American Ballet Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 21, 23 matinee, and 23 evening, 2021: Giselle
October 29, 2021: La Follia Variations, Pillar of Fire, ZigZag
American Ballet Theatre began its thirteen performance Fall 2021 season at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater with six performances of Giselle, and seven of repertory programs featuring Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Indestructible Light and Touché, choreographed by Christopher Rudd, both of which previously premiered digitally, an effervescent new ballet by Lauren Lovette, a world premiere by Jessica Lang to songs by Tony Bennett, and the long-awaited return of a ballet masterpiece by Antony Tudor. I was able to see three of the Giselles, and one of the repertory programs.
The Giselles I saw included the New York role debut of Skylar Brandt (partnered by Herman Cornejo) on October 21, the role debuts of Cassandra Trenary and her Albrecht, Calvin Royal III in the October 23 afternoon performance, and that same day in the evening, the role debut of Christine Shevchenko and, in his New York role debut, her Albrecht, Aran Bell. There were several more featured performances of significance in this production, which I’ll highlight after discussing the leading roles.
Two general comments: since Giselle has already been the subject of many of my reviews, I won’t comment on the story at all here except to the extent it illuminates a particular description. And as I’ve noted several times previously, all the ABT Giselles are on a high level, and my evaluation should not deter one from seeing any of them if and when Giselle returns to the repertory (which, since they’ve had a full run this Fall, will likely not happen during ABT’s 2022 Met season – though stranger things have happened). You could attend any one of them and come away thinking that it was a superlative performance. I approach the Giselles I review from the perspective of having seen dozens over the years, so where it applies, I can try to explain differences between them that might impact my evaluation.
I’ll discuss the performances in program order – which happens to jibe with my evaluation of the three Giselle portrayals (and, in opposite order, of the three Albrechts).
I saw Skylar Brandt’s Giselle at the Kennedy Center on February 16. 2020, in what was supposed to have been her role debut – but as things turned she had replaced another earlier in the week. To my knowledge this performance was her third, her first in New York, and her first as an ABT Principal Dancer. In a nutshell her Giselle exceeded already high expectations.
In my subsequent review of that D.C. performance, I found that it was a wonderful portrayal, but criticized one particular characteristic – her tendency to maintain her balances far longer than would be appropriate for a village maiden, or even the spirit of one. This has now been addressed and corrected in her New York role debut. As she said in my recent interview with her and Gabe Stone Shayer, she does read her reviews – although I suspect that extensive coaching by Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky had a little something to do with it.
The hours and hours (and hours and hours…) of rehearsing and being coached, lengthy snippets of which have been broadly shared in social media, paid off. With Sarah Lane (whose Giselle continues in my memory as the finest ABT Giselle in decades) unfortunately and inexplicably no longer on ABT’s current roster, and having seen this year’s three other Giselles on prior occasions, if you can only attend one future ABT Giselle, Brandt’s is the one to see.
Technically, Brandt’s performance was magnificent. In Giselle, however, as in certain other narrative ballets, character and nuance are equally, if not more, important than technique. With one minor observation, every nuance one expects to see in a Giselle was there (especially here, where Giselle is so emphatically a sweet young girl and not yet emotionally mature).
However, Brandt also added certain character nuances. Most significant was one early in the ballet. As I was watching her Act 1 thinking that it was going very well, at the point where Berthe, her mother, first orders Giselle to stay away from Albrecht and go back inside their home, Brandt added a gesture I don’t recall previously seeing. It lasts maybe a second or two, but to me it was seismic.
All Giselles resist their mother’s effort, but none, at least none I’ve seen, directly reacts to, or in any other way visibly objects to, her mother’s orders. Rather, they repeatedly turn to gaze and / or wave at Albrecht, but eventually and obediently follow mother into their house.
In this performance, upon receiving her mother’s direction, Brandt’s Giselle reacted to it, not just to being separated from Albrecht. Brandt noticeably slumped her shoulders petulantly and added a frustrated grimace to her face (two separate times, as I recall), in addition to looking back to gaze at Albrecht, before following her mother through the door – as if to say “Aw ma. You never let me do anything.” Wait, what?? A Giselle who manifestly disagrees with her mother’s command? Giselle as a real teenager? Giselle as a Valley Girl?
Whatever, initially I saw it as strange, but microseconds later I recognized it as a depth of realism, at least in contemporary terms, that I’ve never before seen. Is it appropriate for a little 17th or 18th century young girl in the Bavarian countryside? I don’t know; probably not. Does it conflict with other moments during Act 1 when Giselle asks her mother’s permission to dance, or quickly accepts her mother’s instruction and agrees to have two village friends dance for the royal entourage? It certainly does. But does it add to the portrayal without spoiling the overall image? Undoubtedly.
That’s just one of the indisputably minor nuances I observed in Brandt’s Giselle that illustrate her carefully calculated and exceptional portrayal. And I suspect, since Trenary’s Giselle showed a similar (but far more subdued) reaction compared to what Brandt displayed here, that this is a product of coaching. However it originated, it works.
As for her “mad scene” at the end of Act 1, Brandt’s now rates among the very best.
When the finest Giselles turn and face the audience after Albrecht’s deceit is revealed, they appear transformed. With Brandt, she appeared already dead. I suspect it might have something to do with a subtle lighting change, since there would have been no opportunity for Brandt to have altered her make-up as the scene progressed, but whether it was lighting or just her naturally pale skin tone – or whether she in some way actually physically altered her facial form to appear more skeletal, she immediately appeared not only crazed, but ghostly.
Brandt’s Act 2 was similarly immaculately executed, from her impossibly fast circular hops after she’s summoned from her grave, to her gently rounded, rather than stretched, liquid arms. In terms of characterization, she did everything she was supposed to do.
That minor quibble: whereas in her third Giselle I noticed Lane (an equally youthful but a more knowing and soulful Giselle) visually reacting, facially, to hearing the church bells ring heralding the dawn and Albrecht’s survival, in this performance Brandt didn’t react at all – she just very slowly raised her head without changing her facial expression. Perhaps this also is the product of current coaching, since Trenary did the same thing, but it was a missed opportunity. Some more visible response, even from one no longer among the living, is appropriate and consistent with the other limited visible emotions that emerge as Act 2 progresses. As I observed in Lane’s Giselle, the reaction that Lane conveyed by her eyes only was the visual equivalent of Diana Vishneva’s stunning edge-of-the-bed scene in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, when the realization of how she might be able to avoid her marriage to Paris registered only, but effectively and memorably, as a widening and brightening of her eyes. Did it make a difference in the quality of Brandt’s portrayal? Not at all; it just might have made it a smidgen better.
One advantage Brandt had in this portrayal over her performance (the one I saw) in D.C. was her partner. Cornejo is a highly experienced Albrecht, and a highly capable partner. Even though, to me, his passion was less profound here than in prior outings, and even though he’s lost some of his ballon, his performance still was highly credible. Frankly, though, separating the Albrechts from their Giselles, I favored the other two Albrechts I saw.
The first time I saw Trenary (in 2011, soon after she joined the company, in a performance during the premiere – and to date, mercifully, the only – run of Demis Volpe’s Private Light), I picked her out as a dancer to watch. With rare exception, her performances since then have justified that. Trenary’s Giselle role debut did as well.
As with Brandt’s portrayal, here Trenary also exceeded expectations, but in a different way. Her Act 1 was intelligently conceived and executed, and highly credible. She was a sweet village maiden, but she appeared far less the naif than Brandt did, so her mad scene transformation appeared less intense. She made a couple of technical mistakes in Act 1, but even though one (she went off pointe during the iconic diagonal hops en pointe) would have been apparent to anyone who’d seen Giselle more than once, she either programed this in advance, or so intelligently dealt with it when she felt she was losing control that her immediate and flawless recovery looked as if that was the way it was supposed to be.
Her Act 2 also was very well done, particularly for a role debut. Hers may not be at the level, yet, of Brandt’s (and certainly not of Lane’s), but her execution – including those well-executed Romantic arms – nevertheless was quite impressive. There’s room for growth here, but overall it was a well-executed and appropriately nuanced performance.
Part of the reason for this was the credible stage relationship established between Trenary and Royal, who was also making his role debut. Frankly, I didn’t expect the pairing to go as well as it did (I said essentially the same thing to myself before Lane’s debut with Daniil Simkin), but without question it did.
At the performance’s outset I was concerned that Royal’s long arms (which I suggested after first seeing him perform with ABT could make him an unusually good partner) would get in his way. In his first mini-solo early in Act 1, his arms looked wildly out of control, as if they had lives of their own. But he settled down after that, and delivered a most credible performance.
Royal’s partnering, as I’d expected, was exemplary – particularly during the iconic Romantic lifts in Act 2. More than that, however, was that his acting was considerably more genuine looking than I’d anticipated. A significant part of the battle in this ballet, perhaps more than in any other, is being believable, and Royal carried it off with great success. At least partly for that reason, this Giselle was unexpectedly moving; his despair was palpable. After Giselle returned to her grave, Royal (as had Simkin with Lane) focused less on his reaction to the experience he just had, or wasn’t quite sure he really had, and more on his love for Giselle. It wasn’t about him; it was about his love for her. It may be a less common an ending than Albrecht looking dazed and bewildered as the curtain comes down, but to me it adds credibility to his remorse.
The third Giselle I saw was also well done, but wasn’t at the same level as the other two. Shevchenko is a superb ballerina, very strong and markedly intelligent, whose performances as Kitri and Myrta, among others, are awesome. Part of my reaction to her Giselle may be a result of what I understand (though have no independent confirmation of it) that she had considerably less preparation / coaching than did Brandt or Trenary (extensive preparation, coaching, and rehearsal time is essential), and part may be a reaction to a physical image that doesn’t fit my subjective image of a stereotypical Giselle, although I believe I can put my personal prejudices aside when evaluating a performance. To my eye, Shevchenko was trying too hard to be a cute little village maiden – it might have served her better if she’d been a spunky one. As it was, at least to me, it didn’t look as “real” as others.
This is in no way a reflection of Shevchenko’s ability. That’s a given. Just her suitability for this role, or at least this role as she played it. In other respects, her portrayal was technically faultless, though ultimately less moving, less cathartic, than others.
Shevchenko was aided immensely by the stage presence of her Albrecht. As I once observed a long time ago about David Hallberg, Bell is turning into a danseur noble before our eyes. Coupled with his ability to execute non-classical roles, he’s already a complete package. To the extent one may exist, he’s the franchise.
In this role debut, he did nothing that would prompt criticism. On the contrary, his strength (apparent inner strength, as well as more observable outer strength) is apparent, and when he chooses to he can already dominate any scene he’s in by his presence alone. Here he excelled in his partnering (particularly in Act 2, but also more expectedly in Act 1), and his execution in other respects was exemplary. He jumped higher than anyone else, leapt farther than anyone else, all the while looking polished beyond his years.
Most obviously exceptional were his entrechats toward the end of Act 2 (during what essentially is the ballet’s climactic pas de deux). While many danseurs execute the downstage diagonal with brises (as Mikhail Baryshnikov did so famously and magnificently, and as Cornejo and Royal did less effectively during their performances here – no one I’ve seen comes close to the quality of Baryshnikov’s Albrecht), Bell danced continuing entrechats (maybe entrechats huit; I’m not certain) – as did Hallberg. Where some Albrechts who attempt this option (including Hallberg toward the end of his performing career with ABT) require additional arm movement to propel them upward as they slowly (and understandably) run out of energy, Bell didn’t. Beginning to end, soup to nuts, they were executed impeccably, with outstanding clarity and ballon. His were the finest I’ve seen since Fernando Bujones.
Aside from Giselle and Albrecht, there were many other performances of note during this week of Giselles.
On Thursday and Saturday afternoon (the Brandt and Trenary Giselles), Stephanie Williams Petersen debuted as Myrta. She proved to be a powerful, icy Myrta, as the role requires. Most impressive were her bourees and her leaps, which were as smooth and as high, respectively, as they should have been. She was a little wobbly when she executed her initial arabesque penché during her role debut on Thursday, probably the consequence of understandable nerves, but after that danced all aspects of the role with exceptional clarity and command. Her Myrta on Saturday afternoon was consistently flawless throughout.
On Saturday evening, Devon Teuscher repeated her outstanding Myrta, and, with the benefit of her additional experience as well as her innate dramatic presence (see below), her Myrta was exceptional in every way. ABT is fortunate now to have many highly capable Myrtas – Gillian Murphy, Katherine Williams, Shevchenko, Teuscher, and now Petersen.
The peasant pas de deux in each performance was executed well, but one looked far more pleasing than the others. Betsy McBride has shined in the few featured roles in which I’ve seen her at ABT. But whether because she was new to the role or some other reason (I don’t know whether this was her role debut, but I suspect it was) her performance was marred by a constant pasted-on smile – even when her face was turned away from the audience.
Ballerinas are supposed to smile when the role calls for it, and to convince the audience that their extraordinary efforts are effortless, but they’re also supposed to moderate her facial expression and appear natural. This natural quality was provided by Katherine Williams in her performance of the same role on Saturday afternoon. Smooth as silk. The three male components of the pas de deux, Blaine Hoven partnering Williams, and Jose Sebastian and Jose Gonzales partnering McBride on Thursday and Saturday evening respectively, each executed well, with Gonzales being the most animated of the three.
The three Hilarions I saw were Andrii Ishcuk on Thursday, Patrick Frenette on Saturday afternoon, and Jarod Curley on Saturday evening. Ischcuk, at least in Act 1, was disappointingly wooden – though that’s the way many Hillarions are presented. More significantly, essential nuances weren’t there (e.g., I did not see him react at all when Albrecht, forgetting that he’s not carrying it, reaches for his sword). His Act 2 was considerably more vigorous. The two on Saturday, however, were quite extraordinary. After seeing Frenette in the afternoon, I thought it was among the best Hilarions I’ve seen, but in the evening Curley’s superbly executed Hilarion equaled it.
Appearing in two of the three performances, Luis Ribagorda once again delivered a fully thought out, and clearly communicated performance as Wilfred, Albrecht’s trusty squire. He deserves far more opportunities than he’s been given. Although she’s played the part for many years, Susan Jones (who I remember when she danced in ABT’s corps) should be acknowledged as the superb Berthe that she is. And as Bathilda, Courtney Lavine (in Saturday afternoon’s performance) was quite extraordinary, bringing a relatively cardboard role to vivacious life. She also deserves far more opportunities than she’s received to date, although I suspect much of that is the result of an injury. Finally, the ABT Corps in each of the three Giselles were exemplary; their mid-season form prompted more than the usual ovations from each audience.
The Repertory Program
The program I saw on Friday night, one of two repertory programs ABT presented during its second week, generally was highly successful and hugely entertaining.
I had not previously seen La Follia Variations, a dance Lauren Lovette originally choreographed for ABT Studio Company and which premiered with ABT itself a few months later in California. It’s a wonderfully invigorating dance, and another feather in Lovette’s choreographic cap.
To music by Francesco Geminiani “reimagined and arranged” by Michi Wiancko, La Follia Variations is a blast. It opens with the eight dancers aligned vertically, in near darkness, and when the stage lights up, the dancers split apart; as the dance ends, one dancer turns, literally, from light into darkness. It’s not as profound as the beginning and ending of Balanchine’s Agon, but it’s clever. In between, Lovette proves again to be a master of stagecraft and choreographic variety. During the course of the piece dancers emerge from all corners of the stage, intermingle, separate out into solos, duets and small groups, in stage patterning that’s a kaleidoscope of color and movement. Along the way, there’s some brilliant dance, energized further by Brad Fields’s lighting and the score, which Wiancko has augmented interestingly, injecting conspicuous but enhancing punctuations primarily during the second part of the piece.
To a greater or lesser extent, each dancer has a chance to show off his or her individual talents. If one of them can be considered the lead dancer in the ensemble, it’s one fresh out of ABT Studio Company. I’ve heard a great deal of buzz about Chloe Misseldine, and it’s all true. And seeing her here brought to mind earlier times I’d seen, and took note of, the quality of her execution: in 2017, she won second place in the senior division at YAGP’s New York Finals, and I reported that her rendition of variations from Paquita was delivered with delightful delicacy. Two years later, then with ABT Studio Company, she danced in YAGP’s International Dance School Festival, delivering what I then described as welcome character and vivacity to her Kitri in the Don Quixote pas de deux. She’s developed further since then (as one would expect), particularly in her stage presence and confidence, and should already be under consideration for prime featured roles.
Misseldine is unusual-looking, appearing tall (though stage heights are deceiving) and toothpick skinny, with legs like stilts. But it’s not all skin and bone; she has total control of her body, with a quality of fluidity that’s somewhat surprising in a ballerina with legs that extend forever. To top it off, atop that long-limbed body is a face that’s expressive and unexpectedly (at least to me) engaging. While there are many other reasons to see La Follia Variations, seeing Misseldine alone is worth the price of admission. It’ll be fun to watch her grow.
If there was a second female lead, it’s Lauren Bonfiglio. Like Catherine Hurlin, she’s one of ABT’s Young Claras (from Ratmansky’s greatly missed production of The Nutcracker) who also arrived a few years ago from the ABT Studio Company. This was her first opportunity, at least that I’ve seen, to dance outside of being a member of a supporting corps, and she executed superbly. The other two young ladies, Kiely Groenewegen and Abbey Morrison, also delivered finely vigorous performances.
Of the four men, Gonzales, Tyler Maloney, Joao Menegussi, and Jose Sebastian, each gave solid performances, with Gonzales and Maloney the particular spark plugs.
As good as La Follia Variations was, the highlight of last night’s program was Pillar of Fire, which I hadn’t seen since ABT last performed it, according to my records, in 2015. That’s far too long to wait to see this magnificent Antony Tudor ballet.
Leading the extraordinary cast was Teuscher, whose dramatic capabilities have been long established (in, for example, Tudor’s Jardins Aux Lilas and as ABT’s first Jane Eyre). Here she took this ability to the next level. Her performance as Hagar was, to put it mildly, masterful. She well deserved the individually-focused cheers she received at the dance’s end.
But Teuscher was not alone. This entire cast (this was the ballet’s second cast – the first was led by Gillian Murphy as Hagar, who I saw dance the role brilliantly six years ago) was equally superb. As the Youngest Sister, Breanne Granlund was naively captivating, and Claire Davison portrayed the Eldest Sister with haughty arrogance. Thomas Forster played the difficult role of The Friend with sensitivity and grace, and James Whiteside, who could make a career of being brilliantly obnoxious bad guys (e.g., his extraordinary Lescaut in Manon and aspects of his role as Rochester in Jane Eyre), delivered an exceptionally ugly (morally) The Young Man from the House Opposite, who seduces and then dumps Hagar in favor of her younger sister.
The program concluded with ZigZag, the new dance choreographed by Jessica Lang to songs sung by Tony Bennett, which premiered at ABT’s Gala three days earlier (and that an uncharacteristically early nor’easter prevented me from seeing). This is Lang’s second choreography to Bennett’s music: she previously choreographed a duet, Let Me Sing Forevermore, that I saw during ABT’s Fall 2019 season – their last before this one. I prefer the earlier effort.
Here, with two noteworthy exceptions and abetted by the set (primarily a changing background that emphasizes zig-zag lines, some of which incorporate artwork by Bennett) by Derek McLane and costumes by Wes Gordon that, primarily, do the same, Lang picks up on a comment Bennett famously made (“When everybody zigs, we zag! That’s the philosophy we have.”) and on the jazziness in the arrangement of some of the ten selected songs, rather than on that quality of soul, of heart, that he pours into every song regardless of its style or tempo. This makes for a highly entertaining dance, but a very superficial one, one that skates on the surface of the emotional bounty that Bennett delivers. The audience reveled in it – but I suspect any dance choreographed to Bennett’s music would have accomplished the same result.
I’ll grant that most of the songs Lang chose to include here are more upbeat than those she used previously. But this doesn’t change anything. Although it was exuberantly danced by ABT’s fourteen dancers, it had little choreographic substance.
“Fascinating Rhythm,” danced with zest by Williams, Hoven, and Erica Lall (it’s nice to see her given the opportunity to dance some featured roles this season), was exhilarating to watch, as was “De Lovely” (sung with Lady Gaga), danced by Lall and Royal. But “Blue Moon” wasted Royal’s talent, “Spring in Manhattan” (one of Bennett’s less familiar songs) seemingly was inserted primarily to highlight the backdrop of NYC’s skyline, and despite effervescent performances by Williams, Bell, Hoven, and Isabella Boylston, the choreography to “Smile” didn’t encourage me. To smile. [And Boylston, despite her technical brilliance, looked out of place here – though that’s not her fault: her role was originally supposed to be played by Hurlin, who is injured.]
The dance was not without conspicuous highlights – two of them. First, the choreography to I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the piece’s second song, captured the essence of Bennett’s soulful rendition without making it look maudlin, and it benefitted immensely from Bell’s portrayal; second, fortunately, was the dance’s concluding assemblage to How do You Keep the Music Playing, which successfully combined Bennett’s soul with the choreography, and which, as intended, was an appropriately wistful way to end the program.
ZigZag is not a bad ballet, just an unimaginative and relatively one-dimensional one. It pales in comparison to other such choreographed compilations (e.g., Balanchine’s Who Cares?, Robbins’s I’m Old Fashioned, Warren Carlyle’s tear-evoking centennial salute to Robbins, Something to Dance About, each of which was created for NYCB, and Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs. That being said, it’s still a lot of fun to watch: how could anything to Bennett music, and dancers of the caliber used here, not be fun to watch? However, the definitive dance tribute to Tony Bennett and his music has yet to be made.
ABT’s Fall 2021 Season ended on Sunday. Soon it will be off to Costa Mesa, CA, where ABT was recently, and perhaps portentously, named the Official Dance Company of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.