American Ballet Theatre Fall Review: Rebooting the Company and Revisiting the Past
American Ballet Theatre Fall Review October 21, 2023 | David H. Koch Theater – New York, NY, USA
The pressure of curating a seat-selling season is nothing new to an Artistic Director but as American Ballet Theatre’s fall 2023 season is Susan Jaffe’s first in her new leadership position, the opportunity for scrutiny is elevated.
Jaffe calls her selections “indicative of the foundations of our artform as much as it signals the direction in which ABT and ballet are evolving”. It is questionable whether that last bit holds true as none of the works were premieres, only one done by a woman, and one by a person of color.
However, what Jaffe does succeed in is dusting off work the company should have been doing for the past twenty years: Petite Mort, Ballet Imperial, Études. Even the gala evening is reverential (the company will perform back-to-back pas de deux – a nod to ABT galas of the past).
While it was likely enticing to catapult ABT into the now with more evocative works, the fall season serves as a welcome reboot for the company, planting small seeds, daffodils in place of daisies, but hopefully making room for a new flora species down the road.
American Ballet Theatre Fall Review
Originally part of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, his charmingly nationalistic Piano Concerto No. 1 opened the October 21st matinee. Although the other works in the Shostakovich trio, particularly Symphony #9, would be worthy of a spotlight as well, this work has been plucked from the group and often showcased as a standalone piece.
Set to a concerto of piano, trumpet, and strings with a cast of sixteen, the work is both bubbly yet stern, proud and bashful. Designs by George Tsypin feature whimsical red shapes (half-moons, stars, rainbows) dangling from the ceiling on strings. In opposition to the playful charms, an ominous backdrop reminiscent of distorted triangular shadows pressed against hammered glass evokes a distant, underlying darkness.
Reinforcing the patriotic feel, the costumes feature unitards of steel blue fronts and ruby red backs (designed by Keso Dekker), creating the illusion of flipping of a card, its jacket on one side and number on the other. When the dancers faced front or back in unison, I could almost feel my pupils adjusting to the color change.
Ratmansky excels in building romantic, sculptural lines whether in pauses (when twelve corps de ballet dancers formed poses akin to human Rorschach prints) or within movement (when Hee Seo lowered to her knees with palms reaching up to the sky).
A second Ratmansky-ism, if you will, is skipping – but he has made it cool again. One of the the first steps taught in toddler ballet class, skipping is integral to learning timing and shifting weight. In Ratmansky’s works, they conjure the feeling of a simplistic, village life – something close–knit and sweet but athletically braided amongst power and chaos.
The discord operates like confetti falling to the ground, the formations in Piano Concerto No. 1 defy symmetry and instead clumps or lines form only to disintegrate into something else, making for a lovely dance of the eyes as you try to capture everything.
Leading the charge of dancers alongside Seo were principal dancers Catherine Hurlin and Thomas Forster, and corps de ballet member Jarod Curley. Hurlin and Curley were all fire and caffeine while Seo and Forster were ache and desire, culminating in a divine pas de deux.
The brief, but poignant Petite Mort by Jiří Kylián filled the middle spot of the triple bill. It is exciting not only to see this on ABT’s roster again (after almost twenty years) but to have it available in NYC.
If you were to get a Kylián starter kit, Petite Mort would be included and it is surprising it, and his other seminal works, aren’t done here more often. ABT performed his Sinfonietta at their gala last year, which is more influenced by the classical ballet form, a safe piece for ABT.
“Petite mort” is French for “little death” – which is also an innuendo for the feeling after an orgasm. If you didn’t go into the theater knowing this, you would surely pick up on the sensuality – the piece is a metaphor yet not subtle. Dancers gyrate as their partners lifted them into the air, legs went splay, phallic swords are proudly swished about.
A deep, haunting hum spilled into the audience before the curtain rose. It revealed six men with swords balancing perpendicular on their fingertips. Staying in sync with each other’s breaths, the men cut, spin, and twist their swords a variety of ways. Just when you’re getting into the rhythm of their chest slaps, woodwind-like breaths, and bare feet squeaking against the marley floor – they fall to plank positions and Mozart’s abrupt piano notes fall over everyone like heavy rain drops (played beautifully by Evangelos Spanos).
The group eventually grows to six couples – each of them breaking out for individual pas de deux full of sensual shapes and clenched fists. Props in the form of wooden Rococo dresses on wheels act as disguises for the dancers; they pitch them side to side and lay their heads at the dresses’ waists, inspiring chuckles from the audience.
Ditching the toe shoes and stiff tutus of the classical world, dancers don nude trunks or corseted leotards and their bare feet press against the floor. The dancers looked free, trusting each other to lay supple across their partners, becoming vulnerable with each other.
And that is perhaps due to both the dancers' openness and Kylián’s choreography which works towards a refined eroticism, something relatable, gentle, reciprocated.
ABT closed their program with Harald Lander’s exuberant Études – a classic I was itching to see the company in. At its core, Études is a study in classical ballet and the steps that are necessary to build a foundation which then culminates in bravura jumps, multiple turns, and demanding fouettés.
Devised of small musical snippets by composer Carl Czerny (some seemed just a minute long) the piece operates in vignettes. First, we have dancers in tutus doing various versions of barre class: tendus, rondes de jambe, développés, and several ports de bras which were repeated in different formations but beautifully lit in an ocean blue silhouette.
The steps are uncomplicated in the beginning and then BAM – everyone is spinning and jumping and fighting for their lives out there (shoutout to the corps for tackling those turns).
However, the risk/reward formula seems a bit off.
The steps are demanding but not creative (fouetté turns on repeat) and the costumes looked dull and bland (basic white and black tutus that didn’t look properly pressed or crisp white anymore).
Principals Devon Teuscher, Joo Won Ahn, and Herman Cornejo took the task head on and bulldozed through it – Teuscher finding regality in both the romantic and trick-heavy moments, Ahn turning like smooth syrup, and Cornejo revving up the audience with swag and literal finger snaps.
Unfortunately, the piece reads like a stereotype of ballet, unrelenting and with little compensation.
Nadia Vostrikov is a former television actress and dancer for Boston Ballet II, Alberta Ballet, and numerous freelance dance companies. She currently works as a Digital Marketer in NYC. (Photo by: Katrina Cunningham)