American Ballet Theatre
ABT Live from City Center | A Ratmansky Celebration
Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty
2nd Movement from Seven Sonatas
Pas de deux from The Seasons
Bernstein in a Bubble
New York, City Center
23 March 2021
Stream until 18 April 2021
After a year of being deprived of live performance in a dedicated venue, American Ballet Theatre’s streamable, live performance from New York’s City Center was a promising offering. The live taping of four works by ABT’s resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is viewable during a generous streaming window through 18 April for $25, and includes the new quarantine creation, Bernstein in a Bubble.
Watching the host, Susan Fales-Hill, introduce each work in the resplendent 1940’s Moorish revival space made me both wince and tear up. I hadn’t expected to miss the theater as much as the dance. I missed the venue, its flamboyant geometries, the generous half-bottle wine pours unique to City Center’s bartenders, and the women’s restroom attendant, an immaculate professional, never too shy to force us to confront reality: “Move along please ladies, a lot of ladies waiting here.”
To see a live recording from a theater is a privilege now in an age when dance companies have had to be resourceful. Quarantine dance programming has included a hodgepodge of taped performances from pre-COVID era, new choreography created for and via cinematic methods (more of a film than a live dance), and of course, Zoom dances, but few offer a live stream from a theater. Of course, the sense of how ‘live’ it is from the box seat of one’s living room is still a compromise.
The modern ‘convenience’ of streaming is on-demand, on your own time. Not only did I miss City Center, I missed the full, encapsulated experience. Domestic life sheds like a skin when we enter a theater, a space dedicated solely to the altar of art. Cell phones are (hopefully) off. No alarms, interruptions from family or pets, or unexpected repairmen. In our attempt to protect ourselves from an insidious germ, we created isolation bubbles, but the home is a permeable entity, infiltrated by computer notifications, power outages, bandwidth issues, and domestic interruptions. Definitions of space and purpose blur, work and play areas are indistinguishable and interchangeable. Does this diminish offering a streaming program? No. Dancers need to be seen, to perform, and to participate in the creation of new works. Dance’s unique dependence on collaboration is in direct opposition to isolation. ABT created this program, rehearsed and performed it following all COVID protocols and regulations dictated by government and health authorities. To have accomplished this is a great feat for any company, especially after a year of dancers taking class in their kitchens and on their patios; not to mention the fiscal challenges of a year without normal ticket revenue.
‘ABT Live at City Center: A Ratmansky Celebration’ opens with Skylar Brandt starring as Aurora in the Rose Adagio from his painstakingly researched production of The Sleeping Beauty. Beauty is arguably the ballet repertoire’s most opulent, rococo work, but for an excerpt performance such as this, or as for a gala, there were costumes but no sets. The lavish finery of the male princes and Brandt’s blushing rose tutu were in glaring relief against a solid backdrop under very bright lights.
Brandt’s promotion to principal in September 2020 is well-deserved, her warm radiance beams through the two-dimensional screen with the luminescence of a star. Her poise has never been more visible as she perches confidently atop the tricky balances with a giddy frivolity, a welcome change from the sometimes frigid perfection of Aurora’s iconic arabesques. Like a bird on a wire, Brandt is as unflappable as she is delighted and curious.
Watching Herman Cornejo dance the 2nd movement of 7 Sonatas is like drinking a tall, cool glass of lemonade on a hot day. Scarlatti’s Sonata in E minor, played by Jacek Mysinski, has a babbling brook quality, busy and limpid. Corenjo’s solo is a dance of seamless contrasts, of darting diagonals, large jumps, and fluttering turns. Paused poses break the kinetic flurry, milliseconds of sumptuous grace through which Cornejo sends waves of elemental energy.
Carlos Gonzalez’s solo boasts similar swift changes, with more dynamic rhythmic contrasts in movement than the female solos. Danced by Luciana Paris and Devon Teuscher, these female roles are more busied with bourrees and pique turns than languorous balances or Gonzalez’s dazzling changes in epaulement.
A year of lockdown has been dour, but ‘The Cindies,’ aka Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside committed to making it brighter. The frequent dance partners tapped their savvy, enterprising use of social media to offer online ballet classes together, Whiteside taught upbeat, 1990s style jazz classes, and their video shorts marrying pop culture and classical dance always delight. If anyone should choreograph a ballet to pop mash-ups it is Boylston and Whiteside. The pas de deux from The Seasons is muted compared to their online presence, but Boylston and Whiteside are in top form, nothing short of breezy perfection here. This pas feels as if it was plucked from a Hollywood film, a dance created by and for the silver screen: elegant, unintrusive, a paragon of what ballet is believed to always look like, pretty arabesques, soft lifts, arching backs, and drifting arms, a tranquil if not very choreographically captivating dream.
The world premiere, Bernstein in a Bubble, features lots of stage time for newly promoted principals, such as Aran Bell, Skylar Brandt and Cassandra Trenary, and they are a joy to behold. Soloist Catherin Hurlin, who shows astonishing promise, isn’t far behind. Bell and Hurlin are both in their early 20s and comfortable beyond their years in presence and technique. After a busy, brassy, percussive opening, Bubble calms down. Bell and Patrick Frenette’s duet is the most interesting choreography in the work. Seamless transitions – somersaults and swirling turns that end in sliding splits – bear a weighty gravity, while woodwinds cast a plaintive spell. Like day after indistinguishable day in quarantine, there is a sense of pushing through something, of moving through resistance. But instead of anchoring the piece, this male duet feels a world apart – as if inserted from another ballet. Bell and Hurlin’s pas de deux is a sassy number with burlesque tonalities in the brass and Hurlin commanding the stage with her leggy limbs, assured but not smug.
Bernstein’s highly varied music moods may be to blame, but Bubble feels disparate, lacking a convincing anchor. Bell’s brooding presence throughout isn’t enough, and the finale, with brash sonic crashes and a barrage of showoff steps, is circus-like and lacks the threads to weave this tapestry of dances together. But I’ll end where I started – it’s beyond good of ABT to put on a live stream like this. Let there be more – until normality is restored that is.