[Performance photos, including from the world premiere dance, will be added upon receipt.]
American Ballet Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 21, 23, 29 afternoon and evening
October 21 and 23: Whipped Cream
October 29 afternoon: Children’s Songs Dances, Lifted (world premiere), Sinfonietta
October 29 evening: The Dream, The Seasons
On the cusp of preparing for its Nutcracker season in Costa Mesa, CA, and prior to the succession of its new artistic administration, American Ballet Theatre re-emerged from its recent Met 2022 season for a two week / eleven performance run at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
This mini-season consisted of three programs: five performances of Artist-in-Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream, and three performances each (including ABT’s annual Fall Gala) of two different mixed respiratory programs, one of which included a world premiere. I saw four of the programs, two of Whipped Cream, and one each of the two mixed repertory programs, focusing on role debuts in featured roles: soloist Breanne Granlund (partnered by veteran Daniil Simkin) and Zimmi Coker and Tyler Maloney in Whipped Cream; and principals Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo as Titania and Oberon in The Dream. Each role debut was highly successful.
I’ll discuss the world premiere piece and other dances on that program first, then follow with the other repertory program, which included The Dream, and the two performances of Whipped Cream.
October 29, afternoon
I had misgivings about the world premiere piece, and still do, but Lifted turned out to be a surprisingly (to me) interesting and in some ways a noteworthy dance – though not necessarily for the reasons publicized.
What gave me pause was that Lifted was hyped by ABT as its first all-black dance, which I’ll address minimally later. Like all dances, however, Lifted should be evaluated on its own terms, based on its choreography, costumes and sets, music, stagecraft, and the performances of its dancers – as well as on the message (if any) it attempts to deliver.
Lifted is reasonably easy to describe, although with only one view I suspect there are things I missed. When the curtain rises, one sees downstage right a construction of mirrors – like an overblown display for trying on and evaluating the fit and look of clothing at a retail store, though maybe with one or two additional mirrors. During the course of the piece, these mirrors move all around the stage (apparently pushed by the dancers) and assume different positions, ultimately, as I recall, collapsing into a solid wall the size of one of the mirrors in the initial complex. And there’s a small (roughly 5’ in diameter) simulated body of water on the stage floor, also located downstage right. It may have been present from the beginning, but I didn’t notice it until somewhat afterward. Clearly this is supposed to be greater than a puddle; it could be a reference to some lake, or as symbolic of the entry-point to … something.
Although it may sound simple, it’s a stunning-looking assemblage (conceived by Rudd) that satisfies a number of different needs. First, it’s immediately eye-opening and applause-generating. Second, it can be effectively moved to become a “room divider” of sorts, with different (maybe parallel) actions occurring on either side of one or more of the mirrors. Third, it serves to magnify the number of persons in front of it, converting one man into four or five, and one group into a population. This itself serves two purposes: to fill the stage where the five-dancer cast might otherwise make the stage look bare, and to make whatever statement is being made clearly applicable to a significant universe of persons (multiple incarnations of the same person or group). Even though the use of mirrors, including moving mirrors, has been done many times before, and even where the intent of their use is the same as it is (or appears) here, in Lifted the mirrors are used in a particularly galvanizing way.
Inside the initial mirror array is a single man, Calvin Royal III. Before the music begins, he slowly lifts himself from the stage floor on which he’s spread (right about where that “pool” I saw later is, so maybe it was originally underneath him but beyond my view). As the score emerges from initial silence, Royal gradually arises (perhaps the “pool,” here, was intended to provide another reflective surface) and examines the physical self he sees. This visualization appears to be shocking to him. He runs to one of the mirrors and bangs against it as if trying to break free from some imprisonment (resulting in the appearance of multiple reflections of Royal’s character doing the same thing).
After this, the physical stage action becomes more difficult to describe, but much of the point has already been made. Suffice it to say that he’s soon attended to by two women and two men (Erica Lall, Courtney Lavine, Melvyn Lawovi, and Jose Sebastian) who at various times during the course of the dance appear to calm, comfort, and encourage him, maybe with a little aggressive persuasion thrown in. But except for one or two extended moments when Royal’s character contorts in apparent suffering and again bangs his fists against one of the mirror / walls (after the mirror assemblage has been moved from its initial position), Lifted is a relatively quiet, inner-focused dance. Ultimately, after two faux endings, Royal and the others encircle the “lake,” and step in somewhat blissfully.
So what is Lifted trying to say? Well, part of it is obvious. Royal’s character is getting to know himself, trying to find himself, and trying to come to terms with himself and the outer world. There’s nothing at all new to this. Dozens of dances I’ve seen address the same thing, with or without a sense of estrangement from society and/or a sense of anomie. Lifted is akin to these other dances – except in terms of its stagecraft.
This thematic purpose is what at first was problematic to me. To a great extent, Lifted presents a universal theme of self-discovery and societal acceptance. Indeed, this was the only take-away I could find from it, which begged the question of why this was limited to an all-black creative / performance team.
Then, as I often do with new dances, I reviewed the piece in my mind as I started to write about it. And I remembered some things that I’d under-appreciated while there. Royal’s initial banging against a mirror in the opening scene (as if trying to escape from some sort of entrapment) could also be seen as a form of self-revulsion, of not wanting to accept what he saw of himself that could not be changed. And then later there were instances where Royal’s character seemed to be reacting to something destructive, including one in which Carlos Simon’s score suddenly, and briefly, grows very loud and percussive. And in this look-back, I can see that these moments might have been intended (and probably were) to illustrate the impact of various external events on Royal’s character (who, by mirrored extension, are many), including, for example, George Floyd’s murder.
So, revisited this way, I can see why the intention here may have been to visualize a particularly Black Experience, and that my inability to see that as the ballet progressed evidences a lack of sensitivity to that particular experience. As I’ve written several times before, I can’t dispute the truth of that.
But (so many “so’s”; so many “buts”) these references are so nonspecific in their telling that they’re easily missed, even if one group in the audience might be able to recognize them. So, combined with the universality of slings, arrows, bullets, bombs, and genocides that unfortunately are all too common in recent human history, I still think that Lifted has as much of a universal applicability as it may have to a particularly Black Experience. That being said, with ABT being ABT and times being as they are, I suppose we’re not likely to see an “all-white” Lifted anytime soon. [As an aside, I recall the uproar, and then the praise, when its producers converted Broadway’s Hello Dolly into an all-black (in performance) production.]
Ultimately, however, how Lifted says what it says is as important, if not more, than what it says. And here I give Rudd and Lifted’s creative team undeniably well-earned acclaim. Although on subsequent view I may find more indicia of violent and hateful references, as much as anything else Lifted is a peaceful, gentle dance, filled with a score and choreography that primarily are non-confrontational. Any instances of aggression, and any of the limited violence references (assuming that’s what they are), are presented here in a context that ultimately is convincing and appealing rather than punishing or revolting. As Rudd and colleagues (and dancers) recognize and successfully communicate here, their point can be made far more successfully by wielding a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.
A few more observations: Rudd’s choreography is not particularly complex. Overall, the ballet movement is simple and straightforward, focusing on (and not distracting from) its message, the staging, and the dancers’ execution. Particularly in this context, that’s commendable rather than a valid subject of criticism. Alan C. Edwards’s lighting illuminated the stage when it needed to be, kept it relatively dim when that was appropriate, and overall (coupled with Rudd’s Scenic Design) meshed with Lifted’s choreography and theme. Simon’s score, except for the few thundering exceptions, matched the underlying serenity inherent in Rudd’s choreography – not surprisingly, since my understanding is that they were created concurrently. The costumes (by Carly Cushnie) also generally enhanced the appearance of the piece – particularly the appealing designs for the ballerinas. And every member of the cast performed superbly, led by Royal’s magnificent individual portrayal.
I only have one negative comment – as constructed, and I suppose as a creature of the score, the ballet had two premature endings that looked so much like “real” endings that the audience applauded as if the dance had concluded, and people began shuffling in their seats to go wherever they go during intermission. I don’t know whether there’s a way to cure this, but it’s somewhat problematic.
The continuing misgivings I have about Lifted relate to the race-based aspect of this, which I now can understand here, but that is a slippery slope that would be an extremely unfortunate direction for ballet to be headed. Each of the dancers in this piece is an excellent dancer who (except, so far, for the most recent addition to the company) have excelled in featured roles, and an inherent insinuation that an all-black cast is needed to show them off (and expand ticket sales) is both wrong and scary. And any notion of “separate but equal” I thought had long ago been rendered extinct.
I’ll stop there. The important thing to remember about Lifted is that despite whatever misgivings I (and others) had and may continue to have about the way the ballet has been portrayed and publicized, Lifted is well worth seeing when it returns, which it without doubt will.
Preceding Lifted on the Saturday evening program was the first full-stage production of Jessica Lang’s Children’s Songs Dance. The piece consists of ten segments choreographed to eleven pieces composed and performed by celebrated jazz pianist Chick Correa that together, and with others, comprise what Correa titles “Children’s Songs.” Each of these songs is brief, and may or may not have a particular theme or sensibility which does not interfere in any way with the enjoyment of the piece. The same is true of Lang’s choreography.
Originally commissioned for the ABT Studio Company, Children’s Songs Dance premiered digitally in 2021 and was first performed live by ABT last summer at Lincoln Center’s outdoor BAAND Together Festival. It’s an innocuous piece that serves to show off the competence and musicality of its dancers, all of whom are now members of ABT’s corps, except for one who is already a soloist. The dances are sweet, the dancers are too, and although it’s a relatively forgettable piece, it accomplishes what it sets out to do. There’s nothing wrong with it, or memorable to it, beyond enabling audiences to be introduced to some dancers they might otherwise not see in featured roles until they have a few years under their belts. The dancers were: Camilla Ferrara, Sunmi Park (the soloist), Yoon Jung Seo, Tristan Brosnan, Cy Doherty, Elwince Magbitang, and Andrew Robare. Doherty and Magbitang, as well as Park, have already performed featured roles with the company.
The program closed with Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta. This is a magnificent dance that first premiered in New York with the Nederlands Dans Theater at City Center, and I remember it well. The piece, and the entire NDT engagement, was a breath of fresh air that left audiences buoyant.
It’s still a remarkable piece, but I must admit that I never liked ABT’s incarnation of it as much as NDT’s. Part of that is its initial novelty, part is the placement of the brass (at City Center’s NDT performance the brass surrounded the audience far more effectively). That being said, this ABT performance (aside from the brass positioning and some less than optimal orchestral execution of the Janacek score) was the finest of the ABT versions I’ve seen. The cast included a who’s who of current ABT dancers: Joo Won Ahn, Herman Cornejo, Aran Bell, Sebastian, Gillian Murphy, Isabella Boylston, and, making significant impressions, Jonathan Klein, Thomas Forster, Blaine Hoven, Hee Seo, Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko, as well as, in what amounted to brief cameos, Skylar Brandt and Trenary.
October 29, evening
Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream is a lovely piece, but the more often I see it the less I like it. The problem is the overly fussy choreography, the sense of incompleteness and unexplained actions (e.g., Bottom suddenly growing a donkey’s head and dancing on hoofs), because it doesn’t come close to the experience provided by the Balanchine version (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and probably because nothing could equal the cast the first time I saw it: Dame Antoinette Sibley and Sir Anthony Dowell. That being said, the cast I saw last Saturday was quite good, and made the ballet more than just palatable.
Trenary is having a glorious autumn (see my review of Twyla Tharp at City Center). In her role debut as Titania, she hit it out of the park. As far as I could discern, Trenary did nothing to complain about, including the relatively few comic interludes and, particularly, her execution of Ashton’s messy-looking choreography for Titania during the climactic pas de deux. She made the choreographic gobbledygook of ultra-sophisticated and ultra-inaccessible choreography look almost regal, if not natural. And I suppose that’s the point. A stellar performance, even if it hadn’t been a debut; even more extraordinary because it was.
Camargo’s Oberon was equally noteworthy. He debuted in the role (to my knowledge) earlier in the week, partnering Murphy. I was unable to see that program because of illness (I’d intended to), but based on his outing Saturday night he presents one of the most commanding of Oberons. If there was any flaw at all, it was perhaps that he was too commanding, but that wouldn’t be fair. He acted his role, he was an excellent partner, and his stage strength matched or, appropriately, exceeded Trenary’s. You can’t ask for much more.
I suppose we’ll get to see what else this new principal (he guested with ABT last spring) can do during ABT’s MET 2023 season.
Another role debut (like Trenary’s, in this performance only) was Magbitang as Puck. A relatively new member of the corps, Magbitang made an extraordinary first impression as the Gypsy in Don Quixote last spring, and his Puck cements that evaluation. His comic acting is somewhat lacking, but in this version of Shakespeare’s story comedy isn’t emphasized. He’s quite short, or appears so, so his future appearances may be limited as a result, but time will tell.
In other roles, Hoven delivered a superior performance as Bottom, hoofs and all, and Betsy McBride and Patrick Frenette sparkled as Helena and Demetrius. As Hermia and Lysander, Alexandra Basmagy and Sung Woo Han left unpolished impressions, and may simply have been miscast.
If they don’t register as successful immediately, Ratmansky’s ballets nevertheless tend to grow in stature the more frequently they’re seen, and that’s the case with The Seasons. On first view I thought it to be one of his rare less-than-spectacular ballets: too muddled; too busy. But on second view, I see the complexity and brilliance in it that I’d previously missed. Part of this is the result of cast differences (e.g., Seo as an exquisite neither too ethereal nor too earthbound Spirit of the Corn; Jarod Curley’s Winter, and Coker, Ingrid Thoms, Park, and Zhong-Jing Fang as Frost, Ice, Hail and Snow; Ahn’s Zephyr (with McBride as The Rose and Fanqui Lee as The Swallow); Michael De La Nuez as The Faun; and Courtney Shealy and Hoven as Bacchante and Bacchus. Shealy has been a member of the corps for many years, and this was the first time I can recall her in a featured role. She acquitted herself well.
Part of the difficulty I continue to have with The Seasons, even though now somewhat less significant, is the overlapping seasonal references: one season bleeds into the next or the one before, or suddenly appears in the middle of a different season. Though that’s the way the world’s atmosphere works, on stage it comes across as confusing. Having said this, I don’t know what Ratmansky could have done differently while maintaining the reality of overlapping seasons. And it must be kept in mind that this isn’t Jerome Robbins’s The Four Seasons. There’s little if anything humorous, or evens sensual, about it, and the score (by Alexander Glazunov) isn’t as clearly delineated as Verdi’s, making for less clear-cut choreographic delineation. The result, both for the music and the choreography, is something far more difficult to follow, if not swallow. But maybe these concerns also will evaporate on further view.
October 21 and 23
Nothing at all is difficult to swallow about Whipped Cream, and nothing about it evaporates out of one’s memory. It was a thoroughly delightful piece when it premiered, and remains that way now through cast changes and changing sensitivities.
I can’t describe Whipped Cream better than I did when I reviewed it following its New York premiere in May, 2017, two months after its world premiere in California with the same cast, and much of what I write below is what I wrote then. It’s a Charlotte Russe of a ballet that’s inherently fattening, and too much of it might make one sick, but it’s intoxicatingly gorgeous (via Ratmansky’s choreography and Mark Ryden’s extraordinarily sumptuous sets and costumes) and tons of fun – though it comes perilously close to being the ballet equivalent of a pop-up coffee table book for very young children.
To a large extent Whipped Cream resembles incarnations of The Nutcracker ballet. Instead of a girl who falls asleep and dreams, there’s a boy who gets sick to his stomach from ingesting too much whipped cream, sleeps, and dreams; instead of a Land of the Sweets, there’s a kingdom of the Praline Princess; instead of Coffee, there’s Tea (…and Cocoa…and Sugar…and Marzipan…and Sugarplums…); instead of an oversized tree there are oversized heads; instead of Drosselmeyer, there’s a somewhat unhinged Doctor; and instead of snowflakes, there are dancing peaks of whipped cream.
Such as it is, the story is of a nameless boy who, after receiving his first communion, goes to a local confectionary shop (a Konditorei in the original 1924 Vienna incarnation, Schlagobers, on which Ratmansky’s piece is based) to celebrate with his friends, whereupon he overindulges on whipped cream, gets sick, and is taken to a hospital. While in transit and dreaming (and out of audience view), the bake shop canister contents come alive (think “Toy Story”), after which the boy’s dream takes him to a world of whipped cream. In Act II, The Boy awakens to a somewhat macabre hospital room, where, under watchful eyes, he’s treated by a doctor and an army of nurses bearing syringes. While under the influence of the medication the doctor orders, the boy conjures Princess Praline and her entourage, and dreams of escaping with her. Later, with the help of some spirited spirits, Princess Praline “in real fantasy life” actually does enable him to escape to her kingdom and live happily ever after in high caloric bliss.
Notwithstanding the brilliance of much of the choreography, particularly for Princess Praline in the ballet’s penultimate pas de deux, and for Princess Tea Flower in various Act I diversions, the ballet’s showstopper is the final scene in Act I, featuring sixteen individual wisps of whipped cream. With each wisp costumed in pure white (white leotards, pointy white “whipped cream” caps, and covered loosely with white feather-light fabric that look like oversized creamy, free-flowing angel wings), their dance looks like a heavenly cross between the Shades in the Act II entrance to La Bayadere (with the “wisps” sliding down a whipped cream mountain) and, of course, the Snowflake conclusion to Act I of Ratmansky’s Nutcracker. Just as that scene was a visual knockout of complexity in the guise of simplicity, so this one is – except instead of snowflakes buffeted by wind and finally settling to the ground, the “Wisps Dance” is a swirl of slowly dissolving whipped cream.
On Friday’s program, Coker and Maloney were originally scheduled to perform Princess Praline and The Boy, but an injury delayed their role debuts until Sunday. Instead, on Friday, Granlund celebrated her role debut (which was supposed to have taken place Saturday afternoon), partnered by Simkin. In each of the performances, Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns danced Princess Tea Flower and Coffee.
I have one misgiving about one of the performances I saw (of the two, only the lead two principals changed from one performance to the other), which I’ll address briefly below. Short of that, everyone executed very well, imbuing the choreography with the necessary fantasy and good humor while not at all diminishing the complexity of Ratmansky’s choreography. I don’t think any cast could equal the perfection of its premiere cast (both in California and at the Met): Sarah Lane as Princess Praline, Simkin as The Boy, Stella Abrera as Princess Tea Flower, and David Hallberg as Coffee, but these casts came close, and in one case was superior.
Characterization isn’t the ballet’s strong suit, but what characters there are are appealing, albeit primarily one dimensional. Granlund’s Princess Praline doesn’t quite engender the sweet as sugar little boy’s dream description I originally gave to the role as danced by Lane (it’s likely that no ballerina could), but she displays a different and equally valid quality. Granlund’s portrayal is as a sparkling high-energy star of a boy’s dream – not quite a princess goddess, but certainly a regal princess (although not in any way aloof). Except for one minor slip (from which she quickly recovered), her execution was spot on. As The Boy, Simkin equaled if not surpassed in technique the performance he gave at the dance’s Met premiere, and he devoured his role as no one else can. Coker’s Princess Praline sparkled as well – an integral component of her stage personality, and the emotional aura of her portrayal was somewhat closer to Lane’s. Her execution was flawless, though on a somewhat lower energy level than Granlund’s (which may have been a product of justifiable concern about Maloney’s injury). As is always the case, seeing her on stage generates immediate smiles. Similarly, Maloney’s Boy was nicely portrayed and competently executed, but, perhaps favoring his injury, he did not deliver (and didn’t try to) the tricks that Simkin provided in The Boy’s concluding Act II solo.
The portrayal that exceeded the original, based on my recollection of it, was Teuscher’s Princess Tea Flower. In my initial review I described the role as decidedly not an Earl Grey blend (or brisk Lipton), but rather as exotic Oolong; slow, relaxing, and sensual (but not at all reminiscent of Balanchine’s Coffee). Teuscher here gave a completely different impression: she captured the light-heartedness that must be part of the portrayal, delivering a character soft and light as a tea leaf. Stearns’s Coffee was a more than adequate partner, but lacked some of Hallberg’s caffeine.
Identifying each of the other dancers in the large and highly capable cast would be prohibitive, but I must recognize Alexei Agoudine’s Chef and Doctor, essential characters in this piece. There’s no significant dancing in either role and his stage appearance is created by Ryden’s balloonish and cartoonish faces, but through his stage demeanor and communicated attitude, Agoudine somehow delivered a performance that got past the plastic and became, in a fantasy sense, real.
The performance that didn’t measure up to my recollection of the original was Fang’s Chartreuse. As originally danced by Catherine Hurlin, the role was hilarious as well as technically superb: when she was on stage, Hurlin stole the show, moving from being a slightly tipsy seductress to a slightly tipsy comedian and back. Fang’s portrayal wasn’t anywhere close to that, with no comic (or even obviously intoxicated) slant to her role. After seeing Hurlin, this was highly disappointing. But it may well be that Ratmansky toned down the comic intoxication following complaints about it not being appropriate for children (an observation I recall making in my original review as well). If that’s the case, then it’s not a quarrel with Fang’s interpretation at all that I have, but with Ratmansky’s reasoned but, in hindsight, unfortunate decision. Hurlin danced the role again in other Whipped Cream performances this season, so if she changed her interpretation as well, it would clearly have been as a result of Ratmansky’s reconsideration.
When I previously reviewed it, I predicted that Whipped Cream could become ABT’s cash cow to compensate for, regrettably, no longer performing Ratmansky’s Nutcracker in New York during the Christmas season. It could, for example, be the anchor for an Easter presentation (or Memorial Day or Fourth of July before kids go to camp and gorge over real whipped cream). That hasn’t happened…yet, but maybe the thought of doing so will resonate with ABT’s new artistic administration. It’s a guaranteed sell-out (or close to it), and one that can’t possibly leave any bitter residue for any reason – though it may lead to temporary visual sugar overload.
ABT is not scheduled to return to New York again until its 2023 Met season. Although its schedule for that year or the next may already be fixed, by that time the torch will have been passed from Kevin McKenzie to its new Artistic Director, Susan Jaffe.