American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 25 and 26 afternoon; July 1, 2, 3 afternoon, and 5, 2019
Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Season Wrap-Up
And just like that, another eight week spring season is over.
As is often the case, American Ballet Theatre’s Met 2019 Season, except for its week of Manon, did not look particularly interesting on paper. As is also often the case, the season proved far more interesting than it at first looked. I’ll provide a brief season wrap-up below, following a review of the classic ballet performances that I saw in the season’s final two weeks.
Aside from The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty are any ballet company’s bread and butter. Full (or close to it) houses are almost a guarantee regardless of casting. And by saving these two classics for the end of its 2019 Met season ABT took advantage of the these ballets’ name recognition factor among the tourists who swarm into Manhattan after school ends and around the 4th of July holiday – at the performances I attended, more seats were filled that at any other time this season.
Moreover, as I’ve previously observed, Swan Lake is bullet-proof. No matter what critics may think of the production or performances, Swan Lake sells tickets. The Sleeping Beauty is in the same league. Audiences, knowledgeable or not, know what to expect, and get it.
That said, there are many critical variables that ultimately may not make a bit of difference to most audience members, but which serve to define the performances for those who care. I’ll initially discuss the two ballets in terms of the contrasts between the two ABT productions, and then the specific performances I saw.
Before I delve into the productions and performances in detail, at this point it would be appropriate to highlight the lead performances I found most impressive. This year, however, all the lead performances were impressive, albeit in different ways (for Swan Lake, I saw performances led by Devon Teuscher and Aran Bell, and by Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin; and for The Sleeping Beauty, the performances I saw were led by Boylston and Bell, Cassandra Trenary and Joseph Gorak, and Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo). So I’ll instead recognize upfront performances in four supporting roles in The Sleeping Beauty that might otherwise be mentioned only in summary fashion at the end of the review, and that deserve not to be lost in the shuffle.
The glue that holds the current production of The Sleeping Beauty together is the role of Catalabutte, the King’s “Chief Minister.” Alexei Agoudine portrayed Catalabutte at each of the performances I saw, and he has it down to a science. It’s a remarkably detailed and nuanced portrayal that fills the stage with vibrancy while at the same time making the entire production viewer friendly. I’d not previously seen Keith Roberts as Carabosse, but this former ABT Principal (now a company Ballet Master) also appeared this year in each of the performances I saw. Roberts’s portrayal was so meaty, so nasty, and so perfectly villainous in a cartoonish way that he dominated every scene he was in. Among the performing fairy tale wedding guests in Act III (including marvelous debuts as Princess Florine by Katherine Williams and Catherine Hurlin, which I’ll discuss below), the dance by Cinderella and her Prince is not usually memorable. Usually. The two other dancers I saw in the role did commendable work, but Williams’s interpretation was on another level entirely. In other performances, Cinderella is a fairy tale character paraded through the Act III divertissements like other fairy tale characters. Williams expanded her Cinderella’s personality-in-a-nutshell, animated it to a degree not previously seen without making the nuances look at all forced, and in the process made her Cinderella far more than a character in a simple divertissement. And although the other dancers who assayed Little Red Riding Hood did excellent work as well (including Betsy McBride’s vivacious portrayal), Zimmi Coker made the role more than it had a right to be just by being there. There’s something about this first year company member’s presence on stage that measurably brightens it. She’s impossible not to watch – and it’s not her red hair; it’s her attitude.
The current ABT productions of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty are stylistic polar opposites, and seeing them in consecutive weeks emphasizes their differences. For both productions, the stories and scores are givens, as is the basic Petipa / Ivanov (Swan Lake) or Petipa (The Sleeping Beauty) choreography – although, within limited parameters, choreography that’s not central to the ballet’s history or the order of presentation may change. What distinguishes them is their approach to the original (or original as we know them) productions from 1895 and 1890 respectively.
When I first started attending ballet, I didn’t like Swan Lake much. I thought that the ABT production I saw (the “David Blair” production) was too long, too stodgy, and (based on bits and pieces of ballet performances I saw on the Ed Sullivan Show) exactly what I’d expected “real” ballet to be. Over time, I got used to it, and focused on the performances rather than the tiresome production, the milked bows, and the dead spots. Admittedly, though, by that time I was already partial to new productions infused with more dynamism (I recall liking the 1988 version staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov for ABT – admittedly one of the few – for that reason among others), and I appreciated new conceptions based on Petipa but intelligently inserted into a new environment with a somewhat different scenario (like Christopher Wheeldon’s version for Pennsylvania Ballet, which transferred the venue to a dance studio in Paris in the time of Degas).
The current ABT production, conceived by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, premiered in 2000. Following its initial performance at the Met two months later, I recall a chorus of complaints that this version was too irreverent, that the brief Prologue he inserted was superfluous, that it eliminated much of Act III and thereby cut into the ballet’s mournful Russian soul, and that, shudder, it moved too fast. I disagree with all of that.
This production updates Swan Lake while maintaining the basic scenario and venue. Most significantly, it cuts unnecessary choreographic verbiage (like much, but not all, of the classic Act IV; the Ivanov staging is indeed beautifully done, but except for the added ingredient of betrayal, it repeats the mood already set in Act II) without sacrificing the ballet’s emotional heart. On the contrary, by giving the traditional production a contemporary nip and tuck, it makes the entirety of the spectacle more like a celebration of fine art than an endurance test. Everything works, nothing essential is lost, and the tonnage moves – and it’s so skillfully presented and staged that it draws the audience in. I find it difficult now to imagine a production that doesn’t include the Prologue (yes, Odette’s plight is explained by mime in Act II, but why wait until then to display her capture graphically and to engender sympathy for her?), two von Rothbarts (hereafter, simply “Rothbart”), and that doesn’t explain Siegfried’s ennui in Act I beyond being bored to tears by the dull dance of the aristocrats that he and audiences had to endure (although I liked “Siegfried’s Soliloquy,” especially as performed by Marcelo Gomes). Admittedly, however, if you go to ballet in the 21st Century to see what Swan Lake may have looked like in its relevant initial incarnation, you won’t find all of that here. And you won’t find a “black” swan in Act III either (the black swan costume was added decades later).
ABT’s current version of The Sleeping Beauty provides, or claims to provide, the original 1890 experience. ABT’s Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky famously reviewed archival materials, including contemporaneous notes and diagrams, to recreate the production as it was when it premiered. Although parts of it reportedly include some original choreography, the approach looks consistent throughout. Obviously, however, from my discussion of Swan Lake, I have some difficulty with it.
To be clear, there’s much that’s admirable about this production. Parts of the staging are gorgeous (the diagonal series of arabesques penches in which Aurora leans on the shoulders of the young violinists is particularly lovely; the Garland Waltz, which I initially disliked viewed from the orchestra, is staged brilliantly when seen in its patterned glory from above), and the essential choreography (e.g., the Rose Adagio) appears unchanged or insignificantly modified. Beyond that, the choreography, overall, is not “dumbed down” to a 19th Century level (on the contrary, much of it is wickedly difficult), there are “advanced” examples of technological stagecraft that couldn’t have been present when the dance premiered (although at one performance the mysteriously appearing “arrow through the target” bullseye at the beginning of Act II’s “Hunt” scene failed to appear, and at another Carabosse’s “dynamite” exit at the end of Act III malfunctioned), and the pace of the production is far more expeditious than some contemporary versions I’ve seen (in one of ABT’s previous productions –the version by Mary Skeaping – I can still recall seeing Fernando Bujones travel to meet his sleeping Aurora on a voyage that seemed, by itself, to take 100 years to reach its destination). Indeed, once the production gets past the fairy dances in the Prologue (“The Christening”), which move much too slowly, the pace and energy level become exciting to watch unfold. I’m even beginning to get used to the ridiculous-looking costumes (perhaps they were toned down a bit since the production’s initial seasons) and odd (blue and burnt orange) color combinations – although I doubt I’ll ever get used to the hairpieces, plumed or otherwise (the queen’s hair could do double duty as a beehive) or the artificial white wigs that serve only to emphasize the production’s age. And there are scenes that, by today’s standards, just look wrong: e.g., having the Suitor/Princes wander unceremoniously on stage in Act I; and having the Prince and the Lilac Fairy casually enter the room where Aurora sleeps without first having to battle Carabosse and his / her henchmen and/or a century’s worth of twisted forest vegetation. The immediately preceding McKenzie / Kirkland / Chernov version handled these scenes far better.
More importantly, there’s a sense of weightiness to this production that goes beyond the heavy costumes (in pounds and in appearance), and that appears to be intentional. It’s the style. For all its complexity, it looks old fashioned – because it is old-fashioned. There’s considerably less pointe work (reportedly because pointe shoe technology did not allow for the extensive pointe work routinely seen in versions that post-dated the premiere); attitude positions predominate over arabesque, blunting the effect; and choreographed phrases or solo variations tend to end with the dancers’ bodies angled downward – with rounded arms to be sure, but as if their bodies were succumbing to gravitational pull. The impact of all this is a loss of physical dynamic for most every dancing character, including, to a lesser extent, Aurora, regardless of the choreography’s complexity. It looks ponderous. And for those in the audience familiar with other incarnations, it looks old and unnatural. Moreover, some choreography that experienced audiences expect to see based on the evolution of the ballet since its premiere is no longer there. An example is the absence of the “fish dives” in the Act III Grand Pas de Deux. The music’s there, but the choreography isn’t. Granted, the “new” substitute that Ratmansky added this year, based on recently located original drawings, is a significant improvement over the inconsistent presentation during the ballet’s previous run, but it still looks overly stylized and unfinished.
One additional comment. There are two instances of gratuitous violence in this production that I didn’t previously notice (or that were inexplicably added). When Carabosse confronts Catalabutte in Act I, in addition to pulling his hair out, she (he) beats Catalabutte with a cane. Viciously. And in Act II, during the terribly forced-looking (intentionally) game of “blind man’s bluff,” the prince’s poor Tutor is beaten, this time with horse whips (or riding crops), whenever he missteps or contacts a woman in what by the standards of the time was an inappropriate way – even though he can’t see what he’s doing. Each slap stings, and I saw members of the audience wince. Were either of these episodes really necessary, even if they were in the original?
In any event, there’s a value in knowing what the original production might have looked like, but older is older, not necessarily better. Dancers’ training and capabilities have changed since 1890, as have audience sensibilities and expectations, and contemporary productions of The Sleeping Beauty should reflect this.
Fortunately, however, the individual performances in each of these ballets, although molded by the specific staging, transcend their respective productions.
ABT has a plethora of highly capable and talented ballerinas, but its ranks of danseurs with technical ability, stage presence, and most importantly, the ability to partner ballerinas taller than 5’3” has been limited – particularly given the infrequent availability of David Hallberg and the loss of Marcelo Gomes. Enter Aran Bell.
It’s been clear since before he even joined the company in 2017 that ABT expects Bell to fill a significant void. He has all the equipment: he’s tall, he has a powerful presence, and he can partner. The only question was whether he could handle major roles and the characterization that these roles require. He can.
On June 25, Bell debuted as Prince Siegfried opposite Teuscher’s Odette / Odile. It was a noteworthy performance – and not just because, at age 20, he’s reportedly the youngest in ABT’s history to assay the role. Indeed, he looked remarkably polished for someone so young, and fit the role far better than he did in his foray into Swan Lake last year as the human form of Rothbart. His presence was commanding, his characterization was appropriate, his execution was commendable (and appropriately youthful for a young Prince celebrating his coming-of-age), and his partnering appeared flawless. There’s a danseur noble here that doubtless will emerge with additional opportunities, but what’s already there is quite remarkable.
Five days later, Bell debuted in The Sleeping Beauty. In Ratmansky’s production, and aside from the relatively pro forma “dream” imagery in the Vision Scene, the choreography for Prince Désiré is largely confined to the final act’s Grand Pas de Deux. Bell acquitted himself well here also – and, equally important, was a credible and youthful Prince. There’s a long way to go, and things happen, but Bell may well be the male face of ABT for the next decade or two.
In the years since she debuted in Swan Lake’s dual role, Teuscher’s evolution is apparent. Her Odette was beautifully accomplished, with just the right amount of pathos to engender sympathy. Even more apparent is her improvement as Odile. Taking her cues, appropriately, from Rothbart (played by Jose Sebastian),albeit from a distance (they should be physically closer when they plot so he can whisper in her ear rather than by transmitting his instructions via invisible brain waves), she ramped up Odile’s sensuality and dominating confidence. To me, her Black Swan is not yet at the level where she oozes sensuality and seduces the audience as well as the prince, but it’s getting there. And thankfully she’s eliminated the “I’m so beautiful” mime that to me marred her debut.
However, I found something in Teuscher’s execution at the conclusion of the Black Swan Pas de Deux that appeared calculated and different. Following the fouettes (I lost count…), as Odile goes for the kill with a series of diagonal arabesques en pointe, she must keep her focus on her prey. Teuscher didn’t. Instead, with each arabesque in which Odile’s body seems to pull to the left as her leg and arm extend behind her, she noticeably turned her head to the left as well, not just away from Siegfried, but looking toward a point across the stage. It looked strange. But I came up with an explanation: in most productions, including this one, Odile is referenced as Rothbart’s daughter. That’s contrary to the description I recall when I first started seeing Swan Lake – it raises more questions, and I’m much more comfortable with the notion that Odile is this wizard’s creation rather than some daughter ex machina. Be that as it may, with each head turn away from Siegfried, what Teuscher may have been doing was looking at her “father”: maybe daddy’s little girl seeking daddy’s approval. I prefer it the usual way, with eyes focused exclusively on Siegfried, but if that was Teuscher’s rationale, it’s intriguing.
Boylston, Thursday’s Odette / Odile, is the one of the company’s strongest ballerinas. She dominates the stage, and aside from Gillian Murphy, no company ballerina can hold balances longer or handle more fouettes than she. As strong as she appears, however, she’s relatively weak in finesse and delicacy, and my observation in the past has been that her characterizations are underdeveloped (the glorious exception was her portrayal of Lise in La Fille Mal Gardee): her characterizations tend to flatten within basic dimensions, without sufficient nuance – call it character phrasing — to mark any evolution.
After not seeing her as Odette / Odile in several years, I found her portrayal this year to be significantly improved, but character nuances that make the roles more compelling are still lacking. Most members of the audience wouldn’t notice, and the deficiencies I saw certainly had no impact on the overall performance quality, but to me her Odette was still relatively one-dimensional. That being said, I appreciated her dynamic entrance in Act II – the tendency in this production for Odettes to initially appear by walking onto the stage from the wings is deflating.
As Odile, Boylston took the essential sensuality further than she had previously, and the result was a more vibrant presentation. It goes without saying that her fouettes were seismic, and in that same diagonal I referenced above, she kept her eyes properly focused on Siegfried – she had to; there was no one else to look at, since, following an initial contact when the pas de deux began, her Rothbart (again, Sebastian) retired to his position adjacent to the queen and watched his daughter do her thing. Apparently in this production Rothbart’s positioning is optional, but as I’ve emphasized previously, not being involved in the action to give instructions to his daughter (or his creation) makes no thematic sense to me, and here it only serves to emphasize that Boylston doesn’t need anyone to partner her or to tell her what to do; she can do it all on her own.
Simkin was Boylston’s Siegfried. While the bravura displays in the Black Swan Pas de Deux were brilliantly executed, his characterization seemed to be a reversion to the artificiality of his earlier portrayals. He looked much more natural, and princely, when he appeared opposite Lane in her role debut two years ago.
Supporting roles in Swan Lake are few. As a result of several injuries, Sebastian, who debuted in the role earlier in the week, was the only Rothbart in human form that I saw. He didn’t do anything wrong – indeed, his acting and timing was exactly right. But he did not, and maybe could not, convey the power, sensuality, and gravitas evident in previous portrayals. This was an opportunity that Sebastian has long deserved, but perhaps this isn’t the best role for him. Marshall Whitely did fine work as the Rothbart in the lizard suit. And although the Act I Pas de Trois on Wednesday by Melanie Hamrick, April Giangeruso, and Calvin Royal III was exemplary, Thursday’s iteration by Skylar Brandt, Trenary, and Gorak was more memorable.
As usual, however, the finest of the “secondary” roles was by the corps as a whole, and by featured individual swans. I’ve rarely seen two performances of Swan Lake executed by the swan corps as well as these – and one hasn’t really lived unless one’s seen the “Two Swans” (the “Big Swans” in other productions) executed in tandem by Williams and Hurlin.
Differences in the lead casts for The Sleeping Beauty are easier to describe. Unlike Odette / Odile, where the character’s age is not relevant, regardless of the historical accuracy of the production the character of Aurora is supposed to be a 16 year old, at least in Act I. That doesn’t mean that the ballerina has to be 16, but to me she has to look and/or be able to act like she is.
Boylston’s Aurora on Monday was the strongest of the three I saw: with balances during the Rose Adagio, and in other spots in the Act, held forever, with no appreciable wavering or too quick rescues. And her execution in Act III’s Grand Pas de Deux looked perfect. If technical wizardry were all that the role of Aurora required, hers was the best by far.
But to me, milking the balances this way is showing off, and while it’s illustrative of the ballerina’s technical ability and strength, it isn’t what a 16 year old would be doing. I much prefer portrayals where the Rose Adagio is successfully completed, but not converted into an inappropriate bravura display. [Being unable to maintain balances in this critical scene consistently from performance to performance (allowing for the occasional bad day or timing issue with one of the suitors) is as much a failing as being unable to do the fouettes in the Black Swan Pas de Deux – successfully executing it reflects a certain accomplishment level that audiences expect.] Similarly, I prefer Auroras with nuances of character in terms of facial expression and phrasing that emphasize Aurora’s youth. As with her Odette / Odile, Boylston’s Aurora, admirable as her execution was, was not developed. Her smile throughout Act I was pasted on, and it was all about her. Things improved significantly in Act II’s Vision scene, where the character doesn’t require the same level of nuance, and her Grand Pas de Deux was spectacularly done (and here the bravura displays were not inappropriate for a well-preserved 116 year old).
Lane’s portrayal on Friday was far more youthful-looking – not just because of her appearance, but because of her actions. This Aurora acted like she was 16 – she honored her father and mother by depositing the roses given to her at their feet rather than summarily tossing them on the ground, and she appeared surprised at the attention she was getting from the Princes / Suitors, rather than being entitled to it. She completed the Rose Adagio adequately (better on Friday than on Tuesday, when she had to lower her hand to the final suitor too quickly), and the held balances were there but they were used to far more appropriate effect in the context of phrased punctuations at other moments in the scene.
Most significant, however, was the nuance-laden mini-scene after she’s pricked by Carabosse’s spindle. I remember when Natalia Osipova guested as Aurora in a prior ABT production, and commenting in my subsequent review that Osipova converted the scene into what effectively was a “mad scene” – the finest such scene I’d seen to that point. More than either of the other two ballerinas who portrayed Aurora last week, Lane did the same with this mini-scene. Effectively, it was as powerfully done, with successful transmission of second-long mood swings, as was her “mad scene” in Giselle. If there was a deficiency in Lane’s portrayal, it was that her overall Act I characterization had too much of that painted on smile that I saw in Boylston’s portrayal. There was a bit more moderation, but not nearly the variety of expression (except for that “spindle-prick” scene) I’d seen when she previously danced Aurora, in this production and those that preceded it, following her initial debut in the role in 2007.
Trenary’s Aurora was as successful as was her role debut two years ago. While not as polished as Lane’s or as powerful as Boylston’s, her Aurora was as youthful looking as Lane’s and she varied her expression consistently, making her portrayal more realistic. Overall, hers was a superb performance.
Gorak delivered a very fine portrayal as Trenary’s Prince Désiré, looking almost as youthfully exuberant as Bell, but with a more refined, lower decibel attitude that worked well. Cornejo’s Prince Désiré, opposite Lane’s Aurora, was a bit unsettling. His was by far the most accomplished of the three Princes, but to me he also exuded a level of self-confidence in both Acts II (the Hunt scene) and Act III that I found overbearing. Granted that by the Wedding Celebration the Prince is supposed to have matured, and coming across as superior for a soon-to-be king is not necessarily wrong – and the sense of “strutting” is built into the choreography. To my eye, however, his Prince was too full of himself. This is not Cornejo’s usual stage demeanor, so I suspect this approach is in line with Ratmansky’s preference, but to me it’s overdone.
The Blue Bird Pas de Deux is a fixture of the ballet, and the version in this production, notwithstanding the costumes, is essentially the same as others. Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer flawlessly reprised their roles on Monday. The week’s highlights, however, were the debuts as Princess Florine of Williams on Tuesday and Hurlin on Wednesday. Neither had Brandt’s dynamism, but that didn’t matter nearly as much as the finesse, nuance, and sense of classiness that they already bring to the role. Their respective Bluebirds, Blaine Hoven and Joo Wan Ahn, did excellent work as well, achieving seemingly effortless heights in their brises and entrechats. Both of the Lilac Fairies (Stella Abrera and Christine Shevchenko) performed admirably, but aside from their Act I heroic execution of Ratmansky’s difficult and awkward-looking choreography, the rest of the role is essentially mimed – while wearing a 17th or 18th Century gown, a plumed hat, and heeled shoes. Of those fairies not already mentioned, Brandt’s Canari qui chante is incomparable, but Anabel Katsnelson’s (possibly her role debut) was very promising; Hurlin’s Violente was utterly fabulous, and April Giangeruso’s was very strong as well; Rachel Richardson’s Miettes qui tombent was pristine; and Luciana Paris and Stephanie Williams both excelled as Fleur de farine. Hurlin’s “White Cat” was the most sophisticated and understatedly funny that I can recall (is there anything that this ballerina cannot do, and do well?), and while Richardson’s was very different, her hyper-energized, and fully developed “White Cat” was equally impressive. And Shevchenko, Teuscher and Paris were exemplary as Act III’s Diamond Fairy. Lastly, the role of King Florestan is usually somewhat of a throwaway, but Roman Zhurbin, who portrayed the king at each of the performances I saw, breathed life into it.
Season Wrap-Up, and the elimination of Orchestra Standing Room
Overall, ABT’s 2019 Met Season has been hugely successful, at least artistically. While the opening weeks were stocked with unfortunate choices, I can understand another attempt to sell Harlequinade and Whipped Cream, as well as the efforts to honor Ratmansky (although reviving the Shostakovich Trilogy would have been a superior and more timely choice) and Twyla Tharp. But Jane Eyre proved to be a groundbreaking ballet, as well as a vehicle for very fine performances, and the return of Manon was a season highlight. Overall, the company looked better this year than in many recent seasons, and, but for role differences that might be apparent only to balletgoers who attend multiple performances of the same program with different casts, there wasn’t a performance not worth seeing.
In addition to those programs detailed above and those reviewed previously, I also attended a performance of Le Corsaire (on June 11), specifically to see the company debut of guest artist Brooklyn Mack as Conrad (he also assayed the role of Ali later in the week, but I did not see that). It was a noteworthy debut. Mack’s Conrad was a little rough at the outset (to me, he seemed to be trying too hard), but he appeared to relax as the performance progressed and delivered an unusually powerful portrayal. At this same performance, Brandt’s Medora was both endearing and accomplished, with top-flight characterization and execution. Although her character doesn’t require the same level of depth as Medora, Lane’s Gulnare was equally accomplished. Arron Scott’s Bribanto was appropriately villainous, and Zhurbin’s Pasha was an hilarious cartoon. Simkin’s Ali, however, left the most indelible impression. Although “tricks” are obviously what audiences want to see, to me they’re inappropriate exaggerations in many cases. But the role of Ali is one of the role exceptions where they’re expected and encouraged, and Simkin’s outrageously over-the-top execution (which has been memorialized in social media) was both brilliant and show-stopping. The only part of the program that was extremely unfortunate was literally part of the program – the company’s politically correct apology for presenting a 19th Century ballet that deals with a 19th Century subject in a 19th Century way.
One other casting development of note. The company didn’t publicize it or, to my knowledge, even acknowledge it, but at the June 26 evening performance of Swan Lake, with less than four hours’ notice Lane, who was not scheduled to dance Odette / Odile this season for no reason that makes any artistic sense, replaced Misty Copeland as Odile (opposite Cornejo’s Prince Siegfried). The explanation given the next day was that Copeland was unable to dance Odile because she had the flu. I won’t comment on that further. Although I didn’t see the performance, my understanding is that both executed their roles well.
These observations (reflected in the company’s latest promotions of Bell and Joo Won Ahn to Soloist) emphasize ABT’s fortunate predicament. After finally ditching its guest artist policy that resulted in the denial of performing opportunities to the company dancers who needed the opportunities most, ABT, as I emphasized last year, is looking like a real company again, with stellar dancers at every level, most of whom merit additional opportunities. I’ve mentioned these superb performances in the course of my reviews this season and won’t repeat them here – and I’m sure that there were equally superb performances by other ABT dancers this season that I was unable to see. 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.
But the quality of its dancers creates problems: finding opportunities for them to grow. And with Murphy’s anticipated return next year, performing opportunities for others will be further reduced (which in no way is a suggestion that Murphy not return). Regardless, as it’s presently structured, the company doesn’t use the scheduling opportunities it already has optimally. A case in point is this season’s Swan Lake. Shevchenko, whose debut as Odette / Odile last year was sensational, was given only one opportunity this year. And Lane, who successfully debuted in these roles two years ago, was given no scheduled opportunities last year or this year. Instead, ballerinas who have already had ample performing opportunities in this role are given more of them. That makes no sense.
A corollary of this is ABT’s marketing. Based on the company’s social media publicity, one might think that there are only two, maybe three, company ballerinas worth seeing. Not only does this also make no artistic sense, it makes no economic sense. It’s bad enough that for whatever reason certain critics play favorites; the company shouldn’t.
However, it’s one thing to complain about the need for more performance opportunities; it’s another to find them. Admittedly, there are no solutions that don’t create problems of their own. Reducing the number of performances by any one ballerina to one per role per season would open opportunities to others, but a “one and done” performing schedule is problematic itself. And expanding the length of a ballet’s performance period (e.g., providing, say, twelve Swan Lake performances rather than eight) would also allow for increased performing opportunities, but might decrease audience attendance. Reduced price programs might be a viable counter. Regardless, the difficulty of finding a solution requires thinking outside the scheduling box, which to date ABT has shown no inclination to do.
One suggestion: next year, return one ballet to the repertoire and specifically earmark it to include young dancers (male and female) who might not otherwise be considered “ready” for lead roles – ideally, Coppélia. Another: as of this writing, ABT’s Fall 2019 Season has not been announced (although I’m sure it’s already fixed). While stocking these Fall seasons with shorter ballets that provide greater performing opportunities for a broader swath of dancers is laudatory, that’s not helpful if audience attendance is low. In the future, to encourage ticket sales as well as provide more noticeable lead roles for under-utilized ballerinas, consider not just transferring Jane Eyre to the Koch Theater (as I’ve previously suggested), but including La Sylphide as well.
One final comment. When I first started attending ballet, the financial burden of attending as many performances as I could was daunting. Orchestra Standing Room at the Met was a blessing. I remember being herded behind rope barriers to keep the standees separate from the full price ticketholders, and being squeezed into the too narrowly confined “standing spaces” like sardines, but this was small price to pay for being able to afford to attend many performances. I also remember, after first intermission, being allowed to sit in available empty seats if we wished (usually in the orchestra’s rear or side seats): filling empty orchestra seats was a mutual benefit. This year, ABT eliminated Orchestra Standing Room (I inquired at the Met box office, and was advised that this was not Met policy; it was ABT). Apparently, someone there thinks that people who buy tickets to stand for ballet performances will buy regularly priced tickets if standing room isn’t available – and they’ve maintained Dress Circle Standing Room for those who can’t.
Both rationales are, in a word, ludicrous. No one I know who can afford to buy tickets buys standing room just to be ornery or to save a few dollars (and while standing room used to be a bargain, in the past few years ABT raised standing room prices appreciably). And while there are a few standees who prefer Dress Circle Standing, most I know prefer the view from the back of the Orchestra. All that this policy accomplishes is that it makes a certain class of attendees – those who attend ABT performances on a regular basis because they love the company, its repertory, and/or its dancers – feel alienated and unwelcome. I’m aware of many “regular” standees who didn’t attend any ABT performances this season for that reason. So rather than increasing revenue, the result may well have been a loss of revenue. Regardless, it’s ABT cutting off its nose to spite its face.
I always understood that ABT’s Met standing room policy, consistent with the standing room policy of the Metropolitan Opera, was different from that of other dance companies in other performance venues, but this only served to make ABT’s policy at the Met more impressive, and more appreciated. Eliminating Orchestra Standing Room sends the wrong message, and in terms of building and maintaining an audience, is self-defeating. Next year, I urge ABT to restore Orchestra Standing Room, and to do so at reasonable prices. Who knows: one of these standees may eventually review ABT performances.