ABT Fall Season First Week Review: Upgrade from 2017

The repertory for American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at Koch Theater is definitely an upgrade from last year in which the company presented retread works that were either dull or performed numerous times recently.

ABT premiered two works by female choreographers as part of the ABT Women’s Movement initiative. I saw the second performance of Michelle Dorrance’s Dream with a Dream (deferred) Thursday, which premiered at the ABT Gala the previous evening. Dorrance is a MacArthur Genius Grant winning tap dancer, performer, choreographer, founder and Artistic Director of Dorrance Dance. The work, set to energetic Duke Ellington songs filled with WAWA horn sections, is multifaceted, filled with ballet, tap, swing dance, and Lindy hop movements. Dream consists of seven segments with unrelated themes. In various segments dancers slide along a horizontal strip at the back of the stage, perform a unique tap medley on pointe, engage in high energy tap dance on moveable wood slabs, and present a raucous stop and slap dance. The dancers seemed to be having great fun in this brassy work, with substantial opportunities to stand out, particularly for Corps dancers not featured much in the spring Met season. Zimmi Coker was particularly animated, with sultry solo work from Jose Sebastian and Duncan Lyle. For fun, Devon Teuscher threw in a nice fouetté section, finishing with about six pirouettes.

The work is complimented by stunning lighting by Brad Fields and fog resembling a smoky cabaret with dancers clad in 1940s style attire. In the last section, lights were dropped from poles suspended overhead to create a unique lighting touch.

Jessica Lange, World Premier of Garden Blue. Click for more photos.

Jessica Lang, World Premier of Garden Blue. Click for more photos.

I wasn’t as impressed with Jessica Lang’s Garden Blue, which had its premier Friday. The work is set to soothing Dvorák scores produced by one violin, cello, and piano. The work consists of three couples in colorful single color unitards, Misty Copeland/Herman Cornejo, Katherine WIlliams/James Whiteside, Stella Abrera/Thomas Forster with one as the odd dancer out, Hee Seo, clad in green and white. The main prop consists of three large wood butterfly wing-shaped items. Two were on stage while one hung overhead in front of a beautiful blue/green backdrop by Sarah Crowner. Throughout the work, dancers moved the wings to various parts of the stage, and used it for various purposes. The meaning of the wings escaped me. The steps and partnering segments were pleasant, but not memorable. The work lacked cohesion, meaning, and context.

Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante (Thursday) and Alexei Ratmansky’s Songs of Bukovina (Friday) reinforced by view that Christine Shevchenko is ABT’s best female dancer. She dances with such grace and timing, coupled with ample technical abilities. She was paired with Isabella Boylston in Symphonie, who also danced with command in difficult segments such as turns in first position and turns in attitude. This piece is truly a Balanchine “woman is a garden of beautiful flowers and the man is the gardener” type work, with Blaine Hoven as the regal gardener, partnering Christine and Isabella with great care; without much solo work, Blaine did a meticulous job of tending to the flowers. ABT is not known for great work in Balanchine ballets (Symphony in C with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev at the Met in 2013 comes to mind). Symphonie Concertante is an exception; it was a delight Thursday with in synch Corps work in unison with the three leads.

Ballet Society premiered Symphonie in 1947 at City Center and New York City Ballet last performed it in 1953, according to Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times. ABT revived the lost ballet, restaging it in 1983 with Cynthia Gregory, Martine van Hamel, and Patrick Bissell as leads. See the Times’ article for detail on the history of the ballet and revival. ABT will perform Symphonie Concertante November 3 and 4 at the City Center Balanchine celebration, with seven other leading companies.

Shevchenko and Calvin Royal were impressive Friday in Songs of Bukovina (see curtain call photo at the top of this article). I was lukewarm on the ballet last year when it premiered; however, the pairing of Christine and Calvin brought Bukovina new energy and meaning.

ABT Fall Season 2018

James Whiteside, Cory Stearns, Herman Cornejo, Gillian Murphy, Stella Abrera, Fancy Free. Click for more photos.

The ABT fall season presents two Jerome Robbins works to commemorate his birth 100 years ago on October 11, 1918. Fancy Free was Robbins’ first ballet, choreographed for Ballet Theatre. Herman Cornejo, Cory Stearns, James Whiteside, Stella Abrera, and Gillian Murphy provided nuanced comedic touches Thursday in a delightful performance. Whiteside was an effusive third sailor with a wide grin, dancing the Latin segment with great gusto. Cory was effective as the second sailor while Herman was Herman, great as always.

The season includes Twyla Tharp’s classic In the Upper Room, in the ABT rep for 30 years. The work is one of my favorites, with dancers in striped loose-fitting pajama-type costumes doing ballet, aerobics and boxing movements to a pulsating Philip Glass score. I remember the last time ABT performed the work, at City Center in 2012. Over-caffinated stage hands pumped massive amounts of dry ice fog onto the stage at the beginning of the performance making the dancers barely visible. I doubt if the dancers could see each other, a dangerous situation. After a few minutes, audience members shouted START OVER!!!. After five minutes of futility, the curtains closed and another five minutes passed to clear the fog. A do-over ensued with a proper amount of fog.

The work looks like great, exhausting fun for the dancers as they weave in and out of the fog-filled stage. The program features quotes from current and past dancers about the work. Herman says “This ballet is pure stamina. I feel like a hero flying into the stage through the smoke.” Former ABT Principal Dancer Ethan Stiefel echos Herman’s view regarding the great endurance required: “One of my all-time favorite pieces to dance. Many say it is a supreme physical challenge. It isn’t easy, but I always found such vigor in its rigor.”

Fortunately, stage hands had things under control Friday and Saturday with great performances visible through the fog. Two casts have been whittled down to one for some reason. High octane performances abounded, particularly Skylar Brandt, Isabella Boylston, Blaine Hoven, Herman, with new-found energy coming from Joseph Gorak. My 14-year old daughter summarized her thoughts during the work: “This is cool!!!” The audience appreciated the energy and gave the tired dancers two rousing curtain calls for their efforts.

In the Upper Room returns next week Tuesday and Saturday night. Definitely worth seeing.