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

June 14, 15, and 18 (afternoon and evening), 2022
Don Quixote

Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre opened its 2022 Met Season, its first in three years because of pandemic closures, with an eight-performance run of the well-known and frequently-performed ballet Don Quixote. Well-traveled as Don Quixote may be, it was the perfect light-hearted choice to welcome ABT audiences back to the Met. I saw four of the performances, which allowed me to view three of the five different casts.

I’ve stated many times that this production (after Petipa and Gorsky), staged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones, is inferior to that choreographed  by Mikhail Baryshnikov in almost every way (energy level, comedy, certain individual scenes – including the gypsy camp scene), but it’s far superior to that choreographed by Vladimir Vasiliev, which filled the void after Baryshnikov’s departure. Be that as it may, there’s nothing bad about this production, and there’s no question that it’s sufficiently entertaining – and filled with sufficient pyrotechnics – to send audiences home happy. And since I’ve commented on this version vs. Baryshnikov’s many times before, except for some passing comments I won’t repeat all of my observations here.

So if I’ve seen and evaluated and compared and contrasted this choreography before, why go to so many new performances now? The answer is in the word “new.” Particularly with respect to full-length narrative ballets, each performance in one way or another is new. At times one will see things not previously noticed, and occasionally an opinion must be revisited. More significantly, every individual dancer’s performance in a leading role is distinctive, particularly with respect to a narrative ballet, so when a dancer debuts in a role the resulting performance will look somewhat different from others even though the choreography itself may be unchanged. Similarly, a dancer’s performance usually differs in one respect or another from outing to outing. Consequently, every performance of any particular ballet is unique, and attending multiple performances of the same ballet invites comparisons in performance characteristics and quality between one dancer and another.

Keeping in mind the maxim that comparisons are odious, and that at this performance level technical quality is a given, that is what I’ll do here. It’s part of what makes the ballet world go around. The only caveat, aside from knowing that most audiences will not have seen such a panoply, is that to a large extent performance qualities are subjective. And I hasten to add that although I will mention differences between them, in no way do I mean to suggest that one was better than the other, or that one was superior to performances in the role in the past. With one exception (which I’ll not re-document here), no ABT ballerina portraying Kitri has delivered less than a quality performance.

I’ll discuss performances in other roles, but Kitri is the ballet’s focus, so I’ll begin with her. Familiarity with the ballet’s story is assumed.

Skylar Brandt and American Ballet Theatre in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Based on the performances I saw, last week’s ABT audiences were treated to superb Kitri performances. As fine as both Skylar Brandt and Catherine Hurlin were in their NY role debuts, and as expert as Isabella Boylston was, there are appreciable differences in the impression their portrayals convey, and that appear to support an observation I made several years ago following Sarah Lane’s Kitri role debut.

Both Brandt and Hurlin are already at or near the top of their games. Considering their relative youth, and that Hurlin isn’t yet a Principal (although that’s likely to change very soon), that statement alone is difficult to believe. But their performances here prove that it’s true.

Technically, the differences between them are infinitesimal. Where Brandt may have danced the Act 2 pique turns (manege) a tad faster, and Hurlin may have danced more sensational-looking fouettés in Act 3, neither of those statements would seem valid to anyone who saw only one of the two performances. There are differences in perception that may arise from body type as well – stage appearances can be deceptive and I’m not in a position to measure them, but Hurlin appears taller than Brandt and with longer legs, so, for example, her Act 1 “Plisetskaya leaps” (which are vastly underplayed in this production compared to Baryshnikov’s) appeared to reach higher than Brandt’s, although that observation may  have as much to do with my viewing position as anything else. And both executed the consecutive arabesques in Act 2 (just before the pique turns) without alternating penché arabesques as I’ve seen previously, and that I saw from Boylston Saturday evening.

But the impressions their Kitri portrayals presented were not the same.

As I watched Brandt dance Kitri on Tuesday and then again on Saturday afternoon (since I planned to see the evening performance, I added that second Brandt performance since I was already in the neighborhood), what crossed my mind was Gelsey Kirkland’s portrayal at the ballet’s 1976 New York premiere (I was there). But for the different versions (Kirkland, of course, danced the version choreographed by Baryshnikov, which is far more vibrant and energy-packed, particularly with respect to Kitri, than the current version), Brandt’s Kitri is the most evocative of Kirkland’s that I can recall seeing. As far as I could tell, her performance was flawless. [And her performance on Saturday afternoon exceeded even that, with remarkable show-off balances – at one point slowing the orchestra’s tempo to a crawl and causing her Basilio to step out of character and shrug his shoulders as if to silently say “there she goes again.”] The only appreciable difference between my recollection of Kirkland’s Kitri and Brandt’s, is that Brandt smiles far more than Kirkland did in the role, and doesn’t have the same hard edge to it that Kirkland’s did. This could have been a consequence of different interpretations of the role, or may have been prompted by an effort by Kirkland to avoid injury. Since Baryshnikov’s Don Quixote, until slightly modified later, was known to be a ballerina-killer, Kirkland’s serious and totally focused demeanor was understandable for either reason (or both).

In addition to being remindful of Kirkland’s Kitri, Brandt’s portrayal is thoroughly in line with the vast majority of Kitris I’ve seen. Hers is the stereotypical Kitri: flashy, brassy, and always the center of attention. For what it’s worth, I’ll label it a “Type A” Kitri.

But the one thing that, subjectively, resonated with me was that this type of portrayal, although immensely impressive and exciting to watch, kept the audience, or at least me, at somewhat of a distance, as if I were an observer of someone else’s party. There’s nothing deficient about that – it’s the way most performances work – and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t the usual and irreplaceable give and take between an audience and a performer in a “live” house, which was the case with each of the performances I saw. But a performance that makes one feel, or want to be, part of the action, that “transference” quality I’ve occasionally referenced, is different.

Catherine Hurlin, Joo Won Ahn,
and American Ballet Theatre in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

As I’ve previously written, and although one wouldn’t expect it, Hurlin is a natural comedian – at times, I watch Hurlin and see Carol Burnett. [Yes, I know I need new eyeglasses.] That’s not to say that Hurlin’s Kitri is comic – rather, instead of appearing to execute choreography that at a particular point is supposed to be funny, she just projects as naturally funny. That’s part of the reason her Kitri impressed differently from Brandt’s. Another is that being a Spanish vixen didn’t appear to come as naturally to her as it did to Brandt. As if to demonstrate the point, Hurlin’s Kitri came equipped with a spit-curl down her forehead (as many other Kitris do) to make her appear more the stereotypical Spanish firecracker; Brandt didn’t have – or need – one. Whatever the reason, Hurlin’s Kitri came across as very natural, a Kitri with a soft edge and a demeanor that didn’t keep the audience at a distance.

This more accessible impression (call it “Type B”) is one I first sensed with Yoko Ichino’s Kitri with ABT (I think in the 80s) and Cheryl Yeager’s among others, as well as Lane’s.

Both Kitris were well-matched by their respective Basilios, Herman Cornejo and Joo Won Ahn.

Cornejo looks noticeably older than when I last saw him dance, and he has to work harder for that extra ballon and to pull off the “tricks” that mark his performances. Nevertheless, he did them all, wowing much of the audience in the process. In terms of stage personality, his Basilio came across, at least to me, as egocentric and street-smart – though certainly not in any way inconsistent with the role. There’s a degree of mischief to his portrayal, which jibes very well with Brandt’s Kitri.

The last time I saw Joo Won Ahn, he partnered Brandt in her Giselle at the Kennedy Center. At the time, I observed that, especially compared to Brandt’s Giselle, his portrayal of Albrecht came across as somewhat unemotional, with little character nuance. Ahn’s performance qualities have evolved since then. His acting here, as Basilio, while not yet as strong as others, is vastly improved.

And although his technical proficiency has never been in doubt, Ahn hasn’t quite learned how to milk the tricks the way Cornejo does, and doesn’t display the same strength. For example, unlike Cornejo with Brandt, Ahn lacked the strength to balance Hurlin in the one-armed overhead lifts. Instead, he lifted her with one arm while his other arm supported one of her legs. But here, this seeming (and relative) weakness is a good thing. Combined with the absence of any sense of self-absorption or attempt to show-off, his Basilio presents as a nice, laid back, and naturally funny kind of guy; more human, and less like an actual (or would-be, or has been) danseur extraordinaire.

Consequently, although their performance overall was no less exciting than Brandt’s and Cornejo’s, it was delivered at a lower decibel level. And although I never would have anticipated it (indeed, his casting opposite Hurlin was the consequence of one dancer’s injury and a domino effect of replacements), Ahn’s Basilio perfectly fit Hurlin’s Kitri – certainly far more than Daniil Simkin’s Basilio fit Boylston’s Kitri.

Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin (center)
and American Ballet Theatre in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Both Boylston and Simkin delivered terrific performances on Saturday evening. Of those I’ve seen (and I think I’ve seen most), Kitri is Boylston’s best role. Her performance qualities of stage dominance (she’s one of those ballerinas who seemingly could sail through an entire ballet without a partner), unassailable confidence, and bull-like execution fit this role more than many others, and place Boylston firmly within the realm of stereotypically-played “Type A” Kitris – although not in any way similar to Kirkland’s.

But stronger isn’t necessarily better. In many ways, and since she’s done it so many times before, her portrayal looked by rote. And although she executed everything to near (or actual) perfection, whatever that might be, little was added beyond what was required. Her Act 3 fouettés, for example, while perfectly presented (and on a dime), were limited to a succession of single turns. In comparison, and although each turned on a half-dollar rather than a dime, Brandt alternated with doubles and a triple or two or three, and Hurlin raised the ante by adding travelling arm positioning (up and down the front of her body) while holding her fan. [Hurlin and Ahn’s Act 3 Coda prompted a spontaneous extended standing ovation, three bows long, that stopped the show in its tracks shortly before the ballet briefly resumed to its conclusion.] So although the audience was obviously very impressed, for good reason, as finely executed as Boylston’s Kitri is (and it is), it looked less than exceptional to me.

Simkin’s Basilio is another matter. In addition to the “usual” high-quality (though with Boylston unnecessary) partnering, his “tricks” were delivered effortlessly, and his turns during his Act 3 solo morphed into barrel-turns that I’ve never before seen – like the usual barrel turns, cubed – that prompted stunned disbelief and roaring cheers.

Accomplished as each performance was individually, however, to my eye Boylston and Simkin, although they exchanged the requisite stage pleasantries, were distinct, independent entities – like ships passing in the night. Without doubt they were there for each other, and for the audience, when they needed to be, and the audience received their performances with exceptional enthusiasm. But to me it looked more like a temporary alliance, and consequently less than genuine. And this impression was exacerbated when Simkin lifted Boylston overhead in the two one-armed lifts in Act 1. Incredibly, I thought to myself, not only was Simkin able to lift her with one arm (which by itself was an noteworthy accomplishment since Boylston appears taller than he does), he immediately found the right contact point that would enable Boylston to balance over his head without moving a muscle for what seemed to be minutes. But then I noticed (or thought I did) that Boylston’s right arm rested atop Simkin’s shoulder, in a way that was well-camouflaged. It’s possible that Boylston’s arm was placed there in the process of descending, but it didn’t look that way.

The roles of Mercedes / Queen of the Dryads (“Mercedes in the Dream” in the Baryshnikov version) and Espada are the dance’s “second leads.” At Tuesday night’s opening performance, and again on Saturday afternoon, the roles were played by Cassandra Trenary and Gabe Stone Shayer (each, to my understanding, a New York role debut). On Wednesday the roles were assumed by Zhong-Jing Fang and Blaine Hoven, and on Saturday evening by Devon Teuscher and Thomas Forster. Interestingly, these pairings also turned out to be exceptionally well-balanced, though in two of the three it worked as well as it did because they presented contrasting stage personalities within the pair rather than similar ones.

Trenary portrayed Mercedes somewhat differently from others I’ve seen. Here, Mercedes’s passion was not directed outwardly; it seethed from within. From her initial entry, Trenary’s internal flame sizzled, while on the outside this passion appeared more controlled: her execution was meticulous – not a step out of place. As the Dryad Queen, Trenary appropriately toned down the flame, and delivered spot-on Italian fouettés until she reached their end, when a bit of elation almost threw her off (which I suspect few in the audience noticed), but she quickly adjusted. On Saturday afternoon, her stage demeanor was the same, but, like most of that cast, she seemed far more relaxed, and executed flawlessly.

Cassandra Trenary and Gabe Stone Shayer (center)
and American Ballet Theatre in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Her Espada, to me, was a huge surprise. Frankly, I didn’t expect Shayer to have the stature, the gravitas, or the charisma to pull off this role. I was wrong. At Tuesday’s performance he converted the haughty matador into somewhat of a street fighter who has gotten to where he is by working harder and exceeding expectations – which, as I saw it happening, was perfectly apt. This Espada wasn’t a stiff stick of wood; on the contrary, Shayer’s Espada was upwardly mobile from the top of his determinedly stretched neck and head to his aggressive strides – and on Tuesday he threw his muleta (his cape) down so forcefully that it sailed a few feet beyond its target. Shayer’s Espada was as much conquistador as matador, and it was a perfect complement to Trenary’s external restraint.

The following night Hoven portrayed Espada stereotypically. This Espada was an aristocrat of matadors: tall, calm, and commanding, who decided to join the family business after getting his degree from Yale. It was a perfectly rendered display – and a perfect foil for his Mercedes.

Fang’s Mercedes was vivid and expressive, with a matching fiery demeanor. Hers was a particularly exciting Mercedes. The trade-off was that her execution appeared a bit overdone, perhaps because the abundance of energy in her characterization extended to her footwork. She briefly fell off pointe twice during Act 1’s “dagger dance” and once during Act 2’s Italian fouettés – but the audience probably didn’t notice since her adjustments (raising her foot off its heel and back on pointe) occurred instantly and were perfectly timed.

Zhong-Jing Fang and American Ballet Theatre
in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Teuscher and Forster’s Mercedes and Espada created a natural impression, reflecting their greater experience in these roles. Teuscher’s Mercedes combined the characterization extremes into one coherent whole. And Forster, though delivering an appropriately polished portrayal, also seemed far more comfortable in his role than the other Espadas, almost tongue-in-cheek endearing, as if underneath it all was a sheepish grin that came out to play when he passed the action baton to Teuscher.

Breanne Granlund and Betsy McBride were Tuesday’s and Saturday afternoon’s Bridesmaids. Both did fine work. McBride’s smile is contagious, and she lights up the stage whenever she’s on it. Granlund appeared a bit restrained in her Act 3 solo on Tuesday, but executed the same solo on Saturday with appropriate exuberance and flair.

Betsy McBride and American Ballet Theatre
in “Don Quixote”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Wednesday’s Bridesmaids were Chloe Misseldine and SunMi Park, and on Saturday evening the roles were played by Katherine Williams and Paulina Waski. All performed their roles very well – but Misseldine is from another dance universe. Although to my recollection this is her first year in the ABT corps, her size (she appears quite tall and thin) and, more than that, her extraordinary execution (when she completes a phrase, she does so with unusually perfect timing and a flourish that “pops” off the stage; her leaps are already gasp-inducing) makes overlooking her impossible. It will be exciting to watch her grow as her career progresses. And clearly the happiest person on stage all week was Waski, who has returned to ABT this year after having left the company for a stint at Boston Ballet.

Luis Ribagorda on Tuesday and Saturday afternoon, Duncan Lyle on Wednesday, and Sung Woo Han on Saturday evening portrayed Gamache. It may be my imagination, but this character’s comic antics seem to have been toned down from prior years, with little that might qualify as slapstick, and much of what’s left frequently occurs at the stage’s periphery and is largely unseen. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate. More comedy is needed, not less, and the character’s foppish nature should be restored in full. Be that as it may, Ribagorda delivered the most accomplished performances in this role, including perfectly timed throwaways that would bust a gut if they’d been highlighted. And Han, who I’d not previously seen, displayed remarkable comic flair.

Amour (a/k/a Cupid) is the sparkle-plenty mistress of ceremonies cum Tinkerbell of the Dream Scene. Rachel Richardson danced Amour on Tuesday and Saturday afternoon. I’ve seen her in this role previously, and she’s now thoroughly proficient in it. She should be given more challenging opportunities than she now gets. On Wednesday and Saturday evening, the role was assumed, respectively, by Erica Lall and Léa Fleytoux. Lall executed well, and over time will learn to modulate her expression so it doesn’t look pasted on. Fleytoux, however, spreads pixie dust over whatever role she’s given, including, obviously, this one. Fleytoux also will learn to vary her expression in this role over time, but it appears that with her, expressiveness is a component of her stage persona.

As those of you who’ve read my reviews know, I take great pleasure in being able to (or think that I’m able to) pick out a dancer (usually a ballerina) who I immediately recognize is a dancer to watch. That doesn’t mean that at the end of the day they’re the only ones who will eventually progress through the ranks, or that they themselves will, but over the years I’ve had a pretty good batting average.

At the end of ABT’s 2019 Met Season, I wrote: “And every once in awhile I take note of a dancer I’d not previously seen, usually buried in the corps, because there’s something about her (99% of the time it’s a ballerina) that leads me to believe there’s more there. It’s not scientific, and it’s not a negative reflection on other young dancers who will likely rise through the company ranks – it’s just an instant impression. This season I noticed a dancer who, despite her diminutive size, stood out from others. It took until the end of the season for me to identify her – partly, as it turns out, because Léa Fleytoux did not formally join the company until June.” [Pardon my quoting myself. It’s a sign of old age – as is the fact that when I wrote that, I’d completely forgotten that I’d seen a performance more than two years earlier of ABT Studio Company that included Fleytoux, and in my subsequent review commented very favorably on her performance. At least I’m consistent.] And I wasn’t alone – a few weeks later my colleague Carmel Morgan, who then reviewed Washington, D.C. area performances, also singled out Fleytoux.

Even when not in a featured role, Fleytoux continues to glow. When she was part of the framing corps here, she was impossible to overlook because she didn’t just give a programmed response to events she was watching, she reacted vividly and expressively, and with a level of exuberant passion and real involvement that appears to be hard-wired – like Katherine Williams, who I first noticed for the same reason many years ago. She may be limited in the future by her diminutive size, but, like Lane (who I also …), I wouldn’t bet against her.

Now on to the next four weeks.