Guarding the Avant

by Leigh Witchel

Almost ten years ago, Alexei Ratmansky stunned the ballet world by not signing on permanently at New York City Ballet, instead heading across the plaza to American Ballet Theatre. Without rocking the pillars of the company, Ratmansky’s tenure has changed ABT: he’s as much a star now as the star dancers, and the company relies on his new ballets, both shorter and full-length. Even though he doesn’t run ABT, it’s becoming more and more a choreographer’s company.

For the fall season, Ratmansky created “Songs of Bukovina.” The work was in short episodes for a lead and four corps couples to piano pieces by a frequent collaborator, Leonid Desyatnikov.

A woman raced in, then two men. They stopped to look at one another, arms first held high, then drifting down slowly. The full corps paired off into four couples; the men lifted and held the women suspended aloft, revolving them like planets. The men danced, a mix of air turns and jogging – you can tell it’s a Ratmansky ballet when folks start to jog.

Calvin Royal III and Christine Shevchenko entered. All the costumes were simple and folk-influenced, like “Dances at a Gathering.” Hers, though, was bright red in contrast to the others’ paler hues and she entered like royalty, high on pointe. The group bowed to acknowledge the couple, and formed an aisle for them to walk through towards us.

After the women danced, Shevchenko did her own languid variation, raising up with her legs turned in and holding her hands over her eyes affecting sorrow. Royal came marching turned in with flexed feet as the men joined him for a dance with hints of conscription and war: he ran through the men, marching and ducking. After, he entered arm-in-arm for his main duet with Shevchenko, feet touching forward and back like a tango.

Darkness fell as the ballet headed to its close. Royal carried Shevchenko and supported her as she walked; behind them, the cast reprised its opening entries. The music ticked into an ostinato, and the two did partnered turns in front as the rest of the group skipped behind. Royal pitched Shevchenko into a double air toss and the ballet was done.

“Songs of Bukovina” was well-crafted but modest. Ratmansky’s conception of a group of dancers has always been closer to the community of “Dances at a Gathering” than the court of “Ballet Imperial.” Yet here, there was a faint glimmer of traditional hierarchy in the cast’s bow to Shevchenko and Royal as they entered, acknowledging that some couples are more equal than others.

The alternate cast of “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” gave us a lesson in how Ratmansky casts. In many ways this alternate cast was similar to the original, and the departures were illuminating. Zhiyao Zhang attacked his solos even more sharply than Herman Cornejo. Joseph Gorak has the kind of line that men can rarely achieve. Both his line and technique are so pristine and unforced that they read to ballet aficionados as feminine. His part’s originator, James Whiteside, parodied female technique in his solo with a hint of drag comedy. It’s hard for Gorak to burlesque technique; instead he served ballerina realness. The same thing happens in drag; some queens are funny, some queens are gorgeous, and a few are both.

Thomas Forster’s lankiness emphasized even more the Petrushka qualities in Blaine Hoven’s solo. Jose Sebastian’s fluid movement was similar in effect to Royal’s, but more controlled. Ratmansky pushed Tyler Maloney all season: the young dancer alternated Gabe Stone Shayer’s role, cutting into small beaten steps, but earlier in the month during Fall for Dance he subbed for Alban Lendorf, and in “Songs of Bukovina” he was front and center during a couples dance, or leading three women through a nocturne.

Ratmansky customized one section of “Serenade”: Arron Scott did chaînés and turning coupé jetés instead of Daniil Simkin’s barrel turns. Who knows, Simkin may have lawyered up and trademarked them, along with 540s. The woman who appeared as a distant presence was Hee Seo, but she wasn’t able, any more than Devon Teuscher, to make the part stand out in the way Ratmansky sees it, which is why his it’s-all-about-her ending still makes no sense.

Reaching into the company archives, Corey Stearns and Isabella Boylston danced Robbins’ “Other Dances” with one of its originators, Mikhail Baryshnikov, watching from the house. Stearns was a wee bit wombly, saving an attitude turn. His strength was his understanding of character; with a comic spin out of chaînés. If he didn’t nail every turn, he nailed the jokes. Boylston revolved into high extensions with ease and was right at home in the mercurial attack of the Robbins. Imagine if NYCB and ABT were like baseball teams, and traded players. Boylston for Chase Finlay would be a win-win.

The relationship of both New York ballet companies to new work has dogged them for decades. Other major players, such as San Francisco and Miami City Ballets have tooled themselves into commissioning companies; MCB with fewer, more establishment commissions, SFB more – like the city – into a large assortment of what’s new. ABT has never quite decided what it was as a commissioning body. Ratmansky wasn’t a decision, he was the world’s best accident.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III in “Songs of Bukovina.” Photo © Marty Sohl.

ABT also has a continued relationship with Benjamin Millepied; he was represented by two different works, a pièce d’occasion performed by ABT’s pre-professional dancers on the interior balconies of the theater and a new commission, “I Feel the Earth Move.”

If ABT is scattershot about commissioning, Millepied is clear about how he sees himself: as the avant-garde in ballet. If Paris changed Millepied, it made him even more enamored with what he could do on a stage besides dance. The intermission piece, “Counterpoint for Philip Johnson,” showed Millepied at his most engaged, dealing with what really interests him, theatrical effects. Dancers from the studio company and ABT’s school, in activewear by rag & bone, did a workout on three layers of the tiered promenade to Steve Reich. We watched from below and across the hall. The pace was like the endorphin rush from a marathon, and the steps were pure exertion and aerobics.

For “I Feel the Earth Move,” the stagehands stripped the stage in full view of the audience: shades of the 15 minute floor show by the stage crew at the Paris Opera for Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” turning nine dumpsters of dirt into raked perfection.

The piece, to short Philip Glass works, used three couples who danced in front of and disappearing into the corps. The sell point (and it’s a great one) was a solo for David Hallberg that used him exactly as the contemporary ballet dancer he’s dying to be. Millepied fashioned a free-range improv studded with luxurious tendus, bent elbows and windmilling arms. Both Hallberg’s line and his desire to distort it were acknowledged.

Hallberg was alone for what felt like a delicious hour (though it was probably two-three minutes) and Misty Copeland joined him for an arm-in-arm duet that unconsciously echoed the earlier one in “Songs of Bukovina.” Millepied also fashioned a virtuoso solo for Herman Cornejo. The two men have similar builds and strengths: Cornejo might be the closest thing for Millepied to choreographing on his own body. Millepied used the corps in lines and waves, echoing Robbins in his Glass works and even earlier, Massine’s symphonic ballets. There was a group finale, a fluorescent blackout and fini.

Millepied has been trying for years to dump his neoclassical roots, which makes sense as a challenge, if only to break ingrained patterns. “I Fell the Earth Move” is a solid, exciting work, that used its dancers gratefully. Is it a great leap forward into the cutting edge for ABT? Jesus Murphy no, it’s Philip Glass. I have those songs on cassette. Glass’ work has cycled through God knows how many choreographers and Millepied was borrowing from Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Peter Martins, Sarah Michelson, etc. If you’re trying to be avant-garde, the odds are 99% you will fail. The only thing you can succeed at is saying what matters to you.

Millepied has always been shrewd about his career and his product. He sees himself as the assimilation of ballet and contemporary trends, but the assimilation was going largely one way: besides the big jumps he excelled at when he was a dancer, what is Millepied bringing to the table from – and for – ballet? What’s missing from his dances is a sense of his core as a dancer and artist. His heart isn’t in the dance. It’s in the window dressing.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Songs of Bukovina,” “Other Dances,” “I Feel The Earth Move,” “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” – American Ballet Theatre
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
October 27, 2017

Cover: “I Feel the Earth Move.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

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