At the Koch Theater, it is fairly easy to catch a ballet version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set to Mendelssohn. Likewise, a silly, yet bravura, dance loosely scaffolded by The Four Seasons is regularly programmed there. But these statements are only true when the choreographers are George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, not Frederick Ashton and Alexei Ratmansky. During week two of American Ballet Theater’s Fall Season at the Koch, it was a little surreal, yet illuminating, to see variations on perennial New York City Ballet rep more regularly performed across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Ashton’s “The Dream,” which opened the double bill, especially felt like an away game. For though his version reads quite differently from Balanchine’s, it is remarkably similar in its staging. And when seen on the Koch stage, “The Dream’s” kindred sets, lighting, props, and fog effects feel like an eerie, alternate-reality version. These works are frequently delineated by the explanation that “The Dream” is an abridged version of the tale, while Balanchine’s treatment is a full-length, but this distinction doesn’t really hold water. Balanchine covers the entire plot in Act I of his version, which runs 68 minutes. Ashton’s 52-minute suite covers everything but the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta. So Balanchine’s Act 1 held up against “The Dream” is a very fair fight. Apples to oranges, this is not. Balanchine and Ashton’s careers can be regarded similarly. They had much in common: they were born in the same year (1904) and both revolutionized ballet—though on opposite sides of the pond. But their legacies are totally unalike. Their Mendelssohn Midsummers, made only two years apart (Balanchine 1962, Ashton 1964), provide perhaps the best chance to do a head-to-head comparison. There is little separating these ballets other than tone, musicality, and style—but that is everything.
To me, Ashton’s “Dream” is a bit like a Monty Python sketch of Balanchine’s “Midsummer.” (This is not a dig, I’m a massive fan of the Pythons.) He goes for broad comedy. While Balanchine’s donkey is a gentle, hapless creature who scratches his leg a few times, Ashton’s Bottom is a throwback, pointe-shoe drag role. He rubs his butt lewdly all over a tree. Balanchine’s characters do hilarious things, in pathetic situations, but they are never buffoonish. Save for some of the human men, they are very glamorous. Ashton’s characters, on the other hand, are not afraid to make asses of themselves, whether they are donkeys or not. His Titania and Oberon cartoonishly struggle over the Changeling, with pouty little hiccup steps. They end up in a tug-of-war over the child. Balanchine’s king and queen of fairydom would never abase themselves with such moves. The Titania of “Midsummer” stands imperiously still during the Changeling quarrel. Ashton, like many Brits, seems to enjoy taking the piss out of his monarchs, while Balanchine seems to have a deep reverence for his royals.
The way the men arranged Mendelssohn’s score also reveals their tonal divide. Though Balanchine interspersed other works by the composer, he left each segment intact. Ashton cut the Mendelssohn up into small bits, so that certain motifs follow specific characters around like epithets. These themes cut in and out as characters enter and exit; it’s a bit like Loony Tunes. Perhaps most telling: the music Ashton selected for his royal couple’s loving reunion is the same that Balanchine employed for his joke pas de deux for Titania and Bottom. When Balanchine needed music to evoke true love for his second act Divertissement couple, he borrowed the andante from Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 9—no braying brass instruments allowed. This pas, “Midsummer’s” grandest moment, moves at a glacial pace. It is a meditation on trust and, when done right, its near-invisible partnering reads as magical. Though the dancers remain grounded, the effect is transporting. Conversely, Ashton’s climactic “Dream” pas is playful and bubbly. His pair frolics with repeated poisson jumps, both partnered and alone. Titania does witchy shimmies and collapses over into pikes in Oberon’s arms. She hangs upside down in penché while Oberon emphasizes every shift in his handholds. Both pas are beautiful, but they are diametrically opposed.
Another huge differentiation is Balanchine’s use of children. His adorable, winged, insect corps of kiddies supplies the innocence, the adults tackle the drama. Ashton’s cutesy grownup cast—some sporting bows as big as bustles—handles both. When the curtain rises on “The Dream,” Ashton’s fairies scurry across the stage much like Balanchine’s baby bugs, to the same music. They possess a childlike wonder, to go with their teensy tiny sylph wings. Their opening dance resembles the “Sleeping Beauty” vision scene with its skimming emboîtés. Balanchine’s fairies, in contrast, are wingless Amazonian showgirls. They do sexy, turned-in drag steps and defend their queen like warriors. They flank a feather boa-trimmed shell bed on which Titania drapes herself like a movie star.
Ashton’s Titania, conversely, is as childlike as her retinue. She crouches to enter her cozy bower in a nook at the base of a hollow tree. Gillian Murphy, at 43, nicely embodied the role’s youthful impetuosity. Her Renaissance look—flaming ringlets and pale curves from head to toe—enhanced her radiant, springy dancing. She jumped as lightly as her Oberon, the dashing Daniel Camargo. He also handled the more lyrical passages well. Ashton demands both petit allegro and adagio prowess of his Oberon, Balanchine only requires fleetness. Equally impressive was Herman Cornejo as Puck, still sprightly and gleeful in the role he premiered for ABT twenty years ago.
Ratmansky’s “The Seasons,” from 2019, is at least ten ballets in one. I actually think his byzantine “Of Love and Rage” makes more sense, at least its leading woman serves as an anchor throughout. “The Seasons” gives me whiplash. Glazunov’s bombastic score might do that on its own, but with the densely showy choreography and the garish costumes added to the mix it’s a lot to take in. Though I’ve seen it a few times, I feel like I haven’t seen half of it yet—there’s so much going on. The costumes especially trip me up. Winter has gorgeous white chiffon dresses, and the chartreuse silk gowns for the Bacchantes corps in Autumn are also stunning. But the rest of the costumes I find to be hideous—the colors clash and the cuts are awful (especially the dowdy, Pepto Bismol tutus of the Spring corps). There are so many looks going on. Summer alone has black and red kid tutus, pale lavender dresses, sky blue and orange Star Trek tunics, a demi-tutu in green, yellow, and black, and then three guys who appear to be in flame-accented basketball uniforms. It is hard to believe that one person, Robert Perdziola, could be responsible for them all.
“The Seasons” is a structural hodgepodge as well. It is not, like Robbins’s “Four Seasons,” an equally weighted procession of the seasons in order, ending with a group finale. It starts out that way, but then the seasons interrupt each other more than transitional weather would allow. Perhaps it is a moral work about the ravages of climate change. Spring and Summer become intertwined, and Autumn feels seriously shortchanged. Autumn’s coterie crashes in a few times to every bell and whistle in the orchestra pit and hustles back off. I’d call them “New Year’s Eve” instead. But Autumn’s leaders, Catherine Hurlin and Calvin Royal III, made a fabulous impression that lingered longer than their stage time. The Winter section was also strong, with Joo Won Ahn, SunMi Park, and especially the leggy Chloe Misseldine as standouts.
Despite the chaos and the hard-on-the-eyes apparel, there’s something wonderful about this ballet. I don’t love it, but it is entertaining. And it makes me laugh; there are many good jokes sprinkled about—as when the character The Rose (an excellent Zimmi Coker, ready for Aurora) balances in supported attitude effacé for an eternity while squired by several men—as in the “Sleeping Beauty” Rose Adagio. The changement manège the Watermen perform while holding hands is hilarious. Also, the fact that the best role in the show is the Spirit of the Corn just tickles my fancy. I like imagining little bunheads dreaming of being a corn spirit (wait, isn’t that whiskey?) in addition to the Sugar Plum Fairy one day. And I really appreciate Ratmansky’s one-man campaign to bring more vegetables into ballet. The Spirit of the Corn is a fond reminder of the first Ratmansky work I ever saw, “The Bright Stream,” with its glorious giant veggie parade. Nobody but Michelle Obama has done more to connect vegetables and movement.
“The Seasons” is over-the-top in every way. Even Winter, the sleekest of the sections, involves the Snowflakes corps peeling off on the diagonal in dives to the dying swan position on the floor before popping up altogether to a kneeling Corsaire pose. That would be a full-stop ending in most works, but it’s just part of the midwinter slog here. At another point, the four female Winter soloists do eight á la seconde pirouettes on pointe surrounding their kinetic leader, with the corps swirling on the outskirts. It’s uber impressive and exciting, particularly because there doesn’t seem to be enough room for their helicopter-blade legs to clear their neighbors. Ratmansky’s choreography is always jam-packed and athletic; you come offstage winded from every entrance in his ballets. But “The Seasons” may take the cake. (Er, as far as his plotless works go; “Whipped Cream” probably wins every baked good claim.)
The ending says it all. For some reason, the backdrop becomes black and starry in the finale—but not like the graduated twinkling drops commonly used for Gershwin and Sinatra ballets. “The Seasons” final tableau takes place in what appears to be deep space. I rather love that a ballet about weather on Earth finishes in the atmospheric void of the cosmos. Even funnier, when the full cast is assembled in this intergalactic zone, they simply freeze until the music ends. Many are lifted high, apparently suspended in orbit. The Spirit of the Corn is hoisted highest; she resembles Lady Liberty’s torch or a superhero about to take flight. Just when I was thinking that “The Seasons” was one of Ratmansky’s most opulent Russian spectacles, I realized that projecting a beacon of corn into the solar system might be the most American thing he’s ever done.