ABT Returns to the Met: Don Quixote

American Ballet Theatre opened its Spring Season with Don Quixote at the Metropolitan Opera House Monday after a three-year absence due to COVID-19 (with a one-month delayed start due to the ridiculous extension of the Met Opera season, resulting in a shortened ABT season from the traditional eight weeks to five weeks). Much has changed since I was last at the Met in July 2019, mostly bad, resulting from a terrible epidemic that took the lives of millions globally. Add national political strife and the result is one of the most turbulent three-year periods in U.S. history.

Don Quixote is a silly, light-hearted comedy, a welcome respite for those in the mood for sober reflection on the three-year absence. The company does the athletic, bravura Petipa work (staged by Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones) well and has been in heavy rotation in the company’s repertory over the years. The four performances I saw were at a high level, and the company has much to be proud of after a long Met Opera House hiatus.

Apparent is ABT’s turn to home-grown talent over fly-in guest artists of the Executive Director Rachel Moore era. I saw the Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday/Saturday evening performances with Skylar Brandt/Herman Cornejo; Catherine Hurlin/Joo Won Ahn (subbing for the injured Aran Bell); Christine Shevchenko/Aran Bell (subbing for the injured Cory Stearns); Isabella Boylston/Daniil Simkin. Except for Daniil, all are homegrown, with most having trained at the ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Daniil stepped in for James Whiteside, who injured his knee last December in Nutcracker.

My favorite performance of the four was Saturday evening with Isabella and Daniil. Both have performed the roles of Kitri and Basilio many times and are in their prime as dancers. Their experience and athleticism were thrilling to watch. Rather than reading about Daniil’s unique dancing, I have two YouTube videos on him. The first is a general video on his one-of-a-kind talent, and the second is his remarkable Don Quixote variation at the Kennedy Center in March. He grew to be one of my favorite dancers; I was disappointed that he left the company but thrilled that he stepped in for two performances. I hope that ABT will lure him back for Spring performances in the future (he currently is a Principal Dancer at Staatsballett Berlin-Berlin State Ballet).

Isabella was also on the mark with high jetés, especially her Act I Plisetskaya jumps. She opted for rapid single fouettés in the coda, which were done well. Her balances in the pas de deux were the best of the four, with lengthy pauses on pointe. The pair’s  partnering was solid, with nice one-arm lifts held for several seconds with Daniil going on relevé. An exceptional performance for a Father’s Day weekend.

Skylar and Herman also lit up the stage Tuesday. While both are at different stages of their careers (Herman just turned 41 while Skylar is still in her 20s), they make a good pair, equally matched in the athleticism department. Their partnering was secure, notably the one-arm lifts and numerous supported turns. Skylar is expressive on the dramatic side, making Kitri come alive in comedic segments, projecting to the vast Met Opera House crowd. Her balances in the pas de deux were a bit disappointing as I have seen her on Instagram with insane balances; her balances Tuesday were okay but a bit shaky. I heard her Saturday matinee balances improved with Karen Backstein on Instagram calling them “inhuman.” Skylar is a strong turner, and she powered through a set of solid fouettés broken up with double and triple pirouettes with hands on her hips. Herman doesn’t have the dynamic energy he had ten years ago, but can still generate many effortless turns and can outperform much younger dancers. He has been one of my favorites since the late 1990s; check out my YouTube video profile explaining why he is one of the best of his generation.

For months, I eagerly anticipated the pairing of Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, but Aran was unable to perform Wednesday evening. Someone at ABT told me it was a “minor injury.” Joo Won Ahn replaced Aran and delivered a quality performance. He partnered with Catherine in the Don Quixote pas de deux in mixed rep performances last summer, but I don’t think they have done the full-length ballet before. Ahn is a steady turner, and the highlight was his turns in second position in the coda. Catherine’s fouettés were memorable, some of the most aggressive, powerful, and well-controlled fouettés I have seen. Sitting in the front row, you could almost feel a wind draft from her foot swirling around the stage. She broke up her fouettés with various arm positions with her hand overhead holding a paper fan, with double pirouettes. Very nice and athletic.

My disappointment in missing Aran Wednesday was erased on Thursday when he replaced the injured Cory Stearns, dancing with Christine Shevchenko. Christine and Aran have not performed the role together, and it must have been challenging to put together at the last minute. They gave a solid performance, a credit to them given the lack of preparation. They were somewhat conservative on supported turns and cut a few short, understandable given the situation. Aran scaled back his variation from the Kennedy Center I posted on YouTube in the video below. He cut the funky steps such as the whipping double tours to arabesque and double saut de basque in attitude I explained in my video. His best moments were his turns, with 5-6 consistent rotations. The highlight was his turns in second position in the coda with triple turns in arabesque with a Flamenco line. Very nice. Christine’s variations were crisp and exuberant.

All of the women excelled in the fouetté section, with various nuances. The turning parts are a welcome improvement over several years ago; the ABT youth movement is bearing fruit.

The Flower Girls usually don’t stand out, and their variations serve as a breather for Kitri and Basilio between the pas de deux and variations. However, this year, several excelled, including Chloe Misseldine, with sweeping turns in second, Breanne Grandlund and Betsy McBride, the Texas duo with training at the Ballet Academy of Texas. Also lovely to see Paulina Waski back after a stint at Boston Ballet.

The male role in the Gypsy Couple serves as a short, athletic burst of energy for young, up-and-coming guys. This role was disappointing; Jonathan Klein was the only dancer with the energy to pull it off.

There were a number of inspiring Mercedes and Espada performances including Cassandra Trenary Tuesday, Zhong-Jing Fang Wednesday, Calvin Royal III Thursday, and Thomas Forster Saturday evening.

The performances were well attended, with a packed house Saturday evening, with few empty seats Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday attendance was lighter and ballet fans missed the Aran’s unexpected fireworks.

On to the New York premier of Alexi Ratmansky’s Of Love and Rage Monday. ABT debuted the work in March 2020 in Orange County, California right before the COVID shutdowns.