American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
July 3 and 6, 2017; Season Wrap-up
Mozartiana, Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Nutcracker Pas de Deux, AfterEffect
The final week of American Ballet Theatre’s eight-week 2017 Met season presented what was billed as a “Tchaikovsky Spectacular,” featuring three ballets, two pas de deux, and the final Act of Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty, titled Aurora’s Wedding – each piece, of course, choreographed to music by Tchaikovsky.
The ballets and performances I was able to see proved to be a mixed bag, the most significant being the company premiere of Ratmansky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher and certain performances in George Balanchine’s Mozartiana. But good or not so good, the programs and individual performances are overshadowed by the change that has taken place at ABT, which manifested this season in increased opportunities, extraordinary performances by previously under-utilized dancers, and well-deserved promotions, which I’ll address in the context of a “season wrap-up” following a discussion of the week’s performances.
Souvenir d’un lieu cher, which had its world premiere with the Dutch National Ballet in 2012, is almost too good. It has some semblance of a narrative and plenty of emotional gloss, but these are secondary to its choreographic substance and the overall ambiance it creates. It’s sweet but not at all saccharine, blissful but not quite joyous; darkly mysterious but not at all bleak; and melancholy but wonderfully vibrant. To balance all these seemingly contrary characteristics requires flawless choreography, which Ratmansky has provided, and flawless execution which it received from its remarkable cast. I have some quibbles with it, but this is such a beautiful little ballet that the quibbles hardly matter.
Translated, the piece’s title, the title of the Tchaikovsky composition to which it’s choreographed, means “Memories of a dear place,” and that in a nutshell, is what the ballet is “about” – except Tchaikovsky’s “dear place” (the estate – Brailov – of his benefactor, Nadezhda von Meck, where he completed the composition in May, 1878) is here more of a place in the heart, putting it squarely in line with other similarly-themed “remembrance” ballets. But Souvenir d’un lieu cher is not the trite little collection of memories that one might assume: like Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading and Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, there’s more to it than that. And this is Ratmansky – so the ballet is complex, cerebral and, typically for Ratmansky, easy to appreciate but more difficult to comprehend.
As the piece opens, a man and woman (Alban Lendorf and Sarah Lane) cross paths, have a momentary romantic-tinged encounter, and are immediately interrupted by another couple (Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera). Gomes’s character promptly separates Lendorf and Lane, to Lane’s displeasure, and briefly dances in sync with Lendorf. Then the pairs dance in sync with each other – as male/female couples, and as same sex couples, either in individual pairs or all four on stage together. Ratmansky skillfully interweaves different movements at strategic times so although the ballet may seem to consist primarily of superbly executed interestingly crafted mirror images, it doesn’t. During the course of the dance the relationships appear to overlap and the couples to interact in uncertain ways – including instances of simple, gentle touching that concurrently gently touch a viewer’s heart (expressions of comfort; reassurance; tenderness) and that seems ripe with emotional overtones, unclear as those overtones may be. But these are evanescent images with little seeming significance; they happen, and the ballet moves on. And then, after Gomes/Abrera leave the stage (or, in Gomes’s case, appears to), Lendorf lifts and carries Lane offstage in a deliciously romantic whirlwind, apparently oblivious to what the other couple might be thinking.
In the second half of the piece (the composition has three movements, but the ballet is divided into two segments; Ratmansky may have rearranged the music), there are individual solos, then more pairs, in sync and not, and then a sudden ending in which both couples are caught and frozen in almost but not quite parallel poses.
Deciphering what’s going on here, beyond beautiful images and the fact of relationships between one couple and another and among the individual dancers, is a perplexing effort. What’s the significance of the somewhat fleetingly expressed connections and contact between the couples? What’s that interaction between Lendorf and Gomes supposed to mean (is that some indication of sexual ambiguity)? Why does Gomes’s character watch, apparently wistfully, as Lendorf whirls Lane offstage at the end of the ballet’s first segment? Why do the pairs dance sometimes in sync and sometimes not, and why do they seem to care for (and about) each other? Are they supposed to be separate couples at different stages of a relationship (a la Robbins’s In The Night) – one in youthful rapture, the other in more “mature” uncertainty? And why so relatively dark an atmosphere, abetted by Keso Dekker’s fabulously simple but complex costumes (which bear an unfortunate similarity to his costumes for other Ratmansky ballets, including in particular Symphony No. 9, the first ballet in his Shostakovich Trilogy).
After the ballet’s company premiere on Monday, I left not really caring if I could solve that puzzle. The choreography and execution are so bewitchingly lovely it didn’t matter if I could “figure it out” – or whether there really was anything to figure out. But with the second exposure I saw these relationships differently and maybe more clearly. I’m a little slow at times. I saw them as the same couple imagined in a dreamy, darkly hazy intersection of time, interacting at different stages of their lives and their relationship (singular): part memory; part anticipation and wariness of the future; part acceptance of whatever will be. That would account for just about everything that I couldn’t explain when I originally saw it.
Regardless of its meaning (or whether it has one that’s concrete), Souvenir d’un lieu cher is a ballet to cherish – as were the performances. Lendorf and Lane work brilliantly together, their expressed relationship here a certainty tinged only with youthful apprehension of what the future might be, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lane as richly radiant as I did in this ballet, and that’s saying quite a bit. [An aside – the next time ABT does The Leaves Are Fading, Lane must dance the role originated by Gelsey Kirkland; and casting Lendorf in the role originated by Jonas Kage would be perfection squared.] And Gomes and Abrera were absolutely right, conveying the absence of the certainty-that-once-was that comes with the passage of time – and the yearning to return to that youthful certainty. I must also acknowledge the superb violin playing at both performances by Benjamin Bowman, who I understand, unfortunately, is leaving the ABT orchestra to join the Met Opera Orchestra.
Souvenir d’un lieu cher is one ballet that I could watch, especially with this exquisite cast, for hours on end.
Mozartiana is not. This ballet, the last choreographed by Balanchine before his death (a total revision of an earlier incarnation to the same composition), is an homage both to Mozart and to Tchaikovsky – as well as to the continuing legacy from generation to generation that is ballet. My initial reaction to it, at least based on performances I recall seeing years ago by New York City Ballet, is that it’s too starchly reverential and melancholy, particularly in the opening Preghiera (Prayer). But NYCB’s Sterling Hyltin’s 2013 debut in the lead role disabused me of that prejudice. The opening scene at that performance was reverential, but not filled with pathos. And the balance of it was what I think Balanchine intended – simple, unadorned, theme-and-variations joy. It opened my eyes.
I received this same sense from Christine Shevchenko in the performance I saw on Thursday (she debuted in the role the previous afternoon). Shevchenko dances with what might be described as fiery precision, and except for one or two moments when she seemed to tense up, that’s the way she carried herself and executed throughout. It was a marvelous performance. One might say that any ballerina partnered by David Hallberg has a leg up on others, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Shevchenko shined when dancing solo as much as when partnered. And Hallberg looked supremely self-satisfied, like he’d just handled some extraordinarily tricky, as opposed to trick-filled, choreography, which he had.
On Monday, Veronika Part, in her penultimate performance with the company (more on that below), and Blaine Hoven danced the same roles. Part provided her usual flawless execution, but to me injected more pathos into the opening movement than I was comfortable with (and as I’ve often written, no one expresses pathos as brilliantly as Part). But that’s just my preference. Hoven doesn’t have Hallberg’s panache (few do), but in other respects he executed the difficult choreography quite well. Daniil Simkin on Monday and Arron Scott on Thursday did fine work with the Gigue movement, and the four ballerinas dancing the Menuet – Zhong-Jing Fang, April Giangeruso, Paulina Waski, and Katherine Williams, the same on both nights, executed flawlessly, as did the four highly capable young dancers from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (Miuka Kadori, Jordana Lerner, Katherine Quaranta, and Grayson Stranko).
The performances of the two pas de deux, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux on Monday, and the Nutcracker Pas de Deux (from the Ratmansky Nutcracker) on Thursday, were ok, but not much more. Perhaps because I’ve seen the former danced so many times, and so well, by New York City Ballet dancers (particularly by Tiler Peck and Hyltin), no performances elsewhere could equal them. But here I thought the orchestra’s tempo was much too slow (including slowing down yet further, unnecessarily, during one of Joseph Gorak’s solos), and Isabella Boylston, who otherwise executed well (though without the phrasing that adds so much to the pas’s impact), lost the essential crisp execution in the final segments. And the couple’s failure to adequately complete the signature exiting lift, while it didn’t seem to bother the audience much, left me scratching my head. Perhaps the execution improved in subsequent performances. In the Nutcracker pas, both Misty Copeland and James Whiteside did fine work, except Copeland’s characterization didn’t fit what a child’s dream of her adult self might be (though as a standalone excerpt, characterization isn’t critical), and she still has a tendency to tense up during turns, particularly when she doesn’t think the audience can see.
Gomes’s AfterEffect closed both programs, and to me is still as fine a piece of work as when I initially reviewed it following its premiere at the David H. Koch Theater nearly two years ago. Monday’s lead cast was the same as I saw previously (Copeland, Whiteside, and Zhiyao Zhang), and executed as well. This remains one of Whiteside’s finest roles, and shows Copeland off to advantage. On Thursday, the lead cast was assumed by Cassandra Trenary, Cory Stearns, and Jeffrey Cirio, each filling the original cast’s shoes admirably. This is a wonderful ballet that’s a choreographic watershed for Gomes and that’s also highly accessible and entertaining to an audience. Kudos all around.
And kudos all around – almost – to ABT for this most unexpectedly remarkable of seasons.
For too many recent years, ABT seemed to consist of a reservoir of highly capable principals stocked with stars imported primarily for the Met season, soloists who were assigned the same roles year after year, and corps dancers who were moving picture frames for visiting guest artists, and I (and others) repeatedly complained about the absence of performing opportunities for the company’s home-grown soloists and members of the corps. Indeed, in 2010, I called ABT the New York Yankees of ballet companies based on its propensity for adding dancers by acquisition rather than by developing them from within the organization. And those few openings for lead roles in full length ballets that weren’t given to the plethora of guest artists seemed limited to one chosen soloist a year, while others languished in soloist purgatory, and corps dancers had no opportunities to move up. This, I opined, had to be remedied if ABT was to survive as an organic, evolving company, but the guest artists kept coming, and many talented, potential principal dancers kept leaving for other companies where they could grow as artists.
But beginning with its 2016 Met season (perhaps not so coincidentally following ABT’s 75th Anniversary celebration), the number of guest artists nosedived. And in the following Fall 2016 Koch season, I noted what appeared to be a significant change, a “sea change” I called it, at ABT. For whatever reason – budgetary, or maybe recognition that its luster was being usurped by that other great New York ballet company across the Lincoln Center plaza arising from that company’s nurturing, and utilization, of its abundance of young talent – this change has continued. This Met season, ABT audiences were treated to scheduled debuts by three soloists in major roles – Shevchenko’s Kitri, Lane’s Giselle, and Devon Teuscher’s Odette/Odile, each of which, as reported here, was a triumph. And before an injury sidelined her for most of the season, Luciana Paris excelled in her debut as Mercedes.
At least equally significant, when there have been injuries to scheduled dancers, instead of importing guests to fill the sudden void, this season Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie turned to the company’s soloists. So, on extremely short notice, Shevchenko and Skylar Brandt each danced brilliantly as Medora, and Lane delivered a miraculous debut as Odette/Odile.
The opportunities weren’t limited to ballerinas. Blaine Hoven has had a breakout season, very capably assaying several new roles. And Calvin Royal III, a member of the corps, continued his noteworthy performances with a strong debut as Espada, and another as Rothbart.
This just scratches the surface, but it’s a significant scratch, because as more soloists get opportunities in major roles, other soloists and corps dancers will be given newly-available opportunities in leading and featured roles. The fact that these quality corps dancers are too numerous to identify specifically here is a good thing: ABT now, finally, appears to have, and to be willing to display, its own embarrassment of riches. And if given repeated opportunities to grow in their roles (and the benefit of publicity that adequately focuses on, and trumpets, their achievements), ABT’s own dancers have the potential to be the ballet superstars that the company has previously imported. ABT has always had guest artists as far back as I can remember. One or two or so per season will be fine – and welcome – as long as they don’t dominate casting in roles for which the company already has an abundance of capable dancers (e.g., Juliet; Giselle), and don’t inhibit growth from within.
This season the company also suffered two significant departures: Diana Vishneva and Veronika Part. Vishneva was given a memorable farewell following her performance as Tatiana in Onegin, and Part a hastily prepared one at the close of ABT’s penultimate program after her performance in Mozartiana. And it’s in this last respect that ABT’s season was marred. Surely Part’s departure was not a last minute decision, as it’s been apparent for the past couple of years that the number of performances and roles in which she’s been cast has diminished. Aside from the question of whether she could have or should have continued with ABT beyond this season (she’s hardly at the “twilight” of her career), the treatment was wholly inappropriate and unwarranted for a principal dancer who’s been a valued member of the company for 15 years. At a minimum, it would have been to the company’s credit to have announced her departure, and farewell performance, far enough in advance for her legion of admirers to say goodbye, and in a ballet, like Swan Lake, that is one of her signature accomplishments.
It also, rightly or wrongly, made unavoidable a connection between her departure and the promotions ABT announced on the final Friday of its season. This is particularly unfortunate, because celebrating the promotions should not have been impacted in any way by another dancer’s departure. All these promotions – Lane, Shevchenko, and Teuscher to principal dancer, and Royal to soloist – are well-deserved, as evidenced by the dancers’ performances over time, and particularly this season after finally being given opportunities to demonstrate what those who see ABT performances regularly already sensed and anticipated. If this sea change continues, it will mark the turning point in the company’s recent history at which ABT finally recognized the treasures that it has kept hidden, albeit in plain sight, for years.