American Ballet Theatre’s Deferred  2020 Role Debuts;
Reviews of Skylar Brandt’s Giselle and Sarah Lane’s Odette/Odile

May 28, 2020

Jerry Hochman

That 2020 to date has been a trying period for those involved in the performing arts, whether as artists (and support staffs for companies and venues) or as viewers, is an egregious understatement. And as welcome – and as overwhelming – as the plethora of streamed past performances (and some premieres) have been, they’re not the same as “live.”

In New York, New York City Ballet’s Spring 2020 season and American Ballet Theatre’s Met 2020 season never happened (as was the case with dance companies worldwide); and their Fall 2020 seasons are in jeopardy if anticipated COVID-19 spacing requirements severely limit the seating capacity of performing arts venues.

Of course, nothing compares to the continuing impact this has had on the dancers and companies themselves, but it has also been a difficult time for audiences, and particularly for those balletomaniacs who relish witnessing the emergence and growth of talent as measured by scheduled role debuts. For NYCB, casting is announced only two or so weeks in advance, so any anticipated role debuts during its Spring 2020 season are not known. But for ABT, casting is announced (subject to change) months in advance. Accordingly, I’ve taken this opportunity to note significant scheduled role debuts that never happened; and, somewhat in context, review two performances I saw back in February that I decided to attend at virtually the last minute and had not intended to review: Richmond Ballet’s February 15 (evening) Swan Lake at the Carpenter Theater at the Dominion Energy Center in Richmond, VA, and ABT’s February 16 Giselle at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a focus on the lead ballerinas: ABT Principal Sarah Lane as guest artist with the Richmond Ballet; and ABT Soloists Skylar Brandt and Catherine Hurlin as Giselle and Myrta respectively. I regret that I have no photos from these performances.

Based on ABT’s advance casting, those role debut performances I most anticipated were Cassandra Trenary’s Juliet on May 23, Lane’s Juliet on May 28, Hurlin’s Aurora on June 17 (coupled with her debut as Gamzatti on May 20), and Brandt’s Aurora on June 20. [If there were other significant debuts in leading roles, I’m not aware of them.]

Cassandra Trenary
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in “The Sleeping Beauty”
Photo by John Grigaitis

It is axiomatic that you can’t review performances you haven’t seen. But though nothing can substitute for seeing the actual performances, I make the “predictive” comments below because, under the circumstances, it seems the right thing to do. I base these opinions on these ballerinas’ pertinent prior body of work, and, as to Brandt, Hurlin and Lane, on those programs I saw on February 15 and 16. [With respect to Trenary, based on her superb debut as Aurora several years ago and the fiery vivacity she’s lent to many other roles, I have no doubt that her Juliet will be highly successful, and consistent with the impulsive characterization many prefer. But since she was not involved in the two performances I saw in February, there is nothing I can add beyond that.] I’ll discuss those February performances in reverse order – and, considering the passage of time, my observations will not be as detailed as they might otherwise have been.

As it turns out, Brandt’s scheduled role debut as Giselle was not her role debut. Earlier that week, on short notice she replaced the dancer originally scheduled. But based on the familiar faces I saw in the house, many audience members had assumed it would be her role debut, and treated it as such. [It was not Hurlin’s role debut as Myrta either – she debuted in the role earlier in the week.]

The nuts and bolts of Giselle, and ABT’s production of it, are well known and will not be repeated here.

In a word, Brandt’s performance was stunning. While not perfect, any areas for improvement are minor at best. I could not discern any characterization or stylistic flaws in either act.

Skylar Brandt,
here in the peasant pas de deux in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

In Act I, she’s not yet quite as natural a village maiden as Lane (who is currently the company’s finest Giselle), but the difference will not be evident to anyone who has not seen Lane’s Giselle. She’ll learn to moderate her inclination to show off with increased performance opportunities (e.g., she held many balances far too long – that’s bravura, not a village maid; and on one occasion she began to lose her extended balance before abandoning it, which marred the already unnecessary bravura image). But everything else in that Act was believable, and her “mad” scene, while again not yet on Lane’s level, was equal or superior in terms of credibility to many others I’ve seen performed by ballerinas with greater experience.

Most significant, however, was her Act II. Brandt did everything technically “right,” but her Romantic arms were extraordinary. Few ballerinas I’ve seen get the rounded Romantic arms right – many extend them too far out during the iconic series of lifts as if they’re weightless and “naturally” float outward, but to me this diminishes the compelling buffeting-in-the-directional-change imagery. I greatly prefer –and believe it is more consistent with Romantic imagery – for Giselle’s Act II port de bras to appear connected to a “living” spirit that exists but no longer has “real” corporeal weight, which may sound like a distinction without a difference but which to me transmits a more active and liquid image and is more characteristically Romantic. Based on rehearsal footage Brandt had previously posted, I expected the former here. But Brandt’s Romantic arms were perfect. That’s no small accomplishment. As I’ve written with respect to similarly extraordinary early performances in a role, the thought that her Giselle will only improve over time is scary.

Catherine Hurlin,
here with Duncan Lyle and Roman Zhurbin
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Whipped Cream”
Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Hurlin is a chameleon who can pull off hilarious one minute and deadly serious or smoldering the next with aplomb. Like Brandt, she’s becoming a star before our eyes. While not the pleasant surprise that Katherine Williams’s debut as Myrta was a couple of years ago, Hurlin’s Myrta met expectations: she handled the choreography well, and the characterization with deliciously appropriate venom.

The afternoon’s somewhat disappointing performance was Joo Wan Ahn’s role debut as Albrecht – not with respect to technique or partnering, which, as has been the case in every prior outing I’ve seen, was as polished and precise as other ABT danseurs, if not more so. It’s the characterization. Here he lacked the emotional component that takes the role to a higher level; it was surface. Arguably that’s part of Albrecht’s character, but more emotion is needed to make his interaction with Giselle in both Acts sufficient to move an audience’s collective heart. Certainly the quality of his Albrecht will improve over time, but appearing emotionally “flat” may prove a tough nut to overcome.

Catherine Hurlin,
here in Cathy Marston’s “Jane Eyre”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

What do their February 16th performances say about Brandt’s and Hurlin’s scheduled role debuts as Aurora? Based on what these two ballerinas have accomplished over a relatively brief period of performance time including their superb execution of the role of Young Jane in Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre last year, coupled with their successful execution of these role in Giselle, there’s reason to expect that their debuts as Aurora will be memorable, and further stepping-stones in their respective careers. And even if their Aurora debuts were less than perfect, both will have plenty of time to grow in the roles.

The situation is somewhat different with Lane. I’ll discuss her February 15 Richmond Ballet performance first.

Technically, Lane has never been scheduled to dance Odette / Odile during an ABT Met season. She debuted in the dual role with ABT during its Met 2017 season on extremely short notice to replace the ballerina originally scheduled, and replaced Misty Copeland as Odile on even shorter notice last year. In my review of that 2017 performance, I described Lane’s role debut as miraculous – not just because she pulled it off, but because she executed as well as she did. In the appropriate context, Lane can transmit a natural and excruciatingly exquisite vulnerability (as opposed to simple pathos, which is very different). This quality was on display in her Odette, and her Act II pas de deux was among the most exceptional I’d seen in 40 years. But her Odile, which I’m a stickler about, was promising but lacked the role’s essential sensuality – a not uncommon deficiency.

As many have observed, Odette / Odile is a growth experience: swan queens are rarely hatched fully grown. Inexplicably, and without any evident artistic basis, Lane has not been provided with growth opportunities following her 2017 surprise debut. I did not see her Odile when she substituted in 2019 (I was not aware of it until after it happened), but Lane’s growth as Odile is apparent in her Richmond Ballet performance – as is her continuing command of Odette.

Although this mini-review will focus on Richmond Ballet’s production and its two guest artists, I must also acknowledge the relatively high caliber of Richmond Ballet’s own dancers (which I previously recognized in their performance a year ago in Katarzina Skarpetowska’s Akwarium at New York Live Arts), and the apparent seamlessness of Lane’s and Stearns’s integration into the performance.

Had I researched the Richmond production (or read the program notes), I would have been aware that it was a “happy ending” Swan Lake – and might have been prejudiced against it. I’ve not seen many happy ending productions, but those I’ve attended have been relatively insipid compared to the familiar double suicide / apotheosis accomplished so well in productions such as Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT. To me, the “happy ending” makes no sense in context. This Richmond Ballet production, choreographed by Nicholas Beriozoff (a Lithuanian-born dancer, choreographer, and ballet master who died in 1996) after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Alexander Gorsky, with restaging and additional choreography by Malcolm Burn (Richmond Ballet’s own Artistic Associate and Ballet Master), was different.

Act II, for example, is significantly modified: there is no mime, and I saw no swearing of eternal love. Coming after an Act I that included a Jester character, whose presence to me detracts from and diminishes Siegfried’s role (although here it was well-executed by the company’s Trevor Davis), at that point I found the production (as opposed to the performances) disappointing. But beginning with Act III, it all came wondrously together.

Sarah Lane, here with Daniil Simkin
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

In Act III, Odile and Von Rothbart (hereinafter simply Rothbart) enter, Rothbart does the salutations and introductions. Only then, after both have been in the scene a bit, do Odile and Siegfried exit the stage to get better acquainted. This makes much more sense than those productions in which, after Rothbart (here there’s only one Rothbart, as opposed to ABT’s dual presentation of him) and Odile unexpectedly appear, Odile immediately runs offstage with Siegfried in hot pursuit. The remainder of the Act proceeded naturally and efficiently, including Odile’s responding to instructions from Rothbart, and effectively executed character dances.

Act IV, however, was the knockout. It began with the swan corps magically rising from the fog-enshrouded stage – a brilliant coup de théâtre. Although the “standard” choreography (as opposed to ABT’s reduced version of Act IV) is staged a bit differently from other “full” versions of Act IV, here, in light of Act II as it was presented, it’s far more meaningful. As the scene evolves (and I admit that due to the passage of time I might have these events slightly out of sequence), after Siegfried and Odette movingly reconcile, Rothbart and Siegfried battle, during which Rothbart absconds with Odette into the stage left wings (mirroring his having absconded with the Princess who was to become Odette in the Prologue). Siegfried’s grief at having apparently lost Odette invigorates him and the tide of battle turns. After seeing a vision of Odette “floating” over the lake, Siegfried swears his love to her (the gesture that was missing from Act II), and the already weakened Rothbart dies. At this point the production seems to stop dead in its tracks, with Siegfried alone on stage (frozen in a Rodin’s “The Thinker” position), mourning Odette’s death.

But unbeknownst to Siegfried (ahh – since there was no mime in Act I, he didn’t know), his pledge to Odette has broken Rothbart’s spell – and after the seeming interminable wait in which Siegfried, and apparently the audience, wondered how the production would get out of this narrative quagmire, Odette appears from the stage right wings – opposite from where Rothbart had previously removed her – wearing the “princess” costume she’d worn during the piece’s Prologue, and the pair fly into each other’s arms. Whether because of the production’s inherent perfect dramatic timing or the exceptionally moving execution (or both), the audience collectively (and audibly) exhaled in relief, and joy. And I must admit that the tension and release that the scenario built had the same impact on me. I’ll never see Swan Lake the same way again.

Sarah Lane, here with Daniil Simkin
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Even with changes necessitated by the choreography, Lane’s Odette here was as miraculous as it was in her ABT debut. The lyricism, the credible vulnerability, the luminosity were still there, as was the technical competence – and consistent with the narrative changes, her Act IV was particularly … miraculous. No emotion was overbaked, but no emotion was anything less than completely genuine. To the extent there was a difference between her Odette here and in her sole ABT performance, it was the presence of that naturally evolving confidence that comes with increased performance opportunities.

Lane’s Odile, however, was a revelation. Her execution was first rate – even her fouettes, though not the sine qua non of a successful performance, were executed well – by my count 33 in total (doubles interspersed), ending in a double, which brought the Richmond audience to cheers. More importantly, Lane’s Odile now displays the seduction, the duplicity, the sensuality, and the fearless command that were lacking in her 2017 ABT performance in that part of the role. Her Odile is now complete, although it will continue to evolve and doubtless improve still more over time if given the opportunity.

Despite being a thoroughly competent danseur and an excellent partner, I’ve too often found Stearns’s portrayals of Siegfried (and other danseur noble roles) relatively wooden. But – when the choreography finally gave him the opportunity in Acts III and IV – here his performance seemed energized. As was apparent during ABT’s Fall 2019 season at the Koch Theater, he and Lane work well together.

One further note: evidenced by the enthusiastic standing ovation at the performance’s conclusion, the Richmond audience was particularly appreciative of Lane’s and Stearns’s performances. This may be how Richmond Ballet audiences react generally, but with respect to Lane, something else seemed apparent as well. I knew no one in the Richmond audience, but during intermission I overheard a group seated in front of me commenting effusively on Lane’s performance. As I later discovered (after joining the conversation), these people had seen Lane’s Giselle with ABT at the Kennedy Center earlier that week, and found it so moving that they’d travelled from D.C. to Richmond just to see her again. And as this conversation continued, a man in front of them, not part of the same group, turned around and said the same thing. Of course, one can’t extrapolate that the rest of that audience had “discovered” Lane despite the absence of organizational hype (and I’m sure most attended because of familiarity with and artistic affection for, Richmond Ballet), but Lane’s ability to emotionally move an audience can’t be denied.

Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns
in Clark Tippet’s “Some Assembly Required”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

While this performance certainly undermines ABT’s decisions not to cast Lane as Odette / Odile since her unplanned 2017 debut, how does it predict her Juliet? Well, it can’t – except it appears that with Stearns, who was cast as her Romeo, she has a partner she can trust. What it can predict, and what is incontrovertible, is that it is yet further evidence of those qualities that I’ve highlighted in those relatively few and certainly belated role opportunities she’s been afforded previously: courage and soul.

All performing artists demonstrate courage to one extent or another – certainly putting oneself out there for every step to be scrutinized by an audience of thousands, including some merciless critics, is courageous, but this goes with the territory. More akin to what I mean is a triumphant sudden and unexpected role debut. But Lane’s brand of courage is different still. I can’t think of another ballerina who, based on casting (or the lack thereof), has had to prove herself every time she performs – and then delivers. To take advantage of an opportunity provided by another company with lesser status in the face of ABT’s very obvious decision not to provide her with subsequent opportunities, and to consistently demonstrate how misguided the ABT policy of one-and-done is, exemplifies this quality of courage, and is something I’ve highlighted before. Having that quality of courage to execute Juliet in the face of being overlooked for many years in favor of others who have danced the role dozens of times or guest artists imported to sell tickets should be indisputable.

“Soul” is a more difficult quality to assess, but it too has been evident in Lane’s performances. Some ballerinas can sufficiently acquire this quality when the role demands it, but in many cases it looks pasted on. That’s never been the case with Lane. I wouldn’t presume to know how that happens; I only know it’s there. And, combined with that sense of vulnerability I’ve mentioned, it lends depth to roles that would not seem to call for it. Her Manon is a prime example, but so was her Kitri (making the role less one-dimensional), and it was evident even in “smaller” roles such as in Robbins’s Other Dances and as Mrs. Fairfax in Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre, and as far back as Ratmansky’s The Tempest and as Anne Boleyn in Christopher Wheeldon’s VIII.

Skylar Brandt
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in Cathy Marston’s “Jane Eyre”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

What does that mean for Juliet? I’ve previously written that I’ve never seen a poorly performed Juliet – indeed, I can’t think of any that was less than glorious. But the standard wisdom that Juliet must be an impetuous firebrand, and that the appearance of youth doesn’t matter, rings false with me. Underlying the passion, if there is no youthful innocence and vulnerability, no soul, then no matter how well executed the role may be, something’s missing. Lane’s performances, including her compelling Odette / Odile, show that she would contribute all these qualities to the role.

My memory is filled with images of Juliets whose performances are indelible, but to me the most emotionally compelling Juliet of all was Alessandra Ferri. They’re not the same, but if you consider Ferri to be the ideal MacMillan Juliet, as I do, I suspect you’ll find the same essential qualities of apparent vulnerability coupled with impetuousness and sensuality in Lane.

Why am I focusing on this? For the reasons I mentioned at the outset. These debuts aren’t happening, and my fear as a member of the audience as well as a reviewer is that with the passage of time and in light of an always uncertain future, one or more may never happen. This is particularly critical with respect to Lane: the time for her long overdue debut as Juliet is now. Since “now” is not possible, I urge McKenzie, ABT’s Artistic Director, as much as reasonably possible (I’m aware that performing seasons are often prepared years in advance) to essentially stop the clock and return these ballets, and these role debuts, to ABT’s Met 2021 season (assuming there will be one). It’s the right thing to do, the decent thing to do and the failure to do so would amount to a theft not only of opportunity, but of memory.