In the shadow of American Ballet Theatre’s season-closing performances of Romeo and Juliet, a few weeks after New York City Ballet ended its spring season, it’s time to take a deep breath. The trope that while NYCB has the rep, ABT has the dancers still holds true to some extent, although it is eroding on both sides. ABT prides itself on emphasizing the word “theatre” in its name, evident in the reprisal of story ballets such as Swan Lake and Le Corsaire. But naming Alexei Ratmansky as Artist in Residence was kind of like winning the lottery for ABT, which has repeatedly attempted to add contemporary choreography to its canon, with mixed results. This season, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie included Paul Taylor’s Airs in this year’s rep, an ideal blend of modern and classical for this company.
Ratmansky created Russian Seasons and Concerto DSCH for NYCB, which hoped he would stay on as resident choreographer. Both were successes and fit the company and its Balanchine pedigree well. He made On the Dnieper for ABT this year, which premiered as part of a Prokofiev program. A nostalgic depiction of romantic entanglings performed among literal props such as cherry trees and fences, it suits the context of the company’s rep. In DSCH, Ratmansky showed an almost scatological facility with ballet set in a playful, abstract structure. In Dnieper, he reverts to defining characters within a story—a soldier, his spurned girlfriend, a new love interest, her fiancé, their parents. The characters’ development is somewhat limited by constraints of its relatively brief running time, and space as confined by the bulky set. Because it is within ABT’s aesthetic and tradition, yet feels less successful than DSCH, it raises fundamental questions about the artistic imperative of ABT.
But to watch Marcelo Gomes as the soldier in Dnieper, and in every role he dances, is to appreciate anew this imperative. It doesn’t seem possible, but Gomes continues to develop as an artist with each performance. He’s always had the solid technique that frees him to focus on embellishing details in his roles, and this year, his effortless dramatic portrayals and intuitive, organic musical interpretations reached new heights. His partnering is unparalleled, giving his co-stars the “Gomes bump,” an automatic boost of excellence. Guaranteed.
Roberto Bolle, a guest principal, is also in the “tall, dark and handsome” category. With a lovely long line, his arms click through positions with more clarity and deliberateness than ABT’s full-time dancers, who take a more fluent approach. He wears emotion more than inhabits it, but he is wonderful to watch. David Hallberg has grown into a prominent principal, with his absolutely pristine, ideal legs and feet and humble demeanor. He has gained a welcome assertiveness to go along with the natural poet within, particularly in his Romeo. He still needs to improve his upper body strength but no one’s feet will draw more sighs and gasps than his—not even Paloma Herrera’s, his frequent partner this season.
Herrera looked relaxed and danced with confidence, balancing her dramatic skills with her abundant physical gifts. Her serenity contrasts with Diana Vishneva, whose complete emotional commitment makes you wonder how she manages to be present enough to complete all the steps. Natalia Osipova, another guest artist, showed an airy playfulness in her rendition of the lead role in La Sylphide, in contrast to newly-appointed principal Veronika Part’s denser, richer interpretation. Soloist Maria Riccetto showed her great potential as Giselle. She’s physically prototypical for the role, and she handled the wide emotional dynamic well.
Some youngsters rose to prominence this season, particularly Daniil Simkin, who danced in seemingly everything, including the lead in Prodigal Son. He’s technically astounding and, most importantly, a ham (in a good way) who seizes upon characterizations and demi roles with vigor. His enthusiasm recalls that of fellow soloist Craig Salstein, by now an ABT vet who wrings the maximum out of every role he’s given. Yuriko Kajiya is another soloist who vaulted into the spotlight by virtue of her luminosity, crystalline technique, and brilliant projection. Cory Stearns continued expanding his range, from secondary parts to lead roles, brandishing mean mime skills and showing his value as a reliable and gallant partner. He and Hee Seo danced Romeo and Juliet, a bit of guerilla casting in a retort to NYCB’s one coup in its recent production—age-appropriate leads. Such occasions are rare, but welcome, in a company full of stars, although the departure of Nina Ananiashvili leaves one less in the brilliant galaxy that is ABT.
Image: Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes in On the Dnieper. Photo by Gene Schiavone.