Rather than providing a lame ballet-by-ballet summary of the ABT Met season (I liked dancer X in Swan Lake but not dancer Y because [make up some reason that sounds like I know what I’m talking about], bla bla bla), I thought it would be useful to examine the company composition nine years ago to understand where the company is today. I went back to press release cast lists from 2005 and recorded the number of times a dancer was listed. Also, I counted the number of times a dancer was cast in the lead role in full-length ballets, Don Quixote, Raymonda, Sylva, Swan Lake, and Giselle (thus, one male and one female per performance) with guest artists in bold. For example, from the table below, Marcelo Gomes was listed in 25 performances, of which seven were lead roles.
Number of times a dancer was listed in the press release cast list-
2005 Met Season
WOW!!! 2005 had a powerhouse lineup, particularly the men. How lucky we were to see these great dancers every performance. If ballet had a Hall of Fame, a number of dancers from this list would be shoo-ins on the first ballot: Julio Bocca, José Manuel Carreño, Angel Corella, Alessandra Ferri, Ethan Stiefel. In addition, younger stars such as Herman Cornejo, Paloma Herrera, Marcelo Gomes, Gillian Murphy, Xiomira Reyes were featured in many performances. Nina Anashivili and Irina Dvovenenko were out on maternity leave and did not perform in the 2005 ABT Met season as they had in previous and future seasons.
• There were only two guest artists, Carlos Acosta, who performed 12 times, and Tamás Solymosi who danced five times. ABT didn’t use a lot of guest artists that year because, with this lineup, who needs guest artists.
• There was a nice mix of stars approaching the end of their careers (Julio, Alessandra, Amanda McKerow), peak of their careers (Ethan, Angel, Paloma, Gillian, Marcelo), and shining lights at the beginning of their careers (Herman Cornejo, Hallberg).
• Looking at the bottom of the list, none of the soloists or corps members broke out into the principal ranks in later years. I thought Danny Tidwell, who was scheduled for four performances, had great potential; for some reason he left and I next saw him in the 2007 So You Think You Can Dance series.
I also looked at the three-week fall 2005 season. It is impressive that most of the dancers in the Met season also performed in the fall. Here the big stars were out in force although José only danced two times and Alessandra Ferri four times. Again, no dancers at the bottom of the list made it to the principal ranks.
Number of times a dancer was listed in the cast list-2005 Fall Season
In 2005, ABT enjoyed the benefits of great dancers that joined in the mid-1990s. Where did the dancers come from? There was a nice mix of homegrown talent and experienced dancers that joined ABT from other companies. (ABT does not have a school like New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet so defining homegrown at ABT is not as clear-cut. My definition of homegrown is any dancer that joined the company in their teens.) Here is a partial list of where dancers came from:
Julio Bocca 1985 joined as a Principal Dancer at age 19
Angel Corella 1996 joined as Soloist at age 19
Gillian Murphy 1996 joined ABT at age 17
Marcelo Gomes 1997 joined ABT at age 18
Michele Wiles 1998 joined from ABT Studio Company
Herman Cornejo 1999 joined ABT at age 18
David Hallberg 2001 from ABT Studio Company at age 18
Joined ABT as Corps/Soloist
Max Beloserkovsky 1994 joined as Corps from National Opera Ballet of the Ukraine, Principal
Irina Dvorovenko 1996 joined as Corps from National Opera Ballet of Kiev, Principal
Xiomara Reyes 2001 joined as Soloist from Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium, First Soloist
Joined ABT as Principal
Alessandra Ferri 1985 joined as Principal Dancer from The Royal Ballet
José Manuel Carreño 1995 joined as Principal Dancer from Royal Ballet, English National Ballet
Vladimir Malakhov 1995 joined as Principal Dancer from Vienna State Opera Ballet, National Ballet of Canada
Ethan Stiefel 1997 Joined as Principal Dancer from New York City Ballet
Here is a similar cast list for the 2014 Met season:
Number of times a dancer was listed in the press release cast list-
2014 Met Season
In parenthesis are full-length principal casting for Don Quixote, La Bayadere, Manon, Cinderella, Giselle, Swan Lake, and Coppélia with guest artists in bold.
In 2014 the dancers with the most work were Whiteside, Marcelo, Veronika, and Gillian. For full-length performances, Marcelo, Polina, Xiomara, Gillian, Paloma, and Hallberg led the pack. There were 12 guest artists dancing a total number of 14 performances (I counted Ivan Vasiliev as a guest artist because of his infrequent performances with ABT).
The table below shows the net additions and subtractions of dancers from 2014 over 2005 that performed at least five times in 2005.
For the women, the big losses from 2005 were Nina Ananiashvili and Irina Dvorovenko. In addition, Alessandra Ferri, who danced in four performances in 2005. Net additions in 2014 are Polina Semionova, Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston, and Devon Teuscher. Clearly, the 2005 lineup for the women was stronger. Polina is a great dancer, but Hee and Isabella are young principals and are a work in progress.
The drop-off in 2014 among the men is even greater as an all-star cast of great dancers in 2005 have since retired: Julio, José, and Ethan. Dancers in 2014 not on the 2005 list include Roberto Bolle, Daniil Simkin, Cory Stearns, and Whiteside. No knock against the current ABT men, but the 2005 roster had much more star power.
The reduction in star power may be a reason for more empty seats in the 2014 season. I don’t have any data, but it seemed as if there were more empty seats this year at the Met relative to previous years, excluding the packed Swan Lake 2014 performances. It was much easier to pack the 3,800 seat Met Opera House with charismatic dancers like Angel, José, and Julio; it is a much more difficult task with lesser-known talents, even in well known full-length ballets.
The full-length ballets that ABT specializes in require stars. New York City Ballet needs a large number of solid dancers to pull off its vast repertory as the dancers are largely interchangeable parts. ABT needs superstars in lead roles to make its performances work. Full-length ballets are like blockbuster movies, people go to see the stars.
There is much uncertainty on leading dancers going forward, enough to keep Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie up at night. Roberto Bolle is great, but at 39 years of age, he is in the twilight of his illustrious career. Daniil excels at bravura dancing, but the jury is still out on his ability to carry a full-length ballet full of dramatic action and partnering. Cory Stearns is a solid Principal Dancer, but can he go a step beyond to stardom? How long will Herman and Marcelo last (both are around 34 years of age)? I don’t see any great dancers waiting in the wings like Herman and David Hallberg in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For the women, Veronika Part and Polina are the mainstays of the company (although Veronika should be cast more in lead roles and in prime time slots) as Hee and Isabella are new principals finding their way. Again, no obvious future female principal dancers on the horizon.
Given the lack of a deep bench of dancers waiting the wings, there will likely be more guest artists filling lead roles in future seasons. I don’t have a problem with guest artists, but they need to make a commitment like Carlos Acosta in 2005 with 12 performances. Infrequent guest performances make it difficult for audiences to connect with the dancer. I loved Mariinsky Ballet’s guest artists Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov in La Bayadere this year. But given their limited ABT performances, I haven’t invested the time to learn how to pronounce their names. Audiences are not committed to fly-over guest artists. On another guest artist issue, I thought it was dissapointing for ABT that New York City Ballet’s Andrew Veyette had to step in for Cory in Theme and Variations this year. Can’t ABT find someone in the company to perform the role?
Why was the ABT principal roster more robust just nine years ago? There are several possible explanations. First, ABT may have been unsuccessful in attracting the limited pool of top talent in recent years-Natalia Osipova fleeing to The Royal Ballet last year for example. I don’t know much about dancers at other ballet companies such as The Royal Ballet or Bolshoi, so it is difficult to evaluate this hypothesis. The second possible explanation is that there was more great ballet talent ten years ago, so all of the top companies were better off. Third, as a consequence of getting older, I am developing a heightened belief that anything that happens in my past is superior to what is going on today. My choice: number two, but I don’t say that with supporting evidence. I clearly don’t have the answers so drop me a line in the comment box with your thoughts.
Update: Karen Backstein (@KarenatashaB) tweets: “Very interesting. There is definitely a dearth of star power, but I also think there’s a big problem w/choreography. But I have to disagree with one thing; ‘no great dancers waiting in the wings.” Yes, there is. Joseph Gorak.”