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ABT Looks Back

For the first season fully programmed by its new artistic director Susan Jaffe, American Ballet Theatre has chosen to look back and, in a sense, shop its own closet. It’s a smart way to both save money and reintroduce its dancers in ballets they may not have had the chance to dance before. Part of the calculation seems to be to present works with large casts, the better to see as many dancers as possible.

Performance

American Ballet Theatre: “Piano Concerto No. 1” / “Petit Mort” / “Études”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 20, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Catherine Hurlin and Sung Woo Han in “Études.” Photograph by Emma Zordan

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The season’s opening program brought together three works that span six decades of ABT history, though only one, Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” was actually made for the company. The other two, Harald Lander’s “Études” and Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort,” came into the repertory in 1961 and 2003 respectively. “Études,” originally created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1948, and then reimagined for the Paris Opéra in 1952, is by far the oldest. Conceived as a showcase of classical ballet technique, and carefully restored by the Danish dancer Thomas Lund with guidance from Lise Lander—the choreographer’s widow—it represents an intelligently—constructed return to the fundamentals.

“Piano Concerto No. 1” was last performed here in 2016; originally it was part of Ratmansky’s 2013 “Shostakovitch Trilogy.” I caught two performances led by Christine Shevchenko, Calvin Royal III, Skylar Brandt, and Jake Roxander. All but Roxander had danced it before and are dancers whose careers have been shaped by Ratmansky’s thirteen-year tenure at the company.

Jake Roxander in “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor.

The revival was meticulously staged by Nancy Raffa, who has worked closely with Ratmansky from the beginning. Her care is evident in the clear geometries and groupings that make up this fast-moving and complex ballet, set to one of Shostakovich’s most riotous, mercurial works. The score, for piano, trumpet, and orchestra, does not stay in the same place for long, careening from joy to farce to stoic seriousness and even a kind of cosmic dream-space. One passage feels like a religious rite, another, like a barroom brawl, yet another, set to a folk tune, like an inside joke. Ideas crash into each other at every turn. It’s a wild ride for the pianist (Jacek Mysinski) and trumpet player (Maximilian Morel). 

The ballet has a similarly split personality. Unlike Christopher Wheeldon, whose 2000 “Mercurial Manoeuvres” smoothes out the music’s contradictions to find an overarching through-line, Ratmansky rides its criss-crossing currents, changing tones, character, and mood at every turn. His 2013 “Shostakovich Trilogy” was an exploration of Soviet themes in which “Piano Concerto,” the final instalment, was the larky finish, a deconstructed time capsule of the Soviet Union’s triumphalist idea of itself. George Tsypin’s designs, red stars, lines, and half-circles hang from the sky, are like symbolic shards, pieces of a civilization. A shadow looms behind the bits and pieces, an oppressive presence.

Ratmansky rides the music's criss-crossing currents, changing tones, character, and mood at every turn

The dancing is big, full-bodied, stretched out. Two women, originally Natalia Osipova and Diana Vishneva, here Christine Shevchenko and Skylar Brandt, wear red leotards, like the dancer-athletes in Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” They are super-women, who balance endlessly on pointe, with or without the help of men, careen across the stage, run, leap, and are lifted high, in open, expansive poses. There is a hint of poster art to their prowess. Bu then why is there such a sense of loss in the pas de deux between Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III, who scoops the air with his arms, accompanied by a mournful melody in the piano, as if trying to hold onto something precious, and, later, covers Shevchenko’s eyes as she falls slowly to the ground? And why do the two women hold each other fearfully as the whole cast dances in a vortex around them?  

Despite its happy, euphoric ending, in which Jake Roxander spins and launches into flips with a combination of force and joy, it's an unsettling piece. As a dance lover from China told me, “I get the sad irony of outward happiness. You almost convince yourself that you are happy and can’t ask for more. But deep down, consciously or unconsciously, you know what’s what.” This is the best explanation for “Piano Concerto” I can imagine. You’re not quite sure how to feel. 

To my eye, “Piano Concerto” worked better as part of Ratmansky’s original trilogy. It’s not a completely abstract work, and by watching the three ballets together, the audience had a better greater understanding of the Soviet context, and what was at stake. Over time, with new casts, the ballet has lost some part of this connection to its thematic material. The dancers act out feelings of fear and loss and over-cheerfulness, but at times those feelings appear disconnected, a little forced. The audience applauds, but mostly in response to the bravura of the steps. Its fractured story has faded a little.

Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo in Jiri Kylian's “Petite Mort.” Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor.

 If “Piano Concerto” leaves you with a feeling of ambivalence, then “Petite Mort” is all too clear. Kylian’s 1991 piece, set to slow movements from Mozart’s piano concerti in A Major and  C Major is about sex. The title, a euphemism for orgasm, says it all. (Here, the excellent pianist was Evangelos Spanos.) Men in briefs walk on with swords, fiddling with them in various ways, and then, in a coup de theatre with a silk curtain, reveal women in corsets and briefs, lying in wait with arched backs and open legs. And, after a jokey section in which a group of women glides on in 18th century dresses, only to reveal that the dresses are in fact are stiff mannequins, couples grapple in dispassionate, physical partnering that involves much straddling and reaching between limbs. The dancers, who included Hee Seo—a dancer of beautiful lines—, Joo Won Ahn, Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo, performed their roles with admirable seriousness, but the material is thin, and does them no favors and even, at times, makes it difficult to distinguish one dancer from another. 

Jake Roxander and Devon Teuscher in “Études” Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

“Études,” the closer, is a crowd-pleaser. The conceit is ballet-as-ballet-class. Like Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe,” it begins with a dancer in a white tutu demonstrating the five positions of the feet. (Is this where Tharp got the idea?) As the composer Knudage Riisager, whose orchestrations of Czerny piano exercises are the musical basis for the ballet, put it, it was meant to be “a light and cheerful tribute to the pure essence of dance.” And it’s true, the witty, spirited musical numbers keep things moving along in a most civilized and un-pedantic way. 

The ballet begins, like a dance class, at the barre, as the tutu-ed women go through their paces: tendus, développés, retirés, pliés, pas de chevals, stretches. The dancers are only illuminated from the knee down, so we see the action of the legs and feet, like pistons in a machine. Then they are in silhouette, doing slow movements. A group of male dancers arrives, and the men and women work on their port-de-bras. Finally a trio of soloists appears, and the exercises give way to choreographic sketches. The three soloists perform dances reminiscent of scenes from classical and Romantic ballets, and, in particular, August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide,” that centerpiece of the Danish ballet repertory. (Lander was Danish.)  

The technical challenges continue: beaten steps, turns from every position, more turns, more beats, until the ballet ends with a fireworks display of bravura. For the dancers, it is a gauntlet and a marathon. There is no scenery or complex choreographic complexity to hide behind; every hesitation in timing or form, for the corps dancers as for the soloists, is immediately obvious. 

I saw two casts, one led by Devon Teuscher, Joo Won Ahn, and Jake Roxander (Oct. 18); the other by Catherine Hurlin, Sung Woo Han, and Roxander (Oct. 20). All were new to their roles. Roxander seemed totally in his element, executing turns with one leg to the side, in both directions, with amazing control; and later a “Don Quixote”-inspired solo with a cheerful, unrelenting virtuosity and drive that left the audience begging for more. Teuscher was serenity and polish personified; her turns were impeccable, her upper body was regal; her arms were soft, elegant. Ahn had some trouble with the turns, of which there are many, but had a better time in the display of beaten steps. 

In the second cast, Hurlin danced with her usual wit and aplomb, greeting each of her partners as if they were old friends. She imbued the role with touches of character by playing subtly with timing and the angle of her face. But it was an off night for her fouetté turns. (She looked as surprised as anyone by this, and just moved on.) Sung Woo Han was relaxed, displaying a smiling affability in the pas de deux, and he polished off his turns—from fifth, from fourth, from second, and in both directions—without a hitch, smiling modestly as if to say, “there you have it.”

All in all, the company acquitted itself well in what at times felt like an oddly-assorted program. It will be interesting to see how the Ratmansky ballets settle into the repertory now that he’s no longer there. What happens to ballets when they lose the cultural and personal context in which they were created? It’s a process that occurs with every work of art, as its creation recedes into the past. “Ballets are like butterflies,” Balanchine said. Or, like “Piano Concerto No. 2,” perhaps they are more like time capsules. 

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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