Seven Debuts in Thrilling ABT Giselle Week

It was a thrilling week for American Ballet Theatre. The company performed at Lincoln Center (Koch Theater) for the first time in two years with a Giselle run with interesting casting in principal roles. The company, known for staid casting with little innovation, had debuts (some previously debuted at the Kennedy Center in February 2020) in six out of the twelve Giselle/Albrecht roles in the six performances. I viewed the new casts, avoiding the first and last performances with experienced dancers. My family asked, “How can you watch the same ballet four times in three days, including a Saturday doubleheader?” but the new talent in this iconic ballet made for a riveting experience. Also, getting out of my pajamas into real clothes and walking to Lincoln Center felt like the world was a normal place after all of the COVID months. Check out my curtain call photos on my photography website notmydayjobphotography.com.

Three debut dancers gave top-rank interpretations that rival the best Giselle performances I have seen: Aran Bell, Skylar Brandt, and Christine Shevchenko.

Skyler was paired with Herman Cornejo Thursday and delivered a stunning performance filled with great athleticism and nuance. Skylar’s journey to Giselle was non-standard, documented in a fascinating¬†New York Times article by Gia Koulas. Up to her promotion to Principal Dancer in September 2020, Skylar danced Soloist roles and an occasional principal role when lead injuries came up. Based on discussions with ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie hinting at major casting, Skylar worked with former ABT Principal Dancers Maxim Beloserkovsky and Irina Dvorovenko (with rich documentation on her Instagram feed) to prepare for the lead Giselle role. With substantial prodding of McKenzie, Skyler landed a coveted Giselle slot at the Kennedy Center in early 2020. That she had to prod ABT to cast her in leading roles reflects negatively on the artistic wisdom of the company.

Skylar looks the part of a frail young woman smitten by the Count in Act I as she descends to madness. Her mad scene was believable without being overdramatic. In the Act I Spessivtseva variation, most impressive was her control on her attitude pirouettes and her space-eating hops on pointe in which she traveled most of the substantial diagonal. Her great athleticism in Act II allowed her to mount an aggressive defense of the Count from Myrta, Queen of the Wilis with bold hops in attitude and airy leaps. A complete work with exemplary technical prowess and dramatic energy.

Herman was stellar as Count Albrecht. At age 40, Herman is in the twilight of his illustrious career. Although he is not as buoyant as he was in his 20s (see the video above at 8:40 in his spectacular Albrecht solo from 2006 when he was 25 years of age), he still surpasses most dancers. His solo featured his jackhammer big split double cabrioles, supple double tours, and smooth turns. Although Baryshnikov essentially has this step copyrighted, Herman did the brisé approach to Myrta with substantial emotion (see 1:27:40).  His partnering was solid, featuring a unique overhead lift in which he very slowly lifted Skylar over his head. Slow overhead lifts are generally a product of improper hand placement or lack of proper momentum, and the result is a struggle to get the woman off the ground. Two lifts were done similarly with significant control. Skylar is a good match for Herman, one of the few partners that can match his athleticism since he danced with Xiomara Reyes, who retired at ABT in 2015, and I look forward to their partnership.

Christine Shevchenko and Aran Bell. Click for more curtain call photos.

Another significant performance was Saturday evening with Christine Shevchenko and Aran Bell. Saturday was her debut in the role, while Aran performed it at the Kennedy Center in early 2020. They looked as if they have done the role many times. If there were any weaknesses in either dancer’s interpretation, I couldn’t find any. Christine’s Spessivtseva variation was very well controlled with effortless movements. Like Skylar, Christine demonstrated a high degree of technical athleticism in Act II with great dramatic timing. At only age 23, Aran looks like a seasoned pro. His solo was breathtaking, with wonderful double cabrioles, double tours, effortless turns. With his young legs, he completed 33 entrechat six, a demonstration of great technique and stamina (see my ballet dictionary at 3:00 which shows Roberto Bolle in the step along with commentary on the difficulty of stringing together so many).

Also in ABT debuts were Thomas Forster/Gillian Murphy on Friday and Cassandra Trenary/Calvin Royal III Saturday afternoon (Correction: Gillian previously danced the role at ABT in addition to Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2012). Thomas and Calvin are similar, both solid technically but lacking electricity. Their solos were in good shape, with both electing single cabrioles in their opening diagonals, smooth pirouettes, and expressive double tours. Their dramatic interpretations, particularly Calvin with Cassandra, were expressive. The key task for both is building on their successful debuts to take it to the next level.

I enjoyed Cassandra more in Act II, with rapid and dramatic attitude turns and leaps that drew applause from the crowd. Her Act I solo had a mishap on the diagonal hops as she came off pointe, but she finished strong.

The Myrta Queen of the Wilis role was in good form for the week. Devon Teuscher was outstanding Saturday evening with an ice-cold demeanor. She showed great control on her opening adagio with rock-solid arabesques. Later with smooth and rapid turns, a very impressive performance. Katherine Williams also gave an outstanding interpretation Friday evening. Stephanie Peterson (formerly Williams) had her debut Thursday and demonstrated a steely resolve.

The Peasant Pas de Deux generally lacked energy. This dance is an important stepping stone for dancers on their way (hopefully) to bigger roles. Carlos Gonzales (Saturday evening) and Katherine Williams (Saturday afternoon) were exceptions. Carlos danced with great electricity with high double tours and articulated beats, with solos finished with controlled double tours.

The Corps in Act II were impressive, moving in synch, particularly in the arabesque chug section. Very impressive given the limited time preparing.

Starting the Fall Season with a Giselle run was a great idea after cancelling two Met Opera House seasons. Koch Theater was packed for several performances as ballet fans tried to catch up after a long absence. Dancers demonstrated the results of their hard work over lockdowns with high-level performances. ABT should be proud of pulling off this significant work.