Jerry Hochman looks back over ABT’s recent Met season, and muses on the tricky issue of guest artists blocking opportunities for company dancers
Although ABT’s 2014 Met Season was marked by significant departures – those of Sascha Radetsky, Yuriko Kajiya, and Jared Matthews, as well as other dancers who I understand have left for personal reasons – and despite the larger than usual number of injuries that the company seemed ill prepared for, on the surface this season has been a good one.
There have been stellar performances in lead and second lead roles, not only from the principals, but also from soloists when given the opportunity, particularly by Sarah Lane, Stella Abrera, Ms. Kajiya, and Mr. Matthews in everything they were given; by Misty Copeland, who was assigned more opportunities this year than others, in several of the roles she assayed (Gamzatti, the ‘street’ Mercedes, Lescaut’s Courtesan, and a promising Swanilda); and by Craig Salstein as Cinderella’s shy stepsister. And Isabella Boylston continued to take advantage of repeated opportunities to dance new leading roles and to grow in others that she had been performed previously.
Certain of ABT’s corps dancers have also shown continuing excellence. These include those recently promoted to soloist: Christine Shevchenko, who should have received her promotion a year ago, immediately after her courageous and outstanding performance as a last minute substitute in one of the two lead ballerina roles in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1”; Devon Teuscher, a very fine Myrta, among other roles this season; Roman Zhurbin, an excellent character dancer who gave von Rothbart – the lizard – a new dimension; and Joseph Gorak, who, as I observed two years ago, is becoming a danseur noble before our eyes.
These promotions only exemplify the scope of talent within ABT’s corps, including Melanie Hamrick, Luciana Paris, and Gemma Bond, each of whom, from their body of work in prior seasons as well as outstanding efforts this year, merited promotion as well. Others have also excelled in the demi-soloist or featured corps roles they’ve performed. In no particular order and not exclusively, this includes Skylar Brandt, who has an infectious spirit and should be given more opportunities to show it; April Giangeruso, a most pleasant surprise; Zhong-Jing Fang, who has shown considerable improvement this season; Stephanie Williams, who still looks like an eventual Odette/Odile; Katherine Williams, a crystalline technician who provides extraordinarily detailed characterization where appropriate; Elina Miettinen, who lights up the stage; Adrienne Schulte, whose ability as a comedienne in her portrayal of Helena was a revelation; Alexei Agoudine, excellent as the ‘Head Fakir’ and Dr. Coppélius); and Luis Ribagorda, who has had a break-out year.
And there are corps dancers who have been with the company for a shorter period, or are new this season, who are already making positive impressions, including (again, not exclusively) Brittany DeGrofft, Courtney Lavine, Puanani Brown, Catherine Hurlin, Mai Aihara, Gabe Stone Shayer, and Sterling Baca. Several years ago, at one of the Guggenheim Museum’s “Works & Process” programs, Artistic Director Keven McKenzie stated that ABT’s dancers were the best in the world. While other companies’ artistic directors say the same thing, ABT’s dancers certainly qualify.
And in the past three years, ABT has promoted two of its own home-grown soloists (by that I mean dancers who began their careers with the company in the corps) to principal: Hee Seo and, this year, Ms. Boylston (in between, James Whiteside, a lateral from Boston Ballet who joined ABT as a soloist, was also promoted to principal); while four more were promoted to soloist this year. It certainly would appear as if the company is expanding performing opportunities for its own dancers.
But these promotions mask a serious and continuing problem: the lack of sufficient leading role opportunities for all of ABT’s highly qualified soloists, and the promotion logjam between the corps and soloist level that to a large extent is a consequence.
For years, I’ve noted the dearth of casting opportunities in leading roles given to ABT’s home-grown dancers, as well as the overwhelming number of leading roles given to guest artists. ABT has always had guest artists, and as long as they contribute some extraordinary quality that the company’s own dancers may lack, or at least guarantee sold out performances, their presence is a benefit to ABT and its audiences. But in the past few years, and particularly this season, the trickle has become an avalanche. Of 27 ‘principal’ positions listed in programs this year, 11 were occupied by guest artists or ‘exchange artists’ (the difference, if there is any, has no significance with respect to casting). At least two appeared on more than one occasion. That’s a minimum of 13 leading roles that might have been assigned to ABT’s own dancers – and this total does not reflect performances by company principals who are only members of the company for a limited time at high visibility performing venues. Combined with inexplicable casting decisions that reward seniority at the expense of internal growth, or that give ‘most-favored-nation’ status to one or two dancers for whatever reason, ABT is increasingly viewed as acting not just unfairly with respect to certain dancers, but irresponsibly and unwisely in terms of the company’s future.
The problem, in the first instance, is the repertoire that ABT primarily relies upon at the Met and for its international tours. At that same “Works & Process” program, Mr. McKenzie said that the story ballets were not the ‘real’ ABT. Whether they represent the ‘real’ ABT or not, they’re the ballets that it is known for, and that dominate its programming at the Met and other prestigious venues. This repertoire is not going to change. But story ballets have precious few leading roles to go around. As a consequence, those soloists stuck in what I’ve previously described as ‘soloist purgatory’ who are not given significant leading roles stagnate in featured roles they’ve danced for years. And awarding the few leads there are to guest artists necessarily reduces the number available to soloists still further.
From my vantage point, the promotion of Ms. Boylston has caused something of an uproar – because it appears to have been both premature and preordained. Some dancers are natural wunderkinds who leap over others because they are ‘instant’ ballerinas. As fine a dancer as Ms. Boylston is (and she is – or I would not have singled her out as a dancer to watch the first time I saw her dance), she isn’t that. She still has considerable work to do in classical roles. She has a ‘ginched’ upper body, for example, as well as a tendency toward power at the expense of musicality. This is particularly apparent when she dances the same choreography opposite, or immediately before or after, another dancer. For example, in “Coppélia” this past weekend, after she danced Dawn, when she and Ms. Hamrick danced at opposite sides of the stage during the coda, she looked disheveled and hunched compared to Ms. Hamrick (who had danced Prayer at the same performance). And compared to Ms. Abrera’s Dawn, perfectly danced in the evening, Ms. Boylston’s performance was ‘out there’; more aggressive, more about her (as I previously described, like ‘high noon’ rather than ‘dawn’).
I celebrate the repeated opportunities she’s been given, and don’t doubt that eventually Ms. Boylston will grow into whatever role she’s assigned. She’s already doing that – as any dancer at this level of accomplishment would. And I note that similar outrage was expressed when Ms. Seo was promoted, and although still somewhat weaker technically than other principals, since her promotion she has nevertheless provided ABT’s audiences with many brilliant performances. But the issue is opportunity. And where the only path to advancement, or self-fulfillment, is to be given an opportunity to prove yourself in a role, and the only available opportunity (with respect to Giselle, for example) is given to the dancer who would appear to be less qualified for it than other soloists (Ms. Lane; Ms. Kajiya), it makes it appear as if the reason Ms. Boylston got the assignment in the first place was to cement her promotion.
A solution to this problem would be either to expand the number of available opportunities to dance leading roles (which would mean reducing the number of guest artists or reconsidering the casting of certain ballerinas who may no longer be the best choice for a role, neither of which ABT seems willing to do), or to spread the already limited number of opportunities around. A variant might be to agree that for every guest artist, an opportunity will be given to a soloist or corps dancer to dance a leading role in which he or she has not previously been cast, although given the number of guest artists, that might mean expanding the Met season significantly. Giving opportunities to dance significant leading roles (like Odette/Odile, Giselle, and Juliet, which many consider to be predicates to promotion) only, or primarily, to one soloist a year, which is a continuing pattern, only makes the system look rigged. And ‘auditioning’ a dancer once, and then not allowing him or her to grow in the role, which is also part of a continuing pattern, is foolish and self-defeating. Surely ABT can spread opportunities around and focus on more than one soloist’s performance qualities and achievements at a time.
The loss of Ms. Kajiya, Mr. Matthews, and Mr. Radetsky at the end of this season might have been avoidable if they, rather than guest artists, had been cast in roles for which they were qualified when this season’s schedule was first announced. Of course, if the present policy continues, perhaps Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews – and others, like Maria Riccetto, who have left in recent years without being given the opportunity to fulfill their potential – may yet return some day as guest artists. But ABT will survive regardless. If certain dancers are not given opportunities, for whatever reason (they don’t fit a particular image; they don’t bring with them a book of business; they’re not what high-profile donors want; their casting wouldn’t be as good for publicity as others), there’s no consequence: there will be other dancers just as talented in the future. Life isn’t fair, and artistic directors will always have inexplicable blind spots with respect to certain dancers regardless of their objective level of accomplishment and capability. But not giving sufficient opportunities to well-qualified dancers not only fails to recognize and develop talent and artificially restricts the scope of a particular dancer’s career, it also cheats the public. Not everyone attends ABT performances to see visiting stars; many go to see what purportedly is the best of America’s ballet companies, and the best of America’s dancers.