ABT Today-The Future Starts Now: Struggling for Relevance

Above Photo: Betsey McBride, Jacob Clerico, Anabel Katnelson, Duncan McIlwaine, Erica Lall, Melvin Lawovi in Indestructible Light American Ballet Theatre’s ABT Today: The Future Starts Now on YouTube, which filled in for the canceled fall season Koch Theatre fundraising gala, presented four works performed in upstate New York and Connecticut, where the dancers and teams worked together in “ballet bubbles.” ABT is way behind the curve in entertaining the masses during the COVID crisis; while other companies large and small (New York City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Royal Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, New Jersey Ballet Company, San Francisco Ballet to name a few) have presented relevant at home digital seasons, ABT has been on the sidelines, with this production its first digital COVID-period performance. While the Royal Ballet produced a grand gala production at the Royal Opera House (see my Royal Ballet Back on Stage review), ABT’s effort had little impact and lasting value. With Gemma Bond’s piece an exception, the other three works are unlikely to be seen again. With the 2021 ABT Metropolitan Opera House Spring Season likely to be canceled due to COVID and lack of digital production, ABT struggles for relevance. ABT Today: The Future Starts Now did not advance its cause.

Thoughts on the Four Works

My favorite was Gemma Bond’s CONVIVIUM with Thomas Forster, Carlos Gonzalez, Breanne Granlund, and Katherine Williams. The mysterious 10-minute work filmed in black and white was the only one that I wished for more. Gemma’s choreography has pleasing symmetry with weaving patterns and flow to John Harbison’s Variations for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. The work was well danced, showcasing young talent, notably Carlos Gonzalez.

Gemma Bond’s CONVIVIUM with Thomas Forster, Carlos Gonzalez, Breanne Granlund, and Katherine Williams. Screenshot from ABT Today video.

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Indestructible Light was a much needed uplifting work in an otherwise dour evening. The piece was fun, set to jazz from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Neal Hefti, and Billy Strayhorn. The work showcased six dancers’ young talents with Melvin Lawovi, Anabel Katsnelson, and Betsy McBride standing out with great energy.

David is a film on former ABT Principal Dancer David Hallberg by Pam Tanowitz and Jeremy Jacob. It opens with David in an apartment leafing through a book on Michelangelo’s David, turning to Hallberg dancing at the Pavilion in the Pond on the grounds of the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. At the Glass House, he struck statuesque poses with stark silence at times. Not much was memorable in this six-minute work. Touché by Christopher Rudd with Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi aimed to “normalize gay love.” It was high on shock value but low on artistic value.

Launch of RISE

The fundraising celebration marked the public launch of ABT RISE (Representation and Inclusion Sustain Excellence), with funds raised advancing ABT’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The ABT RISE video was narrated by Kimberly Ayers Shariff, Chief Administration Officer. Noteworthy was the company’s opaque criticism of its history in its 80th anniversary season: Shariff said that ABT and its people “…have made a commitment to deeply examine ABT’s past, consider our failures and build on our success…” while Principal Dancer Devon Teuscher pushed the need for “…researching ABT’s history and reckoning with its past.” This reckoning is awkward for Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, who has been ABT’s Artistic Director for the past 29 years, roughly 40% of its existence. If there are issues with ABT’s past and a need for a re-examination, shouldn’t it start with his stewardship? Also of interest, the company noted that works created in the ballet bubbles were on land forcibly taken from various Native American tribes. I am not sure of these messages’ purpose aside from virtue signaling; I wonder if ABT will have similar disclosure for its Lincoln Center performances.