ABT’s 2016 Met season was unique for having innovative, critic friendly repertory without reliance on stopover guest artists as leads. The company seems to be at a turning point, trading in old bland works danced by international stars for more energetic and innovative works performed by company dancers without the star power of previous years.
While many ballet companies are defined by the work of home company choreographers (Ashton and MacMillan-Royal Ballet; Balanchine-NYCB; Grigorovich-Bolshoi) no ABT choreographer has made a mark in full length productions (although Anthony Tutor and Agnes de Mille have choreographed many classics for ABT, generally shorter works the company performs in the fall season). That seems to be changing. ABT appointed Alexei Ratmansky as Artist in Residence in 2009 and ABT is building an identity around him. This trend accelerated as his work dominated the season as he is quickly leaving his artistic stamp on the company.
ABT’s Ratmansky works this season were two mixed rep performances consisting of Shostakovich Trilogy (2013); and new work Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, Seven Sonatas (2009), Firebird (2012); and full lengths The Golden Cockerel (2012) and The Sleeping Beauty (2015).
Ratmansky’s works are steeped in historical content and I always learn something from his ballets: from The Golden Cockerel, the unpopularity of Tsar Nicolas II, notable for the disastrous Russo-Japanese war and the slaughter of hundreds of peaceful protestors; from Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, details of the great Plato story about love; from The Sleeping Beauty, ballet technique from Serge Diaghilev’s 1921 staging of the Imperial Russian Theatre’s work; from NYCB’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the work of Kandinsky and music of Modest Mussorgsky; from Shostakovich Trilogy, a sketch of life in the Soviet Union, capturing tensions in the iron fisted Stalin-ruled country and the glorification of the Soviet state.
I love Ratmanky’s The Sleeping Beauty, which debuted last year. It is a grand production with spectacular costumes and sets. However, what sets this production apart is that Ratmansky doesn’t attempt a makeover of the popular classic, but returns to it’s Russian roots with old-style technique consistent with the original work. It is refreshing that he went back to the 1920s for inspiration, rather than adding to the many modern Sleeping Beauty versions. A new interpretation would be boring; his creative instinct to look backward rather than forward was brilliant.
The Golden Cockerel, which had its ABT debut this year, has its origin from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Little Golden Cockerel, based on the story by Alexander Pushkin. The sets and costumes, designed by Tony Award winner (Lion King) Richard Hudson, are the star of the ballet. There is little classical dancing, mostly pantomime. Although I enjoyed the work, I don’t have a strong desire to see it again.
I didn’t like Ratmansky’s Firebird when I first saw it; however, it is growing on me as I actually appreciated it this year. It is a bizarre, science fiction version of the work, with strange-looking sets including trees that seem to emit smoke.
Serenade after Plato’s Symposium debuted this year, set to Leonard Bernstein’s violin concerto. In Plato’s symposium, seven Athenians, discuss the nature of love. In the ballet, seven men give a dance conversation interpretation of the debate, filled with camaraderie. I wasn’t blown away with the work, but would like to see this interesting, multifaceted work again, hopefully in the fall.
Royal Ballet full lengths added heft to the rep this year: Ashton’s Le Fille mal gardée and Sylvia, and MacMillian’s Romeo and Juliet. ABT mainstays Swan Lake and Le Corasire rounded out the season.
La Fille mal gardée made a welcome return to the ABT rep after a 13-year absence. I’m not sure why ABT has ignored the classic Ashton comedy for all of these years; it is a beautiful, tender, humorous classic for all ages, filled with delightful surprises and innovative choreography.
I’ve heard that ABT will continue to feature Ratmansky’s new works in the fall and next spring seasons. This news is welcome as he continues to build a legacy at ABT. Although my views on his works are mixed, I always find his work engaging.
From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, ABT was stocked with big-name international talent: Julio Bocca, Angel Corella, José Manuel Carreño, Ethan Stiefel, Vladimir Malakhov, Nina Ananiashvili, Irina Dvorovenko, Paloma Herrera. With the retirement of these dancers and dearth of new stars, ABT relied on guest artists in recent years; in 2015 there were five guest artists appearing in 11 performances while 12 guest artists danced in 2014 in 17 performances. This year there were only two “Exchange Artist” performers (Xander Parish of Mariinsky and Mathias Heymann of Paris Opera Ballet). I’m not sure what drove the change this year, Ratmansky taking charge of casting or Rachel Moore’s departure; whatever the reason, ABT’s 2016 season was devoid of guest artists.
The dearth of guest artists this season gave more opportunities for ABT dancers to shine. Marcelo Gomes, Roberto Bolle, Herman Cornejo, and Gillian Murphy gave consistently great performances. My favorite performances:
Gillian Murphy/Marcelo Gomes, Swan Lake
Gillian and Marcelo danced impeccably with great flair in Swan Lake. Gillian is always so consistent as Odette/Odile, aided by her amazing turning capabilities. Marcelo was Marcelo, enough said, combining great dramatic timing with robust technique. Also in Swan Lake, Marcelo was stunning as the evil, narcissistic von Rothbart. Marcelo is so charismatic; he commands attention by simply being on stage. He has an intangible quality that makes him irresistible to watch, a certain theatrical timing and expressiveness that is difficult to explain, but you know it when you see it.
As much as I liked Marcelo in Swan Lake, I thought his Romeo was too impassioned, reaching the point of overkill, a bit overdone for my taste.
Stella Abrera/Marcelo Gomes, The Sleeping Beauty
Stella was marvelous in the role of Aurora with her nice long line, great port de bras, and wonderful musicality. In The Vision scene, she demonstrated beautiful flowing arms and matching head movements for emphasis. All with an effortless carriage of her upper body, perfectly matched to the soothing Tchaikovsky score. Marcelo was dashing as Prince Désiré as he entered in Act II in a British red coat with Napoleon bicorne hat. He had a regal, princely demeanor, easy for him given his striking features. Marcelo is a great partner, always making his ballerina stand out.
Hee Seo/Roberto Bolle/Romeo and Juliet
Roberto is always consistent, very good in technical and dramatic dimensions, a rock-solid partner with great dramatic flair. Hee’s Juliet improved over last season, demonstrating her maturity as a dancer.
Daniil SImkin, Le Corsaire
I thought Vladimir Malakhov was the best at Lankendem-until I saw Daniil in the role. The two are equally matched in the leaping department with Vladimir having an edge on his nice assembles to a deep plié, but Daniil excelling in a few big air 540 rivoltades. However, Daniil has a huge edge in the turning department. Daniil excels at turns, with wide arm pirouettes, drawing in after 5-6 turns. Dramatically, Daniil played the sinister slave trader with campy flair.
Jeffrey Cirio, Le Corsaire, Romeo and Juliet
Jeffrey Cirio made a big impression in the Met season. Jeffrey joined ABT last year as a Soloist after leaving a Principal Dancer position at Boston Ballet. Small and slight of build, he moves quickly, sometimes at an almost reckless pace. In the Ali solo in Le Corsaire, he was up to the task with nice turns and a very rare triple triple saut de basque to the floor at the end of his first solo. As Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, his solo in the marketplace was of high intensity with high leaps in second position, followed by three or four slow controlled pirouettes.
Random Dancer Thoughts
- Although Cory Stearns was technically proficient, he was too cautious and reserved as Siegfried and von Rothbart in Swan Lake.
- Skylar Brandt was impressive in a range of roles including the Cockerel in The Golden Cockerel, Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty, Pas de Trois in Swan Lake, and as one of the Odaliques in Le Corsaire.
- Gabe Stone Shayer had a good season with a few rough spots. His Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty was a great improvement over last year with effortless, high-flying leaps. However, his Lankendem in Le Corsaire was dull, without much life.
- Roman Zhurbin and Thomas Forster gave great dramatic performances in Romeo and Juliet as Tybalt. Generally, ABT was in fine form on the dramatic front this season, with many expressive performances.
Late in the season, Cirio was promoted to Principal Dancer, highly unusual for a dancer with few full lengths at ABT under their belt. James Whiteside was also hired from Boston Ballet, where he was a Principal Dancer. He danced several full lengths at ABT before his promotion to Principal Dancer. Although I liked Jeffrey’s dancing, I wonder why the rush, particularly considering the usual plodding pace of promotions at ABT. It took Veronika Part seven years to reach Principal after joining as a Soloist, and 14 years for Stella to be promoted to Principal.
ABT certainty doesn’t seem to be in a rush to promote Sarah Lane, languishing in the Soloist ranks. I enjoyed her this year in The Golden Cockerel and as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty last year with Herman Cornejo and think she would excel in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. With several short-stature male dancers in the Principal ranks (Cirio, Herman, Alban Lendorf when healthy) it would make sense to have more short women. Currently, short female dancers include Misty Copeland and Maria Kochetkova and possibly Isabella Boylston. Promoting Sarah would have made sense given that about half of the males in the current ABT roster are small in stature.
ABT Flat on Marketing Effort
Attendance for the first three weeks of the season was low, with many empty seats in the orchestra section for the Ratmansky mixed rep, La Fille mal gardée, and Sylvia. This is unfortunate as these are important and critically acclaimed works, danced at a high level. ABT’s marketing seems to be stuck in 2005. With superstars such as Corella, Ferri, Bocca, performances sold themselves and not much marketing effort was necessary. Today, the company has fewer notable international stars that draw big crowds and the need for marketing is greater.
La Fille mal gardée is a great example. It is a delightful comedy and very family friendly at only two hours. My 11-year old daughter loved it and she is more of an expert at what children like than I. However, the general public has never heard of the ballet and I didn’t see any efforts to market the ballet to families. NYCB is ahead of ABT at innovative marketing strategies, particularly to young people.