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American Ballet Theatre performs Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

Story Lines

The full-length ballets of American Ballet Theatre's Spring Season

Prologue

American Ballet Theater’s Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which ended on Sunday, is always a grand affair. For this annual run the company tends to feature stalwart spectacles and this year was no different: of the nine programs offered, seven were narrative full-lengths. I saw four of these story ballets, as well as the Gala. This was an interesting exercise for me, as full-lengths are not generally my cup of tea. I am seldom moved by them; I tend to have more visceral responses to abstract neo-classical works like George Balanchine’s “Serenade” or Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH.” But I love immersing myself in novels, dramas, and serial television. If I love stories and also ballet, why shouldn’t I love story ballets? My plunge into ABT’s spring rep was enlightening, if not life-changing. I would still much prefer to see a good mixed bill over any of the epic classics. But they are not without their charms, even if they are patchy.

Act I

The big news of the season was the US debut of “Jane Eyre”—my favorite novel from childhood. I figured if any story was going to grab me it would be this one, so I had high hopes for choreographer Cathy Marston’s balletic adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s prose. Unfortunately, this production was a let-down. One reason was that the intimacy of the plot did not translate well to the massive stage of the Met, and the production team did not do anything to try to fix this problem. Patrick Kinmonth’s drab, minimalist set put all the onus on Marston and her cast. And Kinmonth’s dark dresses were chic but they got lost against his grayscale backdrop. Entire scenes, like the black-on-black funeral, read as a sea of disembodied heads and hands. Rochester’s sumptuous manse was represented by a single chair upstage left; St. John Rivers’s bucolic farm was conveyed by slightly warmer lighting on the same murky backdrop. The through-line of ABT’s other full-lengths is high-production value. “Jane Eyre” desperately needed the same treatment.

Another misstep was Marston’s decision to frame Jane primarily as a pawn in a man’s world.  She is that, to a certain extent, but in the novel Jane’s strength is that she never sees herself this way—she always holds fast to her own moral compass. The ballet opened at the climactic midpoint of the story, as Jane is fleeing her botched marriage attempt. The curtain rose on Jane being tossed like a rag doll among a group of twelve “D-Men”—who were described in the program as Jane’s inner demons. They also represented the patriarchy who boxed her in. In theory this was a good idea, but as executed it was a mess. These gray-suited men reappeared as different characters in many scenes, but they also served as furniture at Thornfield Hall at one point. They held candelabras and acted as seats for Jane—it was a confusing turn that evoked Lumière in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Bruno’s human chair gag.  Jane was continually defined in relation to this murky group. I would have expected a ballet version of “Jane Eyre” to have multiple solos for its independent-minded heroine. Here Jane had just a few solo moments, in which she mostly karate-chopped at the air and ran in circles.  

American Ballet Theatre
Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside in “Jane Eyre” by Cathy Marston. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

This leads me to the biggest problem of all—where was the dancing? Jane lacked concrete steps. She desperately needed solo steps, but her many pas de deux also suffered from formlessness. I couldn’t count how many times Jane—as played by Devon Teuscher as an adult or by Catherine Hurlin as a child—got thrown off someone in a messy split lift. Everything was overdone—so much flinging and flopping. In addition to numbing viewers, this physicality didn’t fit the story’s early 19th century time period. The childhood segment was prolonged and Jane’s abuse at the hands of her cousin (danced by Tyler Maloney) was extreme. Zimmi Coker as Rochester’s excited ward Adele was so fitful she resembled a hyperventilating toy dog rather than an unruly child.  James Whiteside, as Edward Rochester, teased his housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Sarah Lane) by tossing her around. When Rochester’s mad wife (Cassandra Trenary) was finally unleashed in all her pyromaniacal glory it wasn’t different enough from all the prior flailing. Although I did like how she menaced on a platform at the back of the set in a quote of von Rothbart on the rocks in “Swan Lake.”   

Sometimes in story ballets the pauses in dramatic action for technical solos and codas can upset narrative flow; but I wished that Marston’s “Jane Eyre” had taken some traditional dance breaks. The whole ballet was wishy-washy, everything felt transitional. The score—a pleasant mix of Schubert and Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn pieces as well as original compositions by Philip Feeney—was all on one level. The garden party which opened Act 2 was a chance for a rousing group number. Instead it was a shifty affair with the D-Men milling about. One of the most effective passages in the ballet was the Lowood School scene because a dozen women moved in unison at desks for a spell. This passage established a group and a sense of place, with a clear beginning and ending.

There were other nice aspects which made me wish the rest could be retooled. The ballet’s most effective scene had both clear steps and tenderness: the pas de deux between young Jane and Helen Burns (Anabel Katsnelson)—her consumptive best friend at Lowood. Teuscher was an excellent fit for her role and did all she could dramatically with her material. And Marston has a real gift for characterization through gesture. The tendu tango motif in Jane and Rochester’s pas de deux was a clever way to convey a battle of wits. I liked the vocabulary of Rochester’s marriage proposal and then Jane’s reversal of it. And when Jane imitated her rival Blanche Ingram (a wonderful, if underused, Stella Abrera) it got a big laugh—so well drawn were both characters’ mannerisms. If only those details had been attached to some compelling dancing.

Act II

There were some overlapping problems with “Jane Eyre” and the next piece I saw: “Manon” by Sir Kenneth MacMillan—he of the soaring bedroom pas de deux. “Manon” emerged from the vault this season and provided the retirement vehicle for hunky Roberto Bolle. As Des Grieux, Bolle had many slow, controlled solos that he calmly mastered. Hee Seo in the title role, however, only had one rather boring solo turn. Even her brother Lescaut (a thrilling James Whiteside) and Lescaut’s mistress (Stella Abrera, excellent again) got two apiece.  

Overall, MacMillan’s Manon is an impenetrable character. Hee Seo, whose perfect lines and extensions never get old, looked lovely. But her character—like Marston’s Jane—is entirely defined by the men around her. We get no glimpse of her inner life. It is unclear to me how Manon, who is en route to a convent when we first see her, actually feels about her trajectory. She jumps immediately from virtuous poverty into supposed true love into prostitution—and I mean immediately. As soon as Des Grieux leaves Manon after their first sexual encounter, Lescaut enters with a potential wealthy patron. She promptly seduces this new man without any apparent post-coital reservations. We are supposed to feel for her in her downfall, but she breezily chooses money over love. The only certainty is that she would have fared terribly at the nunnery.

As in MacMillan’s renowned “Romeo and Juliet,” the romantic pas de deux are the highlight of “Manon.” His lovers glide down to the floor and back up seamlessly, the men hoist the women high overhead to rapturous swells in the music, bourrées ably signify twitterpation. MacMillan is an endless font of gymnastic partnering. In “Manon,” however, the final pas crosses a line for me.  After her imprisonment and subsequent banishment, Manon stumbles off the boat in Louisiana only to be raped by her new jailer. Des Grieux rescues her (none too soon) and they flee to the swamp. She writhes around on the ground in his arms as the ballet’s cast performs a “this-is-your-life” montage in the mossy vines behind them. Manon is dying, but she cannot go without one more duet. And because this is the final pas of the ballet it is the most acrobatic yet—with double toss catches instead of singles and even more unbridled feats. The couple ends up back on the floor, panting and spent as she dies in his arms. It is unclear what Manon dies of, but that last romp surely expedited the process.

American Ballet Theatre
Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

There are two operas based on the “Manon” tale, and while it can be odd to see a diva using her dying breath to hit soaring top notes, it at least appears to be of her own volition. Des Grieux’s manhandling of Manon at the end of the ballet looks abusive, and I find MacMillan’s favored language—the high-stakes pas de deux—to be an inappropriate tool for this scene. This example is extreme, but it begs the question: is ballet a bad medium for narrative realism? Ballet is movement; but many dramatic moments necessitate stillness. Deathbed scenes, among others, are often awkward in story ballets. (Mercutio’s death in “Romeo and Juliet” comes to mind: it is often goofily danced out.) And pointework, that uncanny technical skill, is so unnatural.  

Another problematic bit in “Manon” is the semiotics of the pointe shoe as phallus. When Manon seduces the wealthy patron—who has a foot fetish—the pointe shoe plays a bizarre and prominent role. Her toe box drives him to distraction even while hinting at his own stiff arousal. It is especially weird when you consider all that goes on inside a pointe shoe—the layers of padding, tape, band-aids, blisters, plaster, nails, rosin, and scraped cardboard. The rape scene with the jailer is also confusing because Manon’s pointed toe between his legs doubles as his erection. In “Jane Eyre” too an arched foot was priapic: the motif of Rochester’s foot rising slowly towards Jane was a sign of both his attraction and domination.   

The most famous story ballets use pointework to delineate the fantastical. Often pointe shoes are worn by inhuman characters, while the humans wear character shoes (as in “La Sylphide”). The big three—”The Nutcracker,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and “Swan Lake”—use ballet’s aesthetics to approximate snowflakes and flowers and candy and fairies and swans. Dolls, animals, ghosts, and supernatural beings are other common tropes: as in “Coppélia,” “La Bayadère,” “Cinderella,” ”The Golden Cockerel,” “Harlequinade,” “Giselle,” “Raymonda,” “Les Sylphides,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the increasingly popular “Dracula.” The plotlines in these ballets have little bearing on reality, and they often make little sense. But in them, ballet technique—and especially pointework—are metaphors for the ephemeral or various abstract ideals. The peculiarities of the medium are essentially the message.

Act III

For this reason, perhaps, ABT’s “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” were much more enjoyable full-lengths. But even these warhorse classics pose an existential dilemma of sorts. There is no definitive version of “Swan Lake” or “Sleeping Beauty.” Every incarnation of “Swan Lake” today is a riff on Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 production for the Bolshoi. ABT’s current “Swan Lake” (its fifth since 1967) was choreographed by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie in 2000—and it is not a good one. The sets and costumes by Zack Brown are impressive, but the Tchaikovsky score is oddly chopped up and the swan group choreography is dumbed down. The Act II swan entrance and hunter attack, as well as the Act IV mourning moderato (here a pas de dix) are some of the worst takes I’ve seen. The latter was especially bad. The dance should be a collective grieving for the betrayal of the swans’ queen. After all, her doom is also theirs. It uses some of the best music in the score and can be a highlight of the ballet.  McKenzie’s moderato was a throwaway, with ten swans crammed into the front panel of the stage while the crew performed a distractingly noisy set change behind a scrim.

American Ballet Theatre
Christine Shevchenko in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Gene Schiavone

The best parts were those that endure almost unchanged in every production—the four little swans dance, the Act II lakeside pas de deux, and the Act III Black Swan pas, solos, and coda. In other words, what burns brightest is not the story per se, but the choreographic ingenuity. This is so often the case in the classics, that the major surprise of the season for me was that this did not prove true of ABT’s “Sleeping Beauty.” For this production, Alexei Ratmansky painstakingly resurrected Marius Petipa’s original 1890 version as faithfully as possible, with some additional choreography, in 2015. This is the most historically accurate “Sleeping Beauty” one can see today. Yet remarkably, this revival was lacking many of the passages I think of as being the ballet’s most iconic. For example, in the Wedding pas de deux the en dedans pirouettes into fish dives were missing, as was the famous partnered développé front with port de bras back into a one-handed switch to attitude that is usually the opening sequence. I was shocked. Apparently, what I think of as pivotal “Sleeping Beauty” choreography does not match up with the source material. 

In truth, I missed the bastardized passages. The reinstated steps had less distinction; there’s a reason for the pervasiveness of those alterations today. And that was a problem throughout ABT’s “Beauty.” The fairy variations in the Prologue were much simpler than I’m used to seeing, and they were tedious because of it—with the exception of the beastly Lilac Fairy solo! The Bluebird solo and Aurora’s Act I solo had none of today’s standard musical repeats, making them too brief and less challenging for the dancers. I found it a shame that musical repeats were absent from all the meatiest parts of the dancing, while lackluster crowd scenes like the Hunt and the preamble to the Garland Waltz were restored and fleshed out. The second act in particular had very little dancing, just lots of set and costume changes to move the silly plot along. Those sets and costumes, by Richard Hudson, were absolutely stunning. But let that be another full-length caveat: the design must be sumptuous but it cannot outshine the dancing.

Yet so often it does, which is my main objection to story ballets. For how long they are, they are dubiously light on dancing. Of course, the lead couple in any full-length normally has a ton of hard dancing (although Prince Désiré in the restored “Beauty” didn’t have much to do), but the rest of the long night can feel like filler. The filler is necessary because the pair needs breaks between their taxing numbers, but I wish it could be better crafted. In addition to the Hunt farandola, the “Beauty” divertissements like Cinderella and Prince Fortune and the dated sequence with Bluebeard, Mandarin, Scheherazade, and the Shah were total snoozes. As were most of the harlot and port dances in “Manon,” as well as the aristocrat and peasant dances and most of the Act III divertissements in McKenzie’s “Swan Lake.”

Act IV

The marathon challenge faced by the leads is, I believe, why people are perennially drawn to these long narrative classics. Audiences want to see if a ballerina can morph between Odette and Odile, mastering the dramatic contrasts of the role (no matter how zany the plot) while saving enough energy for the technical obstacles in the third act. When various showpiece pas de deux are displayed back to back at a gala, for example, the effects wear thin. Audiences become inured to so many fouetté turns. Everything is more impressive in context of the long narrative form. ABT’s yearly mounting of the full-lengths is akin to the Olympics coming around.     

So, how’d the dancers do? Did they win gold? Invariably, yes. ABT’s roster of principals has uniformly perfect lines and sturdy technique. They are, across the board, aesthetic sights to behold. Sometimes they look like a different species than the rest of the troupe, and the audience treats them like rock stars. Although I prefer not to watch ballets with a score card mentality, that is what these full-lengths inspire one to do. Tricks and dazzling feats are basically required. In “Swan Lake” Christine Shevchenko and James Whiteside sailed through the ballet’s difficulties. Shevchenko was not the most ardent Odette/Odile, but she excitingly threw in à la seconde pirouettes (traditionally a male turn) in the Act III coda to cheers. My main quibble was that she danced with traditional port de bras and didn’t delve into the avian shadings of her character. I am always a fan of James Whiteside, who was justifiably cast as a lead in every performance I saw (he was ill and replaced as the Prince in “Beauty”). He danced beautifully every time, though sometimes his passé leg in tours and turns gets a little turned in. He was sensational as Lescaut in “Manon.”

Aurora is the perfect role for Isabella Boylston, with her sunny girlishness. Her rock-solid balances in the Rose Adagio brought the house down even before she completed them. Aran Bell, subbing for Whiteside as Désiré, was a bit of a blank but he nailed his one solo. Skylar Brandt was great in the “Swan Lake” pas de trois, and as the canary fairy and Princess Florine. Catherine Hurlin was a sassy White Cat and a strong, humorous pointer fairy. Keith Roberts was wonderful as Carabosse. Calvin Royal III was a welcome sight in everything. Stella Abrera was another standout in every role, but I was disappointed that as the Lilac Fairy she ditched her pointe shoes for low heels and a dowdy gown after the Prologue. As I said, Ratmansky’s quest for “Sleeping Beauty” purity left much to be desired.

I truly appreciate his experiment, however. I’ve seen so many “Swan Lakes” and “Sleeping Beauties” all over the world—always hoping to find a perfect incarnation, a balletic Platonic Ideal. Now I know that the unadulterated versions of these classics do not exactly satisfy. Yet is rewarding to see a time-capsule version of a classic ballet because it makes clear the drastic evolution in ballet technique since Petipa’s time. I hope that Ratmansky’s forays into historical reconstruction are for the purpose of personal research, and that he aims to choreograph superlative new versions of these old blockbusters someday. If anyone can do it, he can. His 2003 version of “The Bright Stream” (after Fyodor Lopukhov’s 1935 original) was excellent.

Epilogue

There does exist one story ballet that I find to be simply perfect in every way: George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1962).  It is, to me, the holy grail of full-lengths. The sets and costumes are beautiful without overwhelming the choreography. It is not overlong even though there is no trimming of Shakespeare’s complex plot—which Balanchine manages to wrap up entirely by the intermission. The second act Wedding is replete with gorgeous dancing that does not rely whatsoever on technical gimmickry. Could “Swan Lake” et al. ever attain such sublimity? I’ll keep watching and hoping—which is exactly like the wishful striving involved in dancing itself. To do, to see, to contemplate: in every way, ballet is an art form about the unattainable.             

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