American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 9 afternoon, 2022
Theme and Variations, Single Eye, ZigZag
June 13 afternoon, June 16 afternoon and evening, 2022
Romeo and Juliet
Following its 10-day run of Swan Lake performances, American Ballet Theatre’s 2022 Met Season concluded with a repertory evening consisting of George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, the New York premiere of Alonzo King’s Single Eye, and the return of Jessica Lang’s ZigZag, followed by eight performances over six days of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. I attended one of the Repertory Programs, on the afternoon of July 9, to see Skylar Brandt’s scheduled Theme and Variations role debut, and three of the Romeo and Juliets: two to catch the role debuts of Christine Shevchenko, Cassandra Trenary, and Calvin Royal III, among others, and the company’s final performance (and Romeo and Juliet) of the season, featuring Devon Teuscher and Aran Bell, since I’d not seen either of them in these roles previously.
All the role debuts I saw were executed very well, to varying degree, and with only minor criticism.
And during this last week, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie announced a series of promotions, some of which were long anticipated, and some of which were surprising, which I’ll discuss during a brief season wrap-up
I’ll discuss the performances in the order seen.
It’s been a memorable season for Skylar Brandt, and her role debut in Theme and Variations (“T&V”) did nothing to diminish the glitter. On the contrary, it expanded it. This was Brandt’s last major role (and role debut) of the season, and one that proved particularly noteworthy.
Over the years I’ve seen many, many performances of T&V since ABT revived it in 1978 for Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and maybe before that (the original choreographed for ABT’s immediate predecessor in 1947, and as part of New York City Ballet’s Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3). T&V’s technical brilliance captivated me on first view, and early in my continuing ballet-going marathon it was T&V more than anything else that changed my understanding of Balanchine’s choreography, and enabled me to appreciate it far more than I had previously.
The quality of the performances I saw varied, but one quality that was consistent throughout was the demeanor of the lead dancers: focused, determined, and serious, reflecting either the difficulty of the choreography, Balanchine’s intent, or both. Until now.
In the course of my review of Brandt’s Odette / Odile just a couple of weeks ago, I attempted to describe her performance compared to others with the same level of preparation / rehearsal time or experience (apples vs apples). My chosen metaphor – different varieties of these apples – was admittedly strained (the metaphor, not the apples). I described Brandt as something of a Royal Gala apple (with a bit of Jazz). Little did I know how apt that metaphor would prove to be. Brandt’s T&V ballerina was without question the most distinctive-looking I’ve ever seen: from curtain opening to finale she glowed with a broad, confident, regal smile.
The July 9 afternoon performance was supposed to have been Brandt’s role debut, and her only T&V performance this season. However, due to what has become by now routine major company injury / Covid cast shuffles, her actual debut was the night before. My understanding, however, is that she had the same demeanor in Friday night’s performance as I saw Saturday.
A smiling, radiant, regal demeanor may not be what Balanchine wanted. My limited research indicates that he wanted nothing of a dancer’s personality to infect his T&V choreography. Be that as it may, I’m not sure whether I’d brand Brandt’s demeanor here as an injection of personality; rather, it’s just a different way to display the role to an audience. One way or the other, it worked, and it lent an entirely new dimension to a ballet masterpiece.
In terms of execution, I noticed one very minor “hiccup” in her Saturday performance – one not even worth describing – and I’m told by trusted colleagues that her performance Friday was better. Maybe that hiccup I saw was the reason for the distinction – other than that, I can’t see how Friday’s performance could have been any better than it was on Saturday. Of those I’ve seen, there has never been a T&V performance that looked this joyous, and at the same time as effortless as Brandt made it appear.
Brandt’s partner, Herman Cornejo, did not adopt Brandt’s attitude adjustment. His expression was expressionless, as I’ve always seen previously, and it remained unchanged throughout. Technically he executed well, though without the brilliance of others I’ve seen in the role.
Single Eye, which premiered at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, CA last March, 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. The quote / subtitle – “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” from Matthew 6.22 (KJV) – isn’t helpful. It’s only part of the full quotation, which is from one verse from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of St. Matthew and part of the Sermon on the Mount. More importantly, “light” is also translated in other versions of the New Testament as “lamp,” and “single” as “sound” (as in “sound of mind”). So the “light” reference may mean the purity of the light radiating from within (as opposed to being a crack for light to get through, per Leonard Cohen). So maybe it’s about the relative purity of one’s inner light, or how one sees the world. Whatever – I digress. The dance, at least on first view, doesn’t illuminate the reference.
Composed to a commissioned score by American jazz pianist Jason Moran, the piece is divided into seven untitled segments. That’s not helpful either.
And yet … there’s more here, I think, than meets the eye – single or paired. The segments – dances for the supporting corps, for the four leads, or for pairs or solos – are interestingly conceived even without knowing anything beyond that. There are images here of great strength and considerable beauty (in the sense of intrigue rather than something physical); indeed, the duet between Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster, which may be some sort of relationship dance or some commentary on something (incompatibility?), is fascinating to watch unwind, with Shevchenko particularly galvanizing. Calvin Royal III dances a powerful solo, with similar impact, and Devon Teuscher lent the piece her characteristic grace. The fact that I can’t make heads or tails of it doesn’t make it less interesting. Do its earth colors (sets and costume design by Robert Rosenwasser) have a meaning beyond being a surrounding context? Is there some environmental component to the dance? I don’t know. It bothers me, but at the same time I can’t dismiss the choreography or the imagery.
So in the end, I’m punting on this one.
The execution was superb, particularly by the leads, but many members of the large cast were given an opportunity to stand out. The most memorable of these included, to me, Kanon Kimura, Lea Fleytoux, Jacob Clerico and Michael de la Nuez.
ZigZag, which I reviewed after its Fall 2021 premiere, is nice to watch, and the music by Tony Bennett is certainly evocative by itself and sufficient to make a viewer listen and watch with delight. But as a whole, my original opinion remains that the dances to the ten Bennett songs that comprise the score don’t sufficiently gel into a coherent whole. The choreography for some of the songs (e.g., “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”) is better than others, but the entire package feels good because Bennett’s music is emotional comfort food, rather than because there’s anything particularly interesting in the choreography.
That being said, and although the complete fourteen-dancer cast executed well, I must single out the performance of Jarod Curley, who replaced Aran Bell on short notice here (as well as in Of Love and Rage during the season’s second week), and did excellent work on both occasions. When he was on stage, the piece received a jolt of energy. Cassandra Trenary had a similar impact when she appeared.
Romeo and Juliet:
I once wrote that I’ve never seen a poor performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. After having seen three more iterations of it this ABT season, including two Juliet role debuts, this remains the case.
I consider Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo and Juliet to be the gold standard. What makes his ballet extraordinary to me, beyond the visual tableau that MacMillan displays to the audience with each scene, is the junction of passion with the lead characters’ essential innocence and impulsiveness, both of which qualities are embedded in the choreography. The ideal portrayal not only reflects these qualities, but also transcends the fourth wall and engenders a personal response. Performances that combine passion with innocence are those that resonate with me most, while portrayals that are more passionate than appropriate at the outset, or where the characters are portrayed as mature beyond their years or are too aggressive, fail to move me and can come across as artificial.
From Makarova and Tcherkassky and Harvey through to Kent, Vishneva and Seo, every ballerina who I’ve seen dance Juliet at this level dances the choreography well, of course with differences in nuance and emphasis. [I’ve never seen Gelsey Kirkland’s Juliet, although I did see her dance the balcony scene only in a special gala performance soon after ABT obtained the rights to perform the ballet, and I wonder sometimes if my heart ever found its way back to my chest.]
Of the three Juliets I expected to see, I anticipated that I would have the most difficulty with Shevchenko’s Juliet. To me, she doesn’t fit the Juliet mold I’ve had in my mind since I first read Shakespeare’s tragedy, since I saw Olivia Hussey in the filmed version, and since I saw Alessandra Ferri dance the role on both sides of the pond. Shevchenko just didn’t fit the mold: not young-looking enough, not short enough, not dark-haired enough; just not right. I know there have been perfectly wonderful MacMillan Juliets who don’t fit this admittedly artificial mold, including MacMillan’s original choice for the role, but that’s my bare and unapologetic preference.
Within seconds of her initial appearance, Shevchenko proved me wrong. What an astonishing role debut this performance was!
Aided by a fall that dropped below her shoulders, Shevchenko looked the soon-to-be 14 year old Juliet without forcing it. And she handled her introduction to Paris as she should: courteous, a bit shy, and somewhat surprised that he might be interested in her. There was no instant animosity – that emerged when it should have, after she met Romeo.
I saw nothing that I could find fault with, technically or emotionally, in her performance. It was lighthearted when it needed to be, emotionally gripping when it needed to be, always intelligently as well as competently executed, and her interaction with her Romeo was all it needed to be and more. She nailed “The Scream,” as any ballerina worthy of being a Juliet must do, and although she didn’t hurl herself at Romeo during the Balcony Scene with the exceptional force of a Diana Vishneva hurtling into Marcelo Gomes, she did it the way it’s usually seen: running at what appears to be full speed and somehow landing like a feather.
The “edge of the bed” moment in Act III is particularly significant to me, as it must have been to MacMillan. Here too often a Juliet would sit motionless until she rises and flies off to Friar Laurence. The most moving of these moments I can recall seeing was created by Vishneva, who sat motionless as others do, but as the accompanying segment of the score neared its end her face – again with no motion – lit up like a lightbulb; she accomplished it all just by her eyes alone. [As I’ve written, most “little” things like this change from performance to performance, even by the same dancer. The next time I saw Vishneva’s Juliet, that “light bulb” effect was replaced by something different.]
Shevchenko’s “edge of the bed” was different from Vishneva’s, but it was equally memorable. As the music’s segment approached its end, Shevchenko’s eyes widened and, concurrently, she jumped off the bed as if struck by lightning. At that moment, one knew that this Juliet knew exactly what her next move would be. It was a seismic moment of consummate artistry.
All in all, Shevchenko’s Juliet was one of those rare debuts that not only pushes every pushable button, but some buttons one never realized were there.
On Saturday afternoon, Trenary also danced a glowing Juliet, but one that was quite different in temperament from Shevchenko’s (and any other Juliet I’ve seen). This Juliet shined slightly “darker” than others – the only way to describe it is that there was a sense throughout that this wasn’t going to end well.
Perhaps this vague sense I felt was the result of Trenary appearing, from the outset, to be more emotionally mature than other Juliets. For example, when the Nurse ends the scene by wrapping her arms over Juliet’s body, incontrovertibly intending to emphasize to the child Juliet that she’d soon be a woman, the next moment show’s Juliet’s facial reaction to the news. I’ve seen surprise, excitement, a little wariness – all appropriate. With Trenary’s Juliet, her facial response seemed to say “I know that already.” This wasn’t bad at all – just different. And realistically, this was the only type of non-verbal response Trenary could have given.
But this Juliet was emotionally advanced as well. Trenary’s Juliet reacted negatively to Paris instantly: she was a dutiful daughter, but obviously didn’t want to have anything to do with him. I’ve seen this interpretation at times before, but not, to my recollection, in MacMillan’s version. Regardless, it works.
Like Shevchenko and most other Juliets I’ve seen, I could find no fault with Trenary’s technical execution, with her “Scream” (she also nailed it), or with her relationship with her Romeo: all three of the critical pas de deux – balcony, bed, and bier – as well as points in between, were thrillingly delivered. However, there are a few observations that in the overall scheme of things are relatively minor, and they all occurred in Act III.
Trenary had difficulty with the part of the scene where Juliet runs to her bed and hides like a child under the bed covers to avoid hearing any more of her parents’ marital demands. The covers wouldn’t budge. She tried a couple of times, finally just flopping onto the bed without anything covering her head. Probably most in the audience didn’t notice anything amiss here, but either Trenary pulled on the wrong piece of the bedding or the bedding was not prepared properly. I’m sure that the next time she dances this role, this will be remedied.
More significantly, Trenary’s “edge of the bed” scene could be improved. She did what most Juliets do — sat on the edge of the bed motionless for most of the segment and emerged from the bed at the pivotal musical moment, but I saw no epiphany; no indication that she knew what she was going to do – only that she’d decided to do something. Admittedly, however, there may have been more here than my angle of view enabled me to see.
Finally, Act III ended with the tableau of the now dead Romeo and Juliet, but it was a slightly modified tableau, with Juliet’s back to the audience atop the bier as, dying, she reached toward Romeo. The likely reason for this “Plan B” was obvious to many in the audience (and requires no elaboration from me here) – it was the careful thing to do. But one would think that the concern that prompted it can, if desired, be satisfactorily addressed in the future.
Shevchenko and Trenary’s Romeo was Calvin Royal III. His Romeo was lankier than most, which could translate to some as an absence of sufficient gravitas, but this isn’t essential in a character who is supposed to be 16, and in every other respect his performance was more than adequate, technically and emotionally, and he was a very fine partner on each occasion. When I first saw Royal dance with ABT, I commented on his arms, which appeared to be unusually long, and predicted he’d be a superb partner. He was. I thought his performance on Saturday afternoon, with Trenary (in which he replaced Herman Cornejo, who reportedly was ill), was slightly superior to his role debut on Wednesday afternoon (where to my eye he was less fully in control of those same arms), but to the extent that one might have been better than the other is a distinction without a difference.
On Saturday evening I caught up with Teuscher’s Juliet and Bell’s Romeo. Each delivered exceptionally fine, flawless performances, reflecting their experience in the roles. Bell in particular impressed me with that quality of gravitas that I found lacking in Royal’s Romeo (although that cuts both ways). That their performances, to me, came across as less exciting than the earlier role debuts is a function more likely of the inherent excitement in major role debuts rather than any deficiency on their parts.
To the extent there was a damper that hung over these lead performances and this performance week as a whole, it was the conspicuous absence of the ballerina no longer in the room. I won’t dwell on this extensively now, but Sarah Lane’s absence from the company (and consequently from portraying Juliet) is a continuing inexplicable and unjustifiable wound that I (and many other regular ABT balletgoers) cannot ignore. She was originally scheduled, finally, to debut as Juliet in the Met 2020 season, but that casting (and more) wasn’t carried over to when post-pandemic performances resumed. Aside from the insult that this must represent to one who devoted her entire professional life to ABT, this “non-development” robs the audience of the opportunity to see one who may have been ABT’s finest Juliet since Ferri. Or maybe not. Unless something changes and this manifestly artistically unsupportable (and short-sighted) decision is revisited, ABT’s audience will never know. Representative of my previous life (and consistent with my balletomania being nurtured by Clive Barnes, who devoted significant column inches to discussing the plight of the Panovs in Russia), a glaring injustice needs to be called out for what it is, and where appropriate I’ll continue to do so.
As a consequence of seeing three separate Romeo and Juliet performances, I saw three separate supporting casts. I can’t address each of the dancers who assayed each of their roles, but I’ll try to get to most.
The Mercutios and Benvolios for the three programs were, respectively: Gabe Stone Shayer and Patrick Frenette on Wednesday, Jonathan Klein and Luis Ribagorda on Saturday afternoon, and Garegin Pogossian and Sung Woo Han on Saturday evening. Each delivered fine performances, with Pogossian being a huge surprise. The only other time I saw him was earlier this season as the Gypsy in Don Quixote; he appeared much more confidant here.
Tybalt used to be a more notorious character in ABT productions of Romeo and Juliet. Either he was portrayed as drunk, despicable, just plain mean – or all the above. Lately, portrayals of Tybalt have given him a more “human” if not humane presence. On Wednesday afternoon, Roman Zhurbin came closest to being the old nasty Tybalt audiences know and hate. On Saturday afternoon, Duncan Lyle was sufficiently tyrannical and not a little inebriated. But Saturday evening’s Tybalt, Thomas Forster, seemed miscast. His Tybalt was far too mild-mannered, and although he became brooding-ish in the final scene in Act II, there was too little of it. The role needed at least some snarl. But it must be reassuring in a way to be told your stage persona is too nice for you to be a Tybalt.
Lady Capulet, however, is another matter. She’s supposed to seethe on the inside, buried within her aristocratic air, but differences in performances are in the details. Wednesday and Saturday evening’s Lady Capulet, Luciana Paris and Alexandra Basmagy, gave fine but standard portrayals. On Wednesday afternoon, however, Zhong-Jing Fang was commanding as well as, at appropriate times, appropriately hysterical. Everything she did earlier this season as Mercedes in Don Quixote in terms of emotional expression she did here, and it made a difference. Her performance here as Lady Capulet was utterly magnificent.
In MacMillan’s production, the three Harlots have considerable stage time, and a measure of responsibility to move things in a particular direction. Here each set of three (in order: Katherine Williams, Scout Forsythe, and Courtney Shealy; Paris, Erica Lall, and Hannah Marshall; and Virginia Lensi, Fang, and Betsy McBride), all played their roles appropriately, and looked like they were having something of a blast at the same time. The three Parises, Eric Tamm, Jose Sebastian, and Andrii Ishchuk, all executed their roles well. And as the Nurse, Susan Jones, on Wednesday afternoon, owns it, but Nancy Raffa on Saturday afternoon did fine work as well. Claire Davison was an unusually young-looking Nurse on Saturday evening, but she also delivered a credible performance.
A final comment about performances by an often overlooked group: those former dancers and/ or members of the ABT artistic staff (or, on rare occasion, a former dancer from a different company) who appear in what are usually considered character roles when a current company dancer may not be able to lend the role sufficient depth or indicia of experience. In addition to the pleasure of returning to the stage (as one would hope), a side benefit for these former dancers is that these roles enable them to embellish their reputations and appear before new generations of ballet audiences.
This year, these performers included Jones and Raffa, who are mentioned above; Rubén Martín, a teacher at ABT’s affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School; Carlos Lopez, one of two Directors of Repertoire (the other is Raffa); Clinton Luckett, currently the company’s Associate Artistic Director; and John Gardner, who, together with his wife, former Principal Dancer Amanda McKerrow, are listed as Guest Repetitours. All delivered the character impressions essential to lend credibility to the production as a whole. Beyond that, some do exceptional work. Jones, the company’s Regisseur, has been a fixture for years as Juliet’s Nurse, earning greater acclaim than she did as a member of ABT’s corps (yes, I remember); and Raffa, who had a significant reputation as a performer (and who I remember from as far back as 1980), has also become a fixture as the Queen Mother in Swan Lake (and other roles in other performance seasons). Martín, who I’d not seen prior to this season, did outstanding work as Prince Escalus and Friar Laurence, and earlier this season proved a memorable Tutor in Swan Lake. And Gardner, a former company Soloist, excelled as Lord Capulet, and earlier in the season was a vibrant Kitri’s Father in Don Quixote, as well as a commanding Don Quixote himself, giving that role a quality of dignity infrequently seen.
Season Overview and Promotions
At the outset of the season’s final week, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, who is to retire following ABT’s Fall 2022 season, announced several promotions. They include (and I’m not sure I have all of them): Catherine Hurlin and Roman Zhurbin to Principal Dancer; and Breanne Granlund, Sung Woo Han, Betsy McBride, Chloe Misseldine, and SunMi Park to Soloist. In addition, Guest Artist Daniel Camargo will join the Company as a Principal Dancer.
Hurlin’s promotion is no surprise; her performances over the years demonstrate that she fully earned it, even though veteran ballet-goers knew it was a sure-thing since she debuted as ABT’s first Young Clara in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker. Indeed, her role debut as Odette / Odile was so good that in my subsequent review I wrote that she should have been promoted on stage after that program ended, as is done in many other companies (but not, to date, by ABT).
Camargo proved himself in featured roles this past season, so his formally becoming a member of the company is not a surprise either. Zhurbin’s promotion was somewhat unexpected, but not unwarranted. He’s excelled largely in character roles, and is an invaluable member of the company.
McBride’s promotion to Soloist was long overdue, and Granlund’s was not unexpected. Misseldine’s promotion must be considered in terms of future investment. As I’ve already mentioned several times, Misseldine, who has been a member of the corps for less than a year, is a compelling and unique stage presence. The other two promotions were surprising to me, but I’ve only seen Han and Park this season. As Gamache in Don Quixote, as Benno in Swan Lake, and as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, Han performed quite well, and, since he joined the company in 2013, I presume there’s a body of work out there that I’ve missed; Park didn’t become a member of the corps until this past February, and the only featured roles in which she’s appeared were the two I saw her dance this season, a Flower Girl in Don Quixote and the pas de trois in Swan Lake, and she danced well in both roles.
Congratulations to all.
ABT’s Met 2022 season will be remembered as its first 5-week Met season (as opposed to the 8-week Met season it enjoyed for many years), but I don’t think that the reduction in Met performance days hurt. On the contrary, it served to focus scheduling on those evening-length ballets that are ABT’s bread and butter, and eliminated the sense of season-exhaustion that in the past plagued many dancers and frequent members of the audience. So ultimately this reduced Met season may prove not to be as unfortunate a development as it initially appeared.
Beyond that, ABT’s Met 2022 season will be remembered most for extraordinary performances by its young dancers and danseurs.
It’s doesn’t require much in the way of perspicacity to recognize that the company’s reliable stalwarts for many years to come will continue to be Christine Shevchenko and Devon Teuscher, and that the company’s post-McKenzie future, unless modified by some unforeseeable circumstances, will be centered around its young ballerinas and danseurs like Hurlin, Brandt, Misseldine, Bell, Royal, and maybe Trenary, Williams and Camargo (each of the latter three need to be tested in a broader range of roles, particularly Williams, who merits more significant role opportunities than she got this season). This is as it should be – and as it should have been for those many years when ABT’s notoriously misguided “guest artist” policy diminished opportunities and growth experience for ABT’s own young dancers.
Those who may soon join them as future focal points are Curley (who to me had earned a promotion this season if for no other reason than his superb performances as a frequent injury replacement for Bell), Shayer (based on his unexpectedly fine Espada as well as Mercutio), Frenette, Coker, Granlund, Fleytoux, and maybe Klein, and Pogossian (based on their respective Mercutios), and Rachel Richardson, Erica Lall and Courtney Lavine (each of whom also needs to be assigned more challenging roles). Other standouts who I failed to mention in the course of my reviews and whose abilities may become more apparent in future seasons were apprentices Cy Doherty (thoroughly competent in the primarily character roles to which he was assigned) and Elwince Magbitang (whose unexpectedly powerful Gypsy in Don Quixote brought down the house).
The problem with a list like the above is that I’m sure there are other dancers who deserve to be on it, but who I just didn’t see this past season. Regardless, even with “only” those listed, at least in terms of its immediate future ABT will be in a good position when the torch is passed.