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Catherine Hurlin in “Don Quixote.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

Sevillana

American Ballet Theatre's “Don Quixote”

Performance
American Ballet Theatre: “Don Quixote”
Place
Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, June 14 and 15, 2022
Words
Marina Harss

It’s been three years since American Ballet Theatre last stepped onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, three years since it rolled out its well-worn productions of evening-length story ballets. The Met season is a kind of hit parade, and the current run is no different: It begins with the festive pseudo-Spanish extravaganza “Don Quixote” and ends with Kenneth MacMillan’s tear-jerker “Romeo and Juliet.” With, in the middle, no less than twelve performances of “Swan Lake.” The exceptions to this succession of super-familiar works are Ratmansky’s new “Of Love and Rage,” which opens next week, and a mixed bill that includes a new ballet by Alonzo King, running July 7-9.

A lot has transpired in these past three years. Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director since 1992, announced his departure, at the end of 2022. A new director, Susan Jaffe, has been announced. Dancers retired (Stella Abrera and David Hallberg among them), and a whole raft of dancers, including Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary, and Calvin Royal III, were promoted to principal.

ABT, like New York City Ballet, is in a significant moment of transition. What will it become? What kind of audience will it attract? Who will be its stars?

With so many balls up in the air, the company decided to play it safe, rolling out the dependable “Don Quixote,” a ballet that brings in a hard-core ballet audience looking for a night of pyrotechnics, dancer-spotting, and good fun. Over the course of seven performances (not counting the gala), ABT is fielding five different casts; almost all include dancers performing their roles for the first time in New York. To fill in its rather thin rank of principal men, Daniil Simkin, who since 2018 has been a principal in Berlin, has been brought back, and Daniel Camargo, a Brazilian dancer based at the Dutch National Ballet, has been invited as a guest.

In a way, the first week has served as a check-up of the company’s health. One after another, both veterans and a new wave of younger dancers have stepped into the roles of Kitri and Basilio, as well as the secondary characters of Mercedes (a sexy street dancer), Espada (a vainglorious matador), and Amour (the skittering mistress of ceremonies in Quixote’s dream ballet). Even the flower girls, who so often feel like filler, have been interesting to watch, particularly when one of them is danced by Chloe Misseldine, who combines a sense of humor with elegance, confidence, and a sprightly jump, surprising in a dancer so flexible and lithe.

Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin in “Don Quixote.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

The news is both good and bad. The production, it must be said, with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto, and staging by Kevin McKenzie, looks tired, worn out, and in need of sprucing up. But the women in the company seem to be thriving. In each of the three casts I saw, which included two New York débuts, the Kitris (Skylar Brandt, Isabella Boylston, and Catherine Hurlin) were strong, individual, and more than capable of taking on the ballet’s technical challenges. Each shone in a different way. Brandt (débuting) was detailed, fine-tuned, and polished. Her acting, too, is superbly attuned to each situation. With time, she’ll relax into the role and make it more her own. Boylston, a more experienced principal, danced with ease and brilliance, creating the impression that she was dancing for the fun of it. (This was true despite the fact that her face is not particularly expressive—her joy emanates from the way she moves.)  Boylston’s jump, which has a pop to it, is a particular source of pleasure. In the split jumps made famous by Maya Plisetskaya, her back foot practically smacked her in the head.

Catherine Hurlin, the youngest of the three and still a soloist, danced as if she had been born to the role. She took possession of the stage from the very first moment, responding to everyone onstage and throwing herself into the choreography as if nothing could possibly go wrong. She is a force of nature and a wonderful comedienne, with a face that registers every reaction and joke. Her kid-like glee, so winning in the crowd scenes in old Seville, belies an impressive ballerina technique. In fact, Hurlin seemed so on top of her game that it came as a surprise when she was a bit cowed by the unsupported balances in the Act III pas de deux.  But moments later, her fouetté turns, executed with a particular zing and peppered with doubles, brough the audience to its feet.  

The ranks of men are a looking thinner. Herman Cornejo, partnering Brandt, was impeccable, even if his jumps have lost some of their gasp-inducing airiness. (In 2019 he celebrated 20 years with the company.)  His focus now is on the finessing of turns, each of which he modulates to different effect. The one-handed lifts went off without a whiff of trouble, but the heavy-handedness of his partnering had the unfortunate effect of slowing the momentum of Brandt’s turns. Even so Cornejo is a warm, playful actor, even, at times, a ham, which, in Don Q, is just fine.

Simkin, brought in for the occasion, was his usual audience-pleasing, teasing self, always ready with a new twist on a jump, a new variation on a turn (leg out, leg in, leg forward, leg back, with an extra pause, faster, slower, etc). In this quest for extra revolutions and bigger effects, he tends to tense up his upper body, but overall, his dancing is sleek and impressive.

Herman Cornejo in “Don Quixote.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

Joo Won Ahn, who partnered Hurlin in place of an injured Aran Bell, was stalwart and handsome, but lacked pizazz. His interpretation of the role of Basilio was romantic and soft-edged, but his turns were a bit wonky and he used two hands rather than one in the overhead lifts. He is perhaps miscast as Basilio, a role that is all about flash, which is also true of all three men— Blaine Hoven, Gabe Stone Shayer, and Calvin Royal III—I saw in the role of the Matador. Hoven was too matter of fact, Royal too refined, and Shayer, while displaying high extensions and deep backbends, seemed to be dancing mainly for himself.

One might have thought Devon Teuscher—a pure, elegant, classicist—might be miscast as the sexy Mercedes, but, with her characteristic intelligence and subtlety, she pulled it off. She is, if such a thing is possible, the classiest street dancer in Seville. (Cassandra Trenary took a different approach, throwing herself into the street-dancing scene with the conviction of a method actor.)  In ABT’s production, Mercedes doubles as the Queen of the Dryads in the dream ballet, and here, Teuscher came spectacularly into her own: the lowering of her arms from fifth position overhead, ever so majestically, felt like a major event, as did the slow, weighty, rhythm of her Italian fouettés.

The dream, in general, is a beautiful display of Petipa’s use of the corps as moving architecture: alleys, sculptural groups, graceful geometric perspectives. (It is the only part of the ballet that is said to recall Petipa’s original nineteenth century choreography, before it was revised by Alexander Gorsky and others.) There are three contrasting female leads: the Dryad Queen, Kitri, and Amour. Often Kitri and the Queen of the Dryads echo each other’s movements, creating a satisfying mise-en-abyme. At one point Amour partners Kitri in a series of balances—this is a completely feminine world, in which women fill every role.

Here, too, there was a discovery: Léa Fleytoux, who joined the corps de ballet shortly before the start of the pandemic, in 2019. Fleytoux made Amour’s fast, sparkling jumps and bourrées look like kids’ play, topping them off with a charming lilt in the upper body and a soaring jump that had her flying across the stage as if buoyed by tiny wings.

These dancers inspire hope and excitement. But there is no denying a certain feeling of stasis at the company, embodied by the shopworn set. This season, Kevin McKenzie’s last at the Met, marks the end of an era. The question is: what will the next era look like? What new ideas will Susan Jaffe bring? Are we destined to see the same productions of “Don Quixote” and “Swan Lake” forever? Who will reinforce the rather meagre ranks of principal men? And what will happen when the contract of its current artist in residence, Alexei Ratmansky, runs out at the end of 2023? The future of these dancers, and of the company, hangs in the balance.