ABT Met Season Wrap-Up: Help Wanted-Male Stars


American Ballet Theatre has a big problem. To fill the cavernous, nearly 4,000 seat Metropolitan Opera House, the company needs stars. But with an aging group of male Principal Dancers with little depth in the Soloist ranks, putting together performances with compelling casts in the near future poses great challenges. The result will be the use of less talented dancers or guest artists to fill the slots.

The roster of male Principal Dancers at the start of the Met season was thin, but became weaker with the departure of Jeffrey Cirio to English National Ballet. Here is a list of male Principal Dancers at the start of the Met season and their current status:

  • Roberto Bolle-performed in only two performances this season in Giselle. At age 43, he provided amazing performances that any dancer 20 years his junior would envy. However, he can’t dance forever and next year will likely be his ABT farewell, in Manon I hear.
  • Jeffrey Cirio-a big blow to ABT as Jeffrey will leave for English National Ballet after only two years at ABT. On Instagram, he said that ENB offered more diverse rep like his former company Boston Ballet and ENB provides the opportunity to work with choreographers he has always wanted to work with.
  • Herman Cornejo-one of the great male dancers of the past 30 years. I enjoyed his Basilio in Don Quixote, with skilled bravura. However, at age 37, Herman is in the twilight of his career.
  • David Hallberg-great Met performances in Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. At age 36, David is in the latter part of his career and it is uncertain whether he will be cast in technically demanding ballets such as Swan Lake or La Bayadére.
  • Alban Lendorf-missed the past two out of three Met seasons due to an injured knee.
  • Daniil Simkin-dancing at a very high level, with great performances in Don Quixote and Giselle. However, his ABT fate is uncertain as he will join Staatsballet Berlin for the 2018-2019 season. “Simkin will continue to perform as a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre as scheduling allows,” according to ABT. Hopefully, he will be fully available for the 2019 Met Season.
  • Cory Stearns-always a steady performer but not a dancer I would go out of my way to see.
  • James Whiteside-same comment as Cory above.

Marcelo Gomes resigned in December and was sorely missed. He was a workhorse in previous seasons, always dependable with many great quality performances. Marcelo’s departure was strange: an allegation of sexual misconduct not involving his work at ABT or anybody at ABT. Marcelo has been busy since he left ABT, dancing at the Mariinsky in Giselle and the Bolshoi; in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain; choreographing a work for Washington Ballet in March; and guesting at Sarasota Ballet.

New York City Ballet has a similar issue with a number of male Principal Dancers near retirement. However, the situation at ABT is more dire as its Petipa dominated rep requires high level male dancers. In contrast, NYCB can thrive with merely adequate men as the Balanchine dominated NYCB rep is focused on women (Balanchine: the woman-a garden of beautiful flowers; the man-a gardener).

Where are the Male Stars?

In the 1990s, ABT was extremely successful in shaping young dancers into stars that would ultimately make a mark on the dance world. Dancers that joined ABT in their teens in the 1990s included Angel Corella (age 19), Herman Cornejo (18); David Hallberg (19); Marcelo Gomes (18); also add Julio Bocca who joined ABT in 1986 at age 19. However, the “farm team” pipeline went dry recently, with only Cory Stearns making it to Principal Dancer in 2011 after joining the ABT Studio Company in 2004 at age 19. At other companies, male dancers have risen to prominence during the same period such as Kimin Kim (age 25)-Mariinsky Ballet; Vladimir Shklyarov (33)-Mariinsky Ballet; Vadim Muntagirov (28)-Royal Ballet; and Denis Rodkin (27)-Bolshoi Ballet. For some reason, ABT has not developed a star male Principal Dancer since Hallberg was promoted to the highest rank in 2006.

For some reason, ABT has not developed a star male Principal Dancer since Hallberg was promoted to the highest rank in 2006.

Why the dearth in star men? Looking over the backgrounds of the current crop of male Corps members reveals a number that have distinguished training, excelling in ballet competitions such as Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), Lausanne, and Varna. For example, Andrii Ishchuk and Gray Davis took 1st Place at the YAGP New York finals; Sung Woo Han and Zhiyoo Zhang won the Silver and Bronze Medal at Prix de Lausanne, respectively; Joo Won Ahn took third place at Varna, with numerous other high finishers at prestigious competitions. I don’t have access to bios from 10 years ago, but think the backgrounds of the Corps members were probably similar with numerous ballet competition winners. Why none of the Corps members have risen to stardom recently given the ABT track record in the 1990s is a mystery to me. Hopefully, the development of young males will improve with the Monday appointment of Sascha Radetsky as the Director of the ABT Studio Company.

Making matters worse is that there are no male Soloists in line for promotion to Principal Dancer. The male Soloist rank consists of Thomas Forster, Joseph Gorak, Alexandre Hammoudi, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Arron Scott, and Roman Zhurbin. Only Gorak and Hammoudi have danced principal full-length roles (both as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Hammoudi in Swan Lake). While proficient and solid technically, none of the current Soloists are destined to be promoted.

Two Corps members showed potential in the Met season. Joo Won Ahn had a successful debut in La Bayadére, displaying skillful partnering and smooth solo work. Aran Bell as Rothbart in Swan Lake had the steps down, but needed more dramatic energy. I didn’t have the same overwhelming reaction to Aran’s dancing as I did seeing young Corella, Hallberg, Cornejo, or Gomes, who made great first impressions. I hope to be proven wrong and he follows in their large footsteps.

2018 Met Season in Review

ABT in the early 2000s provided double barrel star power in the form of Paloma Herrera/Angel Corella; Diana Vishneva/Marcelo Gomes; Nina Ananiashvili/Julio Bocca or Marcelo Gomes; Xiomara Reyes/Herman Cornejo. The frustrating thing about the 2018 Met season was the one-sided partnerships in favor of the women. There were great performances from Christine Shevchenko, Gillian Murphy, Devon Teuscher with solid but not distinguished work from their partners, generally Cory Stearns or James Whiteside. The women made compelling statements that rivaled their early 2000s counterparts while the men were just plain solid (although the reverse is true with the pairing of Misty Copeland and the consistently great Herman Cornejo). A piece of the puzzle is missing and it is dynamic work from the men. Met highlights:

  • Christine Shevchenko’s Odette/Odile Met debut in a Wednesday matineé was stunning, danced with great maturity, confidence, and authority. If this was her second performance in the role, I wonder what her future work will be like after more seasoning. Her dancing reminded me of former ABT great, Irina Dvorovenko with long neck and limbs, great extension, and high leaps.
  • Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg danced with great passion and vigor in a wonderful Romeo and Juliet. The pair was imbued with giddy love, displayed with great joy and affection. Jeffrey Cirio as Mercutio was the best that I have seen in a while. Jeffrey was fully in control, with nice turns and high leaps. His dramatic touches in his death scene projected throughout the cavernous Met Opera House. A great performance from Jeffrey.
  • Mariinsky Guest Artist Kimin Kim was spectacular as Solor in La Bayadére, filled with sky-high leaps and fluid turns. Kimin’s biggest asset is his great leaping ability, making even simple assemblés look riveting. His double assemblés en manége (first done by Rudolf Nureyev) were executed with great precision and energy, a difficult feat given how taxing the step is. He was consistent throughout his eight assemblés with great elevation. Dramatically, Kimin has great stage presence and portrayed Solor with authority.
  • In one of the few times this season, Lincoln Center was electric  with a full house (some paying $250 or more for orchestra seats) to see the birthday duo Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in Giselle. Approaching the Metropolitan Opera House, there was a buzz that reminded me of ABT 10-15 years ago when the company fielded superstar studded casts with regularity. Many were anticipating this performance for months and were holding their breath in anticipation due to David’s much publicized injury issues. Natalia and David did not disappoint, with a memorable performance.
  • I opened up my ABT Met season with a great Giselle Wednesday afternoon performance featuring Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin. With her small stature, Sarah was quite believable in Act I as a bashful young girl; she portrayed Giselle in an informal “aw-shucks” peasant demeanor as she encountered the dashing Count Albrecht. Daniil was an assertive count not lacking in self-confidence as he won over the young Giselle. Daniil was impressive on the dramatic side, with an energetic portrayal of the count that ranged from a cad chasing Giselle to a despondent soul that mourned her death. The two are an ideal pair, with effortless high-quality dancing. Daniil’s solo was outstanding as his tremendous technique commands the stage. Not a wobble on any of his difficult steps. Daniil was also in fine form later in the season in Don Quixote, with one of the best Basilio performances I’ve seen. Daniil is a joy to watch with his powerful, controlled steps. Sarah’s debut as Kirti with Herman Cornejo surprised me, with high leaps and very good turns. Note: The last three sentences corrected from the original. Thanks to Beth CP for pointing out my mistake. I also forgot to include Blaine Hoven’s name in the Soloist ranks above. Thanks to Betsey for pointing this out. 

2019 Met Season

ABT has great young women: Christine Shevchenko, Devon Teuscher, Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary. ABT needs to put these dancers at the front of the pack in terms of casting; they are that good. Christine is the most exciting dancer at ABT, on the path to stardom in the mold of Irina and Nina. Skylar is a technical whiz, ready to lead full-lengths such as Don Quixote. Devon and Cassandra impressed in the 2018 Met season. It would be a shame if ABT waited until their mid-to-late 30s to feature them as the company has done with previous dancers…only to realize their best days are behind them. Putting these women at the forefront would also shake up the monotonous lineup. I won’t go out of my way to Hee Seo or Misty Copeland in more technically challenging works as I have seen them in these roles (particularly Hee) over the past several years.

As for the men, ABT must figure something out with few young dancers coming to the rescue.