Wedged between Don Quixote and Giselle at the Met, American Ballet Theater unveiled three new works this week, each buoyantly successful in different ways. Alexei Ratmansky, Benjamin Millepied and Christopher Wheeldon have, for better or worse, become the “rat pack” of ballet choreographers, with numerous commissions and residencies by the city’s two big ballet companies (not to mention the rest of the world’s). None of these choreographers do anything particularly radical with ballet, and yet each is working on putting forward his own interesting motifs to evolve the form. Also on the program was Antony Tudor’s Shadowplay, a somewhat strange allegorical tale in part inspired by Kipling, focused on the coming-of-age of a boy (the stellar Daniil Simkin, alongside the brave, serene Sarah Lane, hoisted aloft most of the time).
Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions, by virtue of being the most formal and ambitious, had the most to lose or win. And win us over he did, aided by Britten’s spacious, lively music, Bob Crowley’s elegant pewter and black satin jackets and fitted chiffon dresses, and the simple, ingenious lighting by Brad Fields (an intense ray of color for each movement). Wheeldon has a knack for bringing gemlike details into grand focus by surrounding them with stillness; gently curving hands and simple posés are reminders of why we love ballet to begin with. Four lead couples provide ample opportunity to relish a number of this company’s garishly talented ranks. Marcelo Gomes, as always, quietly but unerringly commands the stage, and Isabella Boylston displays heightened delicacy and nuance alongside confidence in her primary solo and duets with Gomes.
Millepied can ably choreograph very technical ballet, as he did in his own troupe’s Joyce show a few years back. Yet here, in Troika, he presents three men doing a kind of “guy’s ballet”—big, loose, swashbuckling stuff that one might have the fortune to catch in rehearsal. It’s as much to savor the sheer visceral joy of moving fast through space as it is one-upsmanship, but that’s present as well. The men (including Blaine Hoven, moving with crisp precision) share the stage with the cellist Jonathan Spitz, playing selected Bach solo cello pieces. The feeling was intimate and collegial, yet grand at the same time. Ratmansky’s Dumbarton, to Stravinsky, expressed the vibrance and frenetic urgency of youth, whether in friendship, romance, or simply burning off energy. The five pairs (largely corps members), dressed in ivory cotton dresses and khakis circa mid-20th Century, whisk on in varying phrases that spool out, coincide and reprise. Ratmansky as well respects ballet’s traditional beautiful lines, but he notably plays with closed-leg pencil turns or narrow silhouettes that expand into arabesques. Like a big spinning wheel in a folk dance, the group sustains an impressively brisk momentum.
There’s the real fear that these go-to choreographers might become jaded, overworked, overexposed, or out of ideas, but that’s not the case—at least not yet. We can’t blame them for being repeat commissionees—after all, a guy’s gotta make a livin’. But how about throwing a commission to someone like Pam Tanowitz (who incidentally was recently awarded a Guggenheim fellowship), for a fresh take on ballet that respects technique and formalism as well?