American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

June 29, 30 matinee, and July 7, 2018
Don Quixote, Whipped Cream, and Season Wrap-Up

— by Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre concluded its all too brief 2018 Met Season with a week of performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream. I say “all too brief,” even though the notion of a consecutive eight week season seems long, because only eight programs were presented during these eight weeks, and limited casting opportunities made a week of performances of each full evening ballet somehow insufficient. I’ll comment on the season in general following a more detailed discussion of the two performances of the ballet presented in the season’s penultimate week, Don Quixote, which featured role debuts as Kitri by Hee Seo and Sarah Lane.

Each of these role debuts was a bit different, in a good way, from most interpretations of Kitri that I’ve previously seen, and Lane’s performance had the added quality of hitting the third act pas de deux, with her Basilio, Herman Cornejo, for a walk-off (dance-off) home run.

I won’t dwell on this production, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky and staged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones, more than I already have in previous reviews. Suffice it to say that as much fun as it still is, it lacks the vigor and intelligence of the original ABT presentation, staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Understandably, what Baryshnikov added to the production couldn’t be copied, but here the replacements aren’t at the same level (for instance, interactions between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are relatively insipid now), and much of Act I is delivered, by comparison, at a glacial pace.

What I will spend a bit more time on here is the characterization of Kitri.

I’ve seen some remarkable performances of Kitri over the years – from Gelsey Kirkland’s original with ABT at its New York Met premiere, to Cynthia Harvey (still available on DVD), to Natalia Osipova, and scores in between, both with ABT and with other companies. With respect to the role of Kitri, most have one quality in common: Kitri is almost always portrayed as a saucy, sassy, spitfire. It’s a characterization that, though relatively standard and certainly consistent with the choreography and most interpretations of the role, is not one that I’ve found terribly appealing. I can appreciate the technical challenges, and certainly a dancer who executes as brilliantly as Kirkland did and Osipova does sends an audience, including me, home mouthing a jumble of superlatives. But must Kitri be emotionally shrill? That was my only criticism of Osipova’s portrayal – as fabulously executed as it was when I reviewed it in 2010, I wrote that “she was the complete Spanish spitfire – nothing less, but also not much more. It was as if the personality had been glued on … something vital wasn’t there.“ And that something, I wrote at the time, is a quality that makes you want to love Kitri, as well as party with her. She doesn’t have to be a Giselle with a spit curl, but If she’s not also lovable beneath the alpha-female façade, then why would anyone care?

Every once in awhile, however, I see a portrayal that’s a little different: a Kitri who’s no less the center of attention, but who also has a heart buried in there somewhere, and charm as well as pizazz. When I see that characterization, I not only watch and appreciate the technical accomplishment, I get involved. I recall seeing a Kitri portrayal in, I think, the late 1970s by a then ABT soloist named Yoko Ichino that I loved for that reason. I don’t remember details of the execution, but I remember the character she created: a Kitri who was no less a spitfire, but at a lower decibel level, one much more appealing than I was used to seeing.

The reason this comes to mind is that both Seo and Lane did what Ochino did (and several others since, including, as I recognized in that same 2010 review, Gillian Murphy), without sacrificing the essence of Kitri: they created a character with more to her than fire and frenzy.
Be that as it may, at this level, finding differences between them, or between them and others in the company who have danced the role, is usually just a matter of degree.

Seo’s Kitri was very well done, but she looked a little too reserved – as she appeared to me in her role debuts as Juliet and Giselle. Here that sense may have been the product of a lack of chemistry between her and her Basilio, James Whiteside: not a lack of rapport so much as the absence of anything special. It didn’t have an obvious impact on their stage behavior, and Whiteside’s partnering was commendable throughout (and his one-armed overhead lifts were sensationally accomplished), but there was nothing special added to the interaction beyond what the staging required. [For example, kissing the person you’re supposed to be in love with on the cheek, which is what Seo did at the appropriate time in this staging, conveys a far different message than a kiss on or reasonably close to the lips, however brief.] In context, not only didn’t it add anything, it looked a little strange.

Seo is not as overtly strong, technically, as certain other ABT ballerinas (and that’s not a criticism; she makes up for it in ways that are more significant to me). In Act I, for example, even with the slower than usual orchestral pace when she first appears and circles the stage, she was consistently a hair behind the music. And the famous “Plisetskaya leaps” looked awkward, with her rear leg bent at the knee at the top of the leap at an unusually inward angle, so that her rear leg never looked as fully extended as it needed to, and her rear foot never penetrated above her shoulder. The Act I pas de deux, however, was executed very well. Acts II and III were better, and the fouettes at the pas de deux’s conclusion were a significant improvement over her previous efforts (although she very briefly fell off pointe once but resumed without missing a beat, as if nothing had happened, and travelled an appreciable but not inordinate distance).

None of these minor criticisms detracted in any significant way from her overall engaging and capable performance. But I must admit that as fine as their performances were, I could not for a moment believe that either she or Whiteside were who their characters were supposed to be. They were dancing roles.

Lane and Cornejo, on the other hand, seemed to be living theirs. And for Lane it was yet another personal triumph that exceeded expectations.

Believability and transference, particularly (but not exclusively) in a story ballet – the sense that the characters on stage, and members of the audience, are all living and involved in the moment together, rather than just executing and watching the execution of steps and combinations – isn’t essential to appreciate a performance, but it is essential to fully appreciate what dance as a theatrical experience is. It’s one of the qualities that Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva brought so consistently to their “unofficial” partnership, and Lane and Cornejo provided that. Lane’s stage relationship with Cornejo was natural-looking, and emotionally stronger than Seo’s with Whiteside, with a special stage connection that made it believable.

And until mid-way through the Act I pas de deux, it was also technically stronger. When Lane circled the stage, she was slightly ahead of the ponderously-paced music; her Plisetskaya leaps looked much more extended and closer to head level. The Act I pas de deux proceeded very well (super hops en pointe and crisply and completely executed entrechats), but at the point where she runs stage left to right into a series of partnered pirouettes en pointe, something went wrong and she listed dangerously off center while Cornejo tried to keep her upright. I don’t know what the cause of the problem was, but it could have been disastrous. It wasn’t (they saved it). This turned out to be the only discernable flaw in the performance. Indeed, the one-armed overhead lifts that followed were remarkable efforts – Lane had to adjust her position (noticeably) in mid-air to maintain the overhead balance, and she did – both times (just as Christine Shevchenko did in her debut last year). It made the lifts not only indicia of technical skill by both dancers, but evidence of extraordinary determination. Lane could have aborted the lift prematurely rather than risk falling, which after a second or two appeared likely. Instead, her actions (and Cornejo’s) kept both lifts going an extraordinarily long time, and made the lifts even more exciting-looking than usual.

Lane’s Act Ii was as accomplished as Seo’s. But the Act III pas de deux took the performance to another level.

Seo had an air of confidence throughout the grand pas, but when Lane first appeared, she seemed petrified to me. Others with whom I spoke afterward thought that it was more a particularly relaxed than tense look (as opposed, for example, to having an artificial pasted-on smile). Regardless, there was nothing tentative or petrified about her execution. She flawlessly completed over two full revolutions of the “push” turns en pointe at the end of the first segment, which alone got the audience cheering. And the subsequent fouettes were merely pitch perfect: steady fast pace; very little travel; including doubles with her arm extended overhead holding a fan; and a solid finish. With Cornejo preceding and following with his usual flamboyant (but not trick-laden) solo executions, the audience exploded.

On Friday, Shevchenko danced both Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads exceptionally well, as she’s done previously. On Saturday afternoon, Stella Abrera (Mercedes), and Cassandra Trenary (the Dryad Queen) delivered strong performances as well. [Although it would be preferable for the performances to be consistent: either have the same dancer handle both roles, or regularly have different ballerinas assigned to them.] And at both performances, Thomas Forster’s danced Espada with special vibrancy and flair, nailing it technically. He doesn’t (yet) have the sensuality that the best Espadas do (e.g., Alexander Godunov), but it’s a very fine portrayal. Forster had a fabulous Met 2018 season, and his Esapada is just one example.

Also at both Friday and Saturday afternoon, Luis Ribagorda portrayed Gamache with a slightly different interpretation that helped mold both performances. Instead of Gamache the effete fob, he delivered a combination dandy and buffoon (not just in his falls, but in his interactions with other characters, particularly Kitri’s father Lorenzo, played by Roman Zhurbin both nights). The result was far more comic than pathetic, and was one more in a number of characterizations in “small” roles that Ribagorda has delivered with unusual insight, demonstrating once again that there are no small roles.

And speaking of small, as in stature, on Friday Anabel Katsnelson (in a role she debuted earlier in the week) danced a superb Amour, filled with quicksilver turns and high, floating leaps. On Saturday afternoon, Rachel Richardson repeated her sweet, sprightly, and engaging portrayal in the same role.

Finally, with respect to the two Don Quixotes, are the Flower Girls. The roles have increased significance in this production, and Kaho Ogawa and April Giangeruso on Friday, and Skylar Brandt and Betsy McBride on Saturday afternoon, danced with appropriate flair and accomplishment. Ogawa has excelled in everything I’ve seen her dance, as has McBride (who should be getting more roles than she does). Giangeruso has evolved over the years into a quality dancer of unusual polish and surprising ethereality. But Brandt, who had a memorable season, knocked the audience’s collective socks off with her solo variation in the Act III Grand Pas, maintaining balances far longer than they should have been, but doing it in a way that came across more as youthful exuberance than showing off. Her performing display might have upstaged Lane had Lane not delivered the Grand Pas performance she did.

Considering the heat that enveloped New York, Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream might have spoiled, but that was not the case. Based on the one performance I was able to see (which included all but one of the piece’s original premiere cast: Abrera as Tea, Lane as Princess Praline, Daniil Simkin as the Boy (in what might have been his final ABT role), and Forster as Coffee), it was as much fun as I observed after its premiere last year. And notwithstanding its sugariness and the absence of anything resembling a credible story, it also includes beautiful and complex (and fiendishly difficult) Ratmansky choreography. With word of mouth and the proper publicity, it could – and should – grow into being the company’s summer incarnation of The Nutcracker. My only concern is that the Act I Tea/Coffee pas de deux, as exquisite as it is and as well-performed as it was, goes on too long, and I noticed many young children in the audience fidgeting.

Season Wrap-Up

In my summary of ABT’s Met 2017 season, I wrote that that season represented a turning point for ABT. That process is, laudably, continuing – but it needs further improvement if the company is to evolve more fully and more successfully.

For years, I, as well as others, had complained that ABT’s consistent use of guest artists (and pseudo guest-artists) in lead roles had stolen opportunities from its own (primarily soloist) dancers, and created a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein the company had to import guest artists because it had failed to optimally develop its own company dancers. For ABT to become a true company, rather than a showcase for visiting stars (who already had the opportunity to grow over time with their home companies), I wrote that that policy had to change.

For whatever reason, that casting “sea change” began to appear in the company’s 2016 Met Season, continued into 2017, and continues now. And, as predicted, ABT already looks like more of a company. Indeed, some who failed to recognize the self-defeating nature of ABT’s wholesale importation of guest-artists are suddenly discovering exactly that: that ABT now looks more like a real company.

But I had one caveat in last year’s summary. All this would come to naught unless ABT accelerates casting opportunities, and provides them to qualified dancers across the board without favoring some more than others for whatever reason (e.g., expected ticket sales). And one shot opportunities, while better than none, is not the way to nurture and instill confidence in a dancer, or to grow a company. It takes time. Most audience members are not likely to notice one way or another, but giving dancers repeated opportunities to grow in a role is as essential as giving an opportunity in the first place. For each of the full length ballets presented this season, ABT ran out of performances before it had exhausted opportunities for all qualified dancers to assay new roles or to grow into roles in which they’d appeared previously. If casting is judiciously applied, there are sufficient opportunities to go around. And if the company’s marketing promotes its quality dancers on an equal basis, without inordinately favoring some over others, audience recognition, and ticket sales, will follow.

Be that as it may, what ABT’s home-grown casting this season shows is that ABT’s own dancers, if given role opportunities, deliver thrilling performances. In addition to quality outings by last year’s crop of new principals (Lane, Shevchenko, and Devon Teuscher), and by emerging soloists (particularly Brandt, Trenary, Calvin Royal III, and Forster), this year’s well-deserved round of promotions – Katherine Williams, Catherine Hurlin, and Zhong-Jing Fang to soloist – demonstrates this. And more (including – but not limited to – Giangeruso, Ogawa, McBride, Stephanie Williams, and Gabe Stone Shayer, each of whom made the most of featured role opportunities) are knocking at the door.

In the mid-late 1970s, this country was suddenly awash with highly capable and charismatic dancers, who seemed, to those used to thinking “star” and “ballet” in the same sentence only in connection with famous visitors from Britain, France, or Russia, to have suddenly come out of the woodwork. It was a Golden Age for ballet in general, and for American ballet in particular, and it was noticeable not only in ballet “trade” publications, but in the mass market as well. A prime example was the May 1, 1978 cover of Time magazine that featured Kirkland in Don Quixote, and the headline “US Ballet Soars.”

To those who have watched American ballet regularly over the years, that star quality had not diminished, but the opportunities to show it, at least at ABT, had. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back where it belongs, and growth from within is finally being given the emphasis it deserves. At ABT, as well as other American companies, the truth about the outstanding quality of locally cultivated dancers (regardless of nationality) is out there, evidenced by these performances of Don Quixote, and the overall caliber of performances throughout the season. Once again, US ballet soars.