American Ballet Theatre
Fall Gala: La Follia Variations, Indestructible Light (excerpt), Touché, ZigZag
Pride Night: Bernstein in a Bubble, Touché, Some Assembly Required, Indestructible Light
New York, David H. Koch Theater
26 and 27 October 2021
Sometimes, American Ballet Theatre is a conundrum. On the one hand, it is the keeper of the big nineteenth-century and twentieth-century story ballets, which it rolls out each spring on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. It is also the home of one of the pre-eminent ballet choreographers of the moment, Alexei Ratmansky. So far so good. But what about the rest of its repertory? It can be so uneven that from one day to the next, one’s opinion of the entire company shifts.
Take the “Fall Gala” and the LGBTQIA+ “Pride Night” program that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Along with a skillful and pretty new ballet by Lauren Lovette (La Follia Variations) and a choreographically-ingenious new work by Ratmansky (Bernstein in a Bubble) there were not one but two jazzy Americana ballets, both hyper cheerful and heavy on the cuteness: Jessica Lang’s ZigZag and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Indestructible Light. Then, an overly on-the-nose pas de deux exploring male love, set to sentimental music by Woodkid and Ennio Morricone (Christopher Rudd’s Touché). And finally a dated, clichéd guy-and-gal-love-each-other-but-torture-each-other duet by Clark Tippet, Some Assembly Required (1989). Neither program is up to the standard of the company at its best or of its excellent dancers, who are looking better than anyone has any right to expect after spending so many months away from the studio.
And why would Some Assembly Required be included on a LGBTQIA+ pride program at all? This protracted exploration of the love-hate dynamics between a young woman in a pretty summer dress (Skylar Brandt) and a guy in jeans and a rolled up t-shirt (Gabe Stone Shayer) shed no light on the theme of the evening. It was especially odd to have it follow Rudd’s Touché, a male duet created during the pandemic in a bubble residency upstate. This deeply earnest work for Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi begins in silence with the two dancers standing back to back, shyly touching each other and then recoiling in self-loathing, then yelling out words like “God!” “why!” “go away!” The encounter evolves into an intimate, acrobatic pas de deux that suggests love-making. It would be more moving if it weren’t quite so literal.
The Pride program opened with Ratmansky’s new Bernstein in a Bubble, created last February in another bubble residency. It had its virtual premiere in March, and was being performed live for the first time. The ballet for seven is set to Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a celebratory piece created for the 100th birthday of the Boston Symphony. The music is bombastic, sometimes witty, often jazzy, always tongue-in-cheek. The choreography matches its cleverness and its sense of play. Ratmansky gives each dancer a moment to shine – at the time he created it, it was an opportunity for the dancers to finally dance in an open space after taking class in their kitchens for months. Skylar Brandt does zillions of pirouettes and gets tossed into the air; Aran Bell shows off his triple saut de basques; Patrick Frenette executes diagonal after diagonal of cabrioles. In a pas de deux for Bell and the impressive young dancer Chloe Misseldine, a new member of the corps, in which she unfolds her leg into a high extension while balancing on pointe, and then Bell, who is partnering her, also lifts up one leg in an extension almost as high as hers. But the virtuosity is playful, to be taken lightly. The dancers seem to be daring each other to do more and newer crazy stunts. They also crawl and slither and balance on each other’s thighs, or do cartwheels, or tip over, only to be caught inches from the floor.
Bernstein was the highlight of the Pride program, which ended with Moultrie’s jazzy Indestructible Light, another bubble creation. It’s a pleasant but somewhat relentless work in which the choreography fails to match the musical complexity and dazzling speed of Duke Ellington’s Battle Royal and other works by Basie, Strayhorn, Neal Hefti, and Chuck Harmony.
After the dancing was over, there was a performance by Lypsinka, the drag artist alter ego of John Epperson, one of the company’s pianists; and a Q&A moderated by the Broadway actor Tommy Dorfman.)
The gala, on the night before, opened with Lovette’s La Follia Variations, a well-constructed, pretty piece for eight dancers wearing jewel-toned off-the shoulder tutus and tights by Victor Glemaud. The music is by the 18th century composer Francesco Geminiani, arranged by the 21st century composer Michi Wiancko. Misseldine stood out here as well, in a pas de deux with José Sebastian in which he slowly promenaded her around in a glorious arabesque; earlier she had balanced on pointe while raising one leg high up in the air and executing a half turn. Misseldine makes such things look easy.
The gala program also included an excerpt from Indestructible Light, as well as Touché, and ended with ZigZag, Jessica Lang’s big new ensemble piece set to recordings of Tony Bennett (and one duet with Lady Gaga). It’s a good-looking work, with 1950’s inspired costumes by Wes Gordon (of Carolina Herrera) and backdrops by Derek McLane featuring the New York skyline and a drawing by Bennet.
Like all Lang’s work, Zig Zag is intelligently put together and shows off the dancers. Some of the women are on pointe, some are on flat. The ensemble creates interesting formations behind the soloists; at one point, in I Left My Heart in San Francisco, they become a cable-car and its passengers. In Just One of Those Things, Isadora Loyola (in polka dot pants) and four men advance in a line accompanied by percussion, looking like a choo-choo train. But the tone of the whole ballet is a little forced and smiley, a little frenetic. The moments of sadness sketched out in calmer moments are unconvincing. The one exception is a stylish, sexy, stretchy solo for the excellent Joo Won Ahn, set to Blue Moon. It is the first time I’ve seen Ahn really featured in something that shows off not only his clean, classical technique, but also the beauty of his movement, suggesting a certain melancholy. The solo reminded me of certain moments in the Wong Kar Wai film In the Mood for Love.
But, despite moments in which the dancers suddenly came into focus, these two programs were unsatisfyingly un-balanced. It was difficult to imagine how they had been put together, why this went with that. ABT’s audience, and dancers, deserve more.