In the second week of its fall season at Lincoln Center, American Ballet Theatre introduced a series of mixed bills that combine new and older works. The elder statesman here is Frederick Ashton. His ballet “The Dream,” from 1964, is a miraculous work that combines the most refined comedic timing—all musically-based—with amazing narrative clarity and gorgeous through-the-body movement that sends shivers through the spine. How did Ashton accomplish something so full in just one act? Aspiring choreographers should be forced to study “The Dream” in school, the way sculptors study statuary.
On this program, “The Dream” is combined with Alexei Ratmansky’s 2019 “The Seasons,” a feast of classical dancing to Glazunov’s suggestive, colorful score. The ballet was made as a kind of love letter to the company on Ratmansky’s 10th anniversary at ABT. Each soloist in its large cast is given a moment to show off his or her essence: speed, sweetness, pliancy in the upper body, clarity in the legs. The ensemble echoes and comments on the soloists’ action. As usual with Ratmansky, the audience’s eyes are constantly darting from here to there in order not to miss a thing. The over-riding feeling is one of generosity and celebration.
The company’s second repertory program opens with two new or newish works, Jessica Lang’s “Children’s Song Dance,” from last year, and Christopher Rudd’s world premiere “Lifted,” and closes with Jiří Kylián’s 1978 “Sinfonietta,” set to Leos Janacek’s composition of the same name. “Lifted” is Rudd’s second work for the company, after his pas de deux exploring male eroticism, “Touché,” last year. The new work is a meditation on racial identity within the still mostly white world of ballet. Like “Touché,” it features Calvin Royal III, the company’s sole Black male principal, a dancer of enormous elegance and beauty who not so long ago débuted as ”Apollo.”
Here he is joined by four other Black dancers in the company, Erica Lall, Courtney Lavine, Melvin Lawovi, and José Sebastian. In fact the entire artistic team is African-American, from the composer, Carlos Simon, to the designers and conductor, the Germany-based Roderick Cox. It does the heart good to see and hear the work of a Black conductor, an all-too-infrequent occurrence. Cox drew out a sensitive reading of the score, a suite melded from various works by Simon, including “Breathe,” “Elegy,” and “Requiem for the Enslaved.” It is music—romantic, lush, mercurial, with Ravel-like swoop—that rewards close listening.
The ballet itself is a straightforward dance-theater work in which first Royal, and then all five dancers, are repeatedly drawn toward their own reflection, in the form of two mirrored walls that can be moved around, and a pool of reflective flooring on the left side of the stage. There are echoes of the myth of Narcissus, except that in this case the dancers’ reflections, to which they are drawn again and again, seem to produce a mixture of fascination and self-doubt rather than the self-love that is the theme of that myth.
The mirrored walls are also, of course, a metaphor for the ballet studio, the dancers’ natural habitat. There is a hint of Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun” at the beginning. As in that ballet, we first see a male dancer (Royal) alone in the studio, languidly stretching and unfolding his limbs. Soon enough, a leggy nymph (Erica Lalla) arrives to join him in his solitude. But instead of awakening eroticism, as her arrival does in the Robbins ballet, here the relationship is one of mutual support and understanding. Gradually, as the five dancers arrive and begin to interact, we see them watch and respond to each other. When one of them stands apart, unsure of his place, they hold out a hand, until finally, he joins them in a circle around the reflective pool.
Llike “Touché,” “Lifted” suffers somewhat from excessive literalness and from a static quality that privileges gesture and the communication of meaning over movement. Simon’s music has more dance potential than we see here. The piece is also somewhat over-long. The dancers are expressive and invested in its narrative and imagery, but their prodigious dancing abilities are underused. (I particularly wished for Lavine, a dancer of refinement and delicacy, to be given more to do.) But then, this is not really a piece about dancing, but about an idea—the idea that ballet needs to do more for Black artists, to, as it were, hold out a hand.
The program had opened with a work by Jessica Lang to Chick Corea’s piano suite “Children’s Songs,” played by Emily Wong onstage. Lang originally created “Children’s Songs Dances” for the Studio Company, last year; the dancers have since joined the main company, and one, Sunmi Park, is already a soloist. But Lang’s ballet has retained a breezy gentleness, one that reflects the clarity and gentle simplicity of Corea’s piano pieces. Each of the short sections has a movement theme: a skating step in the first, a quick series of piqués in another, an arm movement, up and down, reflecting a two-note figure in the music, in another.
Entrances and exits are deftly handled, as is the arithmetic of the stage. A trio becomes a quartet, a duet becomes a solo, and then morphs into a trio. The fluidity of these additions and subtractions is a tribute to Lang’s craft, as is the way she shows the dancer’s refined technique. (Sunmi Park and Elwince Magbitang were especially impressive.) Generally, Lang avoids the suggestion of deeper significance, but in one section, she plays with hints of characterization and narrative. A man climbs onto another man’s back, and they march forward, as if on a battlefield; two women gallop on, lifting one arm like the cowgirls in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.” A little bit more of this would give the dance more heft.
As a closer, the dancers performed Kylián’s “Sinfonietta,” a bracingly energetic ensemble work for fourteen dancers. Brass players stand above the pit, and the bright, ringing sound of their instruments fills the theater and seems to buoy the dancers as they leap across the stage. It is unusually dancey for Kylián (it’s an early work), and the dancers visibly relish the opportunity to let loose, soaring and running, chests open. In 1925, Janacek dedicated his rousing score to “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy.” This sense of freedom is well illustrated by the dance. The men, in particular, shine here. The company has an exciting crop of male dancers rising up through the ranks, particularly Jarod Curley, Patrick Frenette, Carlos Gonzalez, Sung Woo Han, and João Menegussi.
So often, many of these dancers are in the background. This program belongs to them. May they, as well as the five African-American dancers in “Lifted,” and the young corps dancers in “Children’s Songs Dance,” get the roles and opportunities they deserve.