repertory.

And I must mention one of the other dancers. As Sergiy’s mother, Nancy Raffa delivered a highly credible and emotional portrayal, in the process adding a different dimension to her frequent portrayals of Berthe in Giselle.

The afternoon opened with Single Eye, a dance choreographed by Alonzo King that premiered in NYC in June, 2022. In my subsequent review, I observed that although it had some interesting and quality choreography, the piece as a whole didn’t come together. But in the end, being of two minds, I punted. Well, after another exposure to it, my sense is exactly the same.

The dance is difficult to describe much less explain. As an entirety, I have no idea what King is trying to say or even if he’s trying to say anything – but it seems as if he is. The quote/ subtitle – “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” from Matthew 6.22 (KJV) – must have had some meaning relating to the dance, but it isn’t helpful. In that same prior review, I wrote: “the dance, at least on first view, didn’t illuminate the reference, and the reference didn’t illuminate the dance.”

It doesn’t on second view either.

But again, I think there’s choreographic intelligence here; I just don’t see how, or if, it impacts the piece as a whole. So, again, I’m punting. Maybe the third time, whenever that is, will be the charm.

American Ballet Theatre
in a prior performance of Alonzo King’s “Single Eye”
Photo by Mena Brunette

My criticism has nothing at all to do with the dancers. In addition to Teuscher and Forster, they included Shevchenko and Royal, Cornejo, and featured corps dancers Jacob Clerico, de la Nuez, Lea Fleytoux, Kanon Kimura, Lall, and Lensi.

Between Single Eye and On the Dnipro, the company presented the New York premiere of a pas de deux choreographed by former ABT dancer Gemma Bond.

I don’t think I’ve seen all of Bond’s choreographic output, but of those I’ve seen, several have been quite good. The choreography here isn’t bad either. It’s somewhat spatially restrictive (it takes place within a relatively small rectangular area mid-upstage center), and although too much of it looks similar (sweeping moments of joy, or hope, overwhelmed by apparent anguish), some of the choreography Bond has crafted is quite unusual, and quite lovely to watch.

The piece’s problem, at least from my point of view, is its score – the singing part of it. The music (by French composer Gustave Charpentier, who died in 1956 at age 96, isn’t objectionable, but it’s taken from an opera, titled Louise, which, in this context confuses things.

Louise is Charpentier’s most famous opera, and his only opera of note. It was highly successful following its premiere in 1900 (it’s considered the beginning of naturalism in French opera), and was performed many times that year and thereafter, including at the Metropolitan Opera. Although it’s still performed in Europe, it disappeared from the Met Opera’s repertory in 1949.

The opera tells an atmospheric Bohemian-ish story of working-class life in Paris, where Louise, a seamstress living with her parents, loves Julien, an artist. Desiring freedom, she moves in with him, but returns to her parents’ home when she’s told of her father’s illness. The father recovers, but eventually they quarrel, and this time Louise leaves and rejoins Julien.

“Depuis le jour,” sung at the beginning of Act 3 (of four Acts), is the opera’s best-known aria, and is frequently played alone in concert.

In Bond’s piece, the aria is sung live. That’s a mistake for several reasons. First, the words are in French (though it’s hard to tell; maybe Italian), and not translated in the program. So the viewer, unless familiar with the aria, has no idea what the song is about. Second, although I have insufficient expertise to comment on the quality of her vocalization, the presence of the live singer, Maria Brea, including her continuing movement from downstage right (audience left) to downstage center as the song, and the piece, progressed, was an intrusion on top of the distraction by the vocalization itself. The piece would have been much better off without it.

Katherine Williams and Jose Sebastian
in Gemma Bond’s “Depuis le Jour”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

But there’s another problem. The beginning of Act 3 is described in a Wikipedia summary as follows: the lovers have moved into a cottage overlooking Paris and in the aria she sings of her happiness with her new existence and with her lover. But in the vocal delivery, and in the choreography and performance, as I saw it, the atmosphere is one of love tinged with anguish and despair.  I saw little that could match the happiness of the scene, and the aria, in the opera. The pure happiness that was supposed to have been the subject of the aria, and presumably the choreography, was muted at best (e.g., as the dance ended, the vision of the lovers wrapping their arms around each can be seen as an effort to hold on to each other despite whatever might happen thereafter – contributing to the sense of foreboding).

So maybe Bond intended no direct connection to the opera beyond the isolated music itself, and created her own independent story. Ok. That works. It’s been done. But that’s another reason to not use the vocalization.

In any event, this was the first time I’d seen Katherine Williams on stage since her injury, and somehow she made her Bohemian character look elegant. More importantly, this was the first time since then that I’d seen her transmit every nuance of her character’s feelings (as told in the choreography). [Sebastian was a more passive, but not at all uninvolved.] Hers was a beautiful performance that made the choreography sing, even if the singing that accompanied it didn’t.

Few dancers can encapsulate emotions, particularly in “small” roles, better than Williams does – a quality I’ve observed since I first saw her dance as a villager in a Giselle performance many years ago. Down the road, I look forward to seeing this same quality in leading roles.

With Williams’s return, and the piece that followed it, On the Dnipro, ABT’s Fall 2023 season concluded on a high. Indeed, even with my critical comments, this fall season has been one of ABT’s most successful, with an impressive array of pieces, including many that have been absent from the repertory for years. And, curiously and ironically, the season began with a dance by Ratmansky, and ended with a dance by Ratmansky — although Ratmansky is no longer ABT’s resident choreographer; he’s now Artist in Residence with NYCB.

Nevertheless, Artistic Director Susan Jaffe deserves to be congratulated for her chance-taking – both as to dances selected and casting – which I hope will continue into its Met 2024 season and beyond. It’s difficult to believe that it will be eight months before ABT performs in New York again.