ABT Looks Forward and Back

Koch Theater | June 2018

Isabelle Boylston and James Whiteside in Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade. Photo: Julia Cervantes

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) took a gamble on commissioning tap choreographer Michelle Dorrance to create a pièce d’occasion for its 2018 Spring Gala. The wisdom of the choice became apparent in the first moment, when three women struck the floor, one-two-three, with their spotlit pointe shoe toes. How ingenious, and in retrospect natural, to use the toe shoe as a percussion instrument, rather than denying its proclivity to thump and clack with each step—something all ballerinas are trained to avoid. Dorrance allows ballerinas to embrace their physical selves, tethered to earth by gravity just like the rest of us. Her use of tap is not just percussion; it’s overturning a whole aesthetic and artistic dogma.

Dorrance seemed to have fun experimenting with the possibilities of the toe shoe as well as leather slippers. The women glided on pointe after a running start, or with the men’s assistance—sliding to another man like a bucket brigade. Dorrance’s work for her own company employs precision tap work topped by a fairly natural style for the upper body; she herself dances with great attack, often leaning forward aggressively. For the ABT, she hewed closer to a classical line, yet also created angular shapes using flexed feet or bent limbs. Craig Salstein, retiring from ABT but continuing on Broadway in Carousel, had extended guest solos to display his jaunty jazz chops, and bade the warm audience farewell.  

AfterRite, a premiere by British choreographer Wayne McGregor, featured another ABT retiree, Alessandra Ferri, paired with Herman Cornejo. This interpretation of Stravinsky’s incendiary score, “Rite of Spring,” featured a set with a glass-walled terrarium (designed by Vicki Mortimer), reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Two Cigarettes in the Dark. This occupied the stage’s left half, leaving the other half open for most of the action. Video (designed by Ravi Deepres) projected on an upstage curtain added layers of visual complexity, but also confusion; it featured images of coronas, glowing discs, desiccated earth, and more. Ferri shepherded two girls out of the box before a man hit a button that released fog into the room... perhaps mankind befouling nature and thereby facing threats too.

McGregor’s ballet-based movement style is athletic and favors flexible, shapely limbs exemplified by dancers such as Blaine Hoven and Misty Copeland. Men lifted women who thrust their backs into arches and pointed their feet into arrows. Red vertical lasers zipped from one side to the other, adding yet another element to the confusing stagescape. (A note on the casting of alumni: while it’s nostalgic to see Ferri return to her old troupe, I can’t help but wonder how the current principals feel to see her in such a prominent premiere.)

Alexei Ratmansky’s restaging of Petipa’s commedia dell’arte ballet Harlequinade lies on the other end of the genre’s spectrum bursting with whimsy and tradition. Ratmansky, ABT’s artist in residence, researched the 1900 ballet’s Stepanov annotation at the Harvard Theatre Collection, on which he formed this 2018 premiere. Robert Perdziola based his set and costume designs on the originals by Orest Allegri and Ivan Vsevolozhsky. The result is a window not only onto the style of early twentieth century ballet, but also into comic taste of the time, somewhat out of favor today.

The story unfolds more through mime than dance, in contrast to the Romantic ballets that form the core of ABT’s repertory in which long, emotive passages of dance are connected by brief mime. Nonetheless, the story of Harlequinade has a familiar feel for balletomanes. Columbine (Isabella Boylston) is in love with the saltimbanque Harlequinade (James Whiteside), but her father wishes her to marry Léandre (Duncan Lyle): a vain but rich fop. Via a slapstick, a fairy (Tatiana Ratmansky, who worked on the reconstruction) interjects magic, enabling Harlequinade to generate money and thereby convincing her father to sanction their marriage. Boylston is ebullient and flitters like a bird; Whiteside charming and sprightly in his frequent jumps. Thomas Forster is Pierrot, who wears a long-sleeved clown costume, mopes, and demands attention from Gillian Murphy (Pierrette), who, in a gorgeous paneled blue dress, puts up patiently with his sighs and pleas for kisses.

Catherine Hurlin and Patrick Frenette. Choreography by Michelle Dorrance. Photo: Julia Cervantes

A slapstick refers to the double-bladed stick once wielded in operas or revues to simulate hitting someone or to punctuate an action, like a rimshot. (Whiteside performs with the slapstick holstered by his side, which can’t be easy.) But slapstick is also a genre descriptor for Harlequinade; this simple form of humor, though, may take some time for unaccustomed audiences to tune into. It’s an excuse for grand pageantry involving all ranks of the organization, and can be read as a statement of ABT’s robust good fortune in having Ratmansky in residence and supporting his vision. Harlequinade includes lavishly costumed townsfolk and dozens of children (students of ABT’s Onassis School), each with a couture costume, wig, and headpiece typical of Ratmansky’s ballets.

The company continues to evolve with more home-grown lead dancers. Giselle starred Sarah Lane, who embodies the talented, ailing, peasant waif; and avoids a common tendency to overact. Daniil Simkin (Albrecht) performed admirably; his overhead lifts look effortless. Simkin tempered his natural bravura, which was nonetheless effective in his solo punctuated by soaring entre chats. Devon Teuscher led the cast in La Bayadère, paired with corps dancer Joo Won Ahn. As Nikiya, Teuscher lent a silky, ethereal quality to the role. Her expanding list of leading parts has allowed us to see her sound technique and luminosity. Ahn is an example of ABT giving a less-seen company member a highly visible role in Solor. He showed confidence and brio.

Watching the continued development of soloists and corps dancers—such as Gabe Stone Shayer, Cassandra Trenary, Blaine Hoven, Catherine Hurlin, and Roman Zhurbin—is a pleasure. Many more are in the pipeline of the now-established Onassis School. This all contributes to the feeling that ABT is truly becoming “America’s company,” as it bills itself, and less of a stopover for foreign stars en route to another guest spot.

I must note with sadness the absence of Marcelo Gomes, for many years a crowd favorite and one of the best partners in ballet. (He abruptly parted ways with ABT last year in light of “sexual misconduct,” continuing to choreograph and guest star.1) While he was already easing his way out of the heart of the lineup and taking on guest spots in Matthew Bourne productions among others, his time at ABT wasn’t nearly up. And who could have guessed that Gomes would be gone now, and David Hallberg would still be dancing with ABT, after splitting his time with the Bolshoi and subsequently becoming severely injured with a very long (book producing) rehab? In this swiftly changing world, ABT season reminds us never to take any gift for granted—to relish the radically modern as well as the historically classic.

Notes

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/theater_danc/when-world-class-dancers-leap-into-a-new-role-choreographing-world-premieres/2018/03/09/c8e3e182-216b-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html?utm_term=.f8583f81e9c3 (accessed 6.15.2018)

Contributor

Susan Yung

SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.

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