ABT Bad News: Shorter Met Season and Ratmansky Departs

Photo: Alexei Ratmansky and Amar Ramasar in Amar’s Final NYCB Performance, May 29, 2022 Recent American Ballet Theatre news of Alexei Ratmansky’s departure and the shortened Metropolitan Opera House Summer Season is depressing.

Before Christmas, Ratmansky announced that he would leave the company as Artist in Residence, a position he held for 13 years, stating, “I wanted a change,” according to The New York Times. Then, last week came the announcement that he would join New York City Ballet in a similar position.

ABT’s loss is NYCB’s gain. Ratmansky has been the artistic force for ABT, revitalizing the company’s moribund repertory…

ABT’s loss is NYCB’s gain. Ratmansky has been the artistic force for ABT over the past decade, revitalizing the company’s moribund repertory with numerous works, including shorter innovative pieces: Shostakovich Trilogy, Songs of Bukovina, The Seasons, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, reimagined full-length classics Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, and grand full-length productions Of Love and Rage, Whipped Cream, Harlequinade. When he joined ABT in 2008, the company was filled with an all-star roster of international superstars nearing retirement (or recently retired): Nina Ananiashvili, Julio Bocca, José Manuel Carreño, Angel Corella, Paloma Herrera, Ethan Stiefel. These dancers carried the company in the late 1990s and early 2000s without innovative repertory (Twyla Tharp works an exception). The company needed a flurry of creative energy to remain relevant in the absence of megastars or great new works. Ratmansky provided vitality, most recently with top-notch homegrown dancers.

In contrast, ABT’s non-Ratmansky recent works have been unsuccessful. Few of the pieces have been memorable. My grumpy review provides some thoughts on the 2020 Fall Gala, an unsuccessful digital event.

Another down note was the release of the ABT Summer Season schedule. For as long as I remember, ABT performed for eight weeks at the Metropolitan Opera house in the spring. In a stupid and selfish move, the Metropolitan Opera changed its schedule in 2022 with a three-week break in February, extending its season by three weeks in May when ABT typically started its season. As a result, last year, ABT performed a five-week season from June 13-July 16 for 40 performances. This year, the season slips even more into summer, from June 22-July 22 for 36 performances. Adding 11 Fall Season performances (assuming the same 2023 Fall Season as in 2022) gives the company only 47 New York City performances in 2023 for a total of six and a half weeks, well short of Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s goal of 10-12 weeks stated in a 1993 New York Times article. My count of the ABT calendar outside of New York is 40 performances for a total of 87 in 2023.

I’m unsure what motivated the shorter 2023 ABT Summer Season relative to 2022. The Metropolitan Opera’s final spring performance is June 10, leaving the Metropolitan Opera House empty for about two weeks. Why couldn’t ABT start its season earlier? The current ABT Summer Season is at an odd time, with many competing activities and vacations for ballet fans.

NYCB performs much more than ABT. In the 2022-2023 season, NYCB will present 159 performances at Koch Theater (28-Fall; 47 Nutcracker; 42-Winter; 42 Spring) with its regular Kennedy Center and Saratoga, New York runs. These numbers are similar to its pre-COVID seasons.

With the shortened season and lack of New York performances, ABT needs more work. It is difficult to imagine the company thriving financially or attracting great full-time talent with such a schedule. With ballet fans and donors, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is not a healthy mindset. The Ratmansky departure and lack of performances might be related; who wants associate with a company that cannot present its work consistently throughout the year?

NYCB is on the upswing in the post-COVID era. With promising young talent mixed with seasoned veterans, the prospect of new Ratmansky works over the next five years is thrilling.

Incoming ABT Artistic Director Susan Jaffe faces major challenges as she replaces Kevin McKenzie, who was at the helm for 30 years.

More performances in New York To maintain relevance, ABT must increase the number of New York performances. The company could start its Spring/Summer season after NYCB leaves Koch Theater in late May/early June before moving across the plaza to the Metropolitan Opera House. ABT’s Giselle and Whipped Cream runs at Koch Theater in the last two Fall Seasons were well received, with few empty seats, demonstrating that fans will see non-Metropolitan Opera House full-lengths from the company. I haven’t been impressed with the company’s non-Ratmansky mixed rep works, and ABT excels at full-length productions, so it makes sense to focus on full-length works in Koch Theater. Only well-seasoned fan favorites such as Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Le Corsaire can draw large crowds at the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House, with a huge 4,000+ seat capacity. I loved Ratmansky’s Of Love and Rage, but it did not sell well at the Metropolitan Opera House. Koch Theater is a better place for his works, except for Sleeping Beauty. ABT could also extend its Fall Season at Koch Theater to compensate for the loss of three weeks in the Spring Season. There are alternatives, but ABT must present more than six weeks of New York performances.

Develop Innovative Repertory Developing new works is a challenge as dynamic choreographers that can generate interest to fill a 2,500-seat theater like Koch Theater are in short supply. Outside of Ratmansky works, there was no unifying theme since I have been attending performances since the late 1980s. Recent efforts to present and expand the company’s diversity are commendable, but has not produced any works with a lasting impact.

Establish a Digital Presence The COVID pandemic accentuated a major ABT weakness: lack of digital content. While ballet companies large and small provided content for locked-down ballet fans (NYCB, Royal Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem), ABT’s effort was limited. While other companies presented taped pre-COVID performances, ABT presented original works filmed in the COVID period in empty theaters to limited YouTube viewership. I’m not sure why ABT did not present taped performances like other companies or DVD content. Possibly copyright restrictions from Lincoln Center. Whatever the reason, the lack of digital presence limits ABT’s reach. DVD production is also a problem; the last DVD ABT released was Swan Lake in 2006.

ABT’s last bleak period was in the early 1990’s when it was at risk of collapse with $5.7 million in debt. With newly appointed Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie at the helm and a crop of great young talent (Angel Corella and Paloma Herrera in particular), ABT survived the period and thrived in the late 1990s. In 2023, the good news is that the current dancers are impressive. The challenge will be presenting them consistently in New York with compelling new works.