ABT 2019 Spring Season Highlights: Ratmansky Celebrates 10 Years

Alexei Ratmansky works dominated the American Ballet Theatre spring Metropolitan Opera House season (Harlequinade, Ratmansky Trio, Whipped Cream, Sleeping Beauty) as the company celebrated his 10th year as Artist in Residence at ABT.

ABT has changed dramatically since Ratmansky arrived. From the late 1990s to shortly after his arrival, ABT had mediocre/below average repertory performed by international superstars (Nina Ananiashvili, Julio Bocca, José Manuel Carreño, Angel Corrella, Alessandra Ferri, Paloma Herrera, Ethan Stiefel, Diana Vishneva). The business model seemed to work well, as ballet fans flocked to the Met to see all-star casts in works that lacked critical appeal. As the stars retired, ABT implemented a concerted guest artist policy during the Rachel Moore years but was abandoned when the Executive Director left ABT in 2015 (see my 2014 Met wrap-up for more detail). The roster is much different today with the leading lights replaced by high-quality dancers without the star power, many rising through the ranks at ABT through its affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and/or Studio Company.

The repertory today is much more attractive due to Ratmansky’s contributions, with Petipa revivals and Soviet-era works as significant themes. These innovative works have eased the blow of not having glittering casts. However, attendance and revenues were probably higher ten years ago, revealing what dance enthusiasts value the most, star power versus innovative works. Ratmansky has made his mark on ABT with works that will remain in the repertory for many years. His ABT creations include On the Dnieper (2009), Seven Sonatas (2009), The Nutcracker (2010), Dumbarton (2011), Firebird and Symphony #9 (2012), Chamber Symphony, Piano Concerto #1 and The Tempest (2013), The Sleeping Beauty (2015), Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, Golden Cockerel (2016), Songs of Bukovina (2017), Whipped Cream (2017) and Harlequinade (2018).

My favorite Ratmansky ABT works include:

Shostakovich Trilogy: This work consists of three unrelated pieces set to Shostakovich: Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto #1. Shostakovich is a sweeping, multidimensional work with references to life in Soviet Russia.

Sleeping Beauty: Ratmansky’s inspiration is Serge Diaghilev’s 1921 staging of the Imperial Russian Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty, first choreographed in 1890 by Marius Petipa to the music of Tchaikovsky. Ratmansky made heavy use of notations housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection from Nicolas Sergeyev, who restaged Petipa’s choreography for Diaghilev. Ratmansky’s story is not only true to the original, but also the style of dancing from the 1920s. In Ratmansky’s version, dancers replicate the technique of the era.

Songs of Bukovina: I was lukewarm on Songs of Bukovina when it debuted in 2017, but this work has grown on me, particularly when Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III are at the helm. Folksy Russian charm and informality are vital themes.

Ratmansky has made a lasting mark on ABT with full-length productions including Harlequinade, Nutcracker, The Golden Cockerel (premiered with the Royal Danish Ballet in 2012), and Whipped Cream. The productions are lavish, with gorgeous costumes and sets. However, these ballets do not have staying power for me as there is a dearth of technical dancing. I can enjoy these productions only a few times before tiring of them and needing a break of a few years. Ballet-goers seem to agree as the attendance for Harlequinade and Whipped Cream was not great this year.

Ratmansky’s least successful ballet was The Tempest, a confusing production with too much material jammed into the short production with Halloween-type costumes.

Highlights of the ABT Spring season:

Emergence of Aran Bell: The big news from the spring season, is the emergence of 20-year-old Aran Bell, promoted to Soloist late in the season. Last year, my ABT Met season wrap-up lamented on the lack of great new men on the horizon. I am happy to report that ABT has found one piece of the puzzle. With performances as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Aran demonstrated that he is The Real Deal. He is at a technical level one would expect from Principal Dancers in the prime of their careers. He has an elegant elongated line, with long stretched out legs and is capable of razzle-dazzle beyond what one would expect from a tall man. Despite Aran’s great work, ABT still has issues with a lack of men at the Soloist level that have the potential to dance Principal roles.

Strong Performances from Women: While the male side is shaky in terms of young talent, ABT has an abundant supply of young women that will fill leading roles for years. My favorites are Christine Shevchenko and Skylar Brandt, both solid technically. Christine’s Odette/Odile in Swan Lake last year brought back memories of the ABT glory years, and she continued her progression this year with excellent performances in Le Corsaire, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake. Skylar, a Soloist, also has exceptional technical powers. I hope that she is finished with Soloist roles such as Princess Florine in Sleeping Beauty and Pas de Trois in Swan Lake. She is an exciting dancer ready for more leading roles. Sarah Lane also had an outstanding season, with compelling performances in Manon, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake Act II Odile, stepping in for an ill Misty Copeland.

Herman, Daniil Still Have It: Herman Cornejo and Daniil Simkin had injury issues, depriving fans of a few performances. Daniil was injured after a superior Ali performance in Le Corsaire and was out for Manon. He came back with a stirring performance in Swan Lake. Herman also returned with compelling performances in Manon, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Both danced at top-notch levels in the Met season.

Roberto Bolle Final ABT Performance: Leading lights in the ballet world were on hand to celebrate Roberto’s great career in his final ABT performance in Manon. Roberto’s ABT career started in June 2007 when he was a Guest Artist paired with Alessandra Ferri in her final ABT performance in Romeo and Juliet. Beginning with that performance, Roberto has been a New York crowd favorite, providing memorable performances in such classics as Giselle, Onegin, Sylvia. Roberto’s great mix of athleticism and dramatic energy made his performances unique. His great looks and beaming smile didn’t hurt his cause. In such farewell events, the performance is secondary to the extended curtain calls. Roberto’s many current and past partners greeted him with flowers, including Irina Dvorovenko, Julie Kent, Veronica Part, Isabella Boylston, Misty Copeland, Hee Seo, Devon Teuscher, in addition to Alexei Ratmansky, and a group of male dancers. The crowd gave Roberto a rousing and noisy send-off.

Not everything was positive. Here are my negatives from the season:

NY Critics Pan Jane Eyre

ABT thought it had a sure hit with Jane Eyre, choreographed by Cathy Marston after Charlotte Brontë’s three-volume classic published in 1847. After all, the work had rave reviews in the British press with its 2016 Northern Ballet premier. New York critics diverged dramatically, panning the work. Why the divergence of opinion? I do not think it is due to inferior dancing at ABT versus Northern Ballet. ABT dancers are top-notch, and I enjoyed Devon Teuscher, James Whiteside, Calvin Royal’s dramatic presentations. Maybe the Jane Eyre is more suitable to a smaller stage relative to the cavernous Met. Dance Magazine has an interesting discussion on the divergence of reviewer opinion of the work.

Mysterious Casting

ABT casting decisions were sometimes puzzling. In Swan Lake, Christine Shevchenko danced one Odette/Odile while two less technical dancers-Misty Copeland and Hee Seo-were in four out of the eight performances. ABT shut out Sarah Lane and Skylar Brandt from the leading role; both would have generated much excitement. It is a mystery that ABT did not put forward the “A team” in such an iconic, high-profile production.

Ratmansky Seasons Disappoints

Ratmansky debuted The Seasons, a reworking of Petipa’s 1900 ballet that was one of his last productions before his retirement. The Seasons is a fast-paced work with four sections corresponding to the seasons starting with Winter. It is an explosion of movement, and I was at times overwhelmed taking it all in, with a large number of dancers and steps in this 40-minute work. Some parts had a pleasing flow, while others were disjointed, lacking cohesion. I was hoping to be overjoyed with the production, but was not. With so much going on, Seasons could reward multiple viewings to uncover nuances and meaning. ABT will bring it back in the Fall season.

Check Me Out on Instagram 

I always feel a void after the ABT season, trying to figure out what to do with my time until the New York City Ballet fall season in September. To fill the void, I will be busy on Instagram with a new feature focusing on short video clips of ballet steps from my YouTube ballet video dictionary. I hope that dancers and ballet fans of all levels and experience will find the videos useful. Check it out.