It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to describing ABT’s opening night performance of its fall season at the Koch Theater. Parts of it should be erased from memory forever, but on second thought, maybe it's important to remember it all out of respect for the victims.
It all began with a minimal amount of harm.
ABT decided to make new costumes for Balanchine’s Theme and Variations which apparently qualifies it as a “new production” according to McKenzie, who quipped in his pre-curtain speech that the color scheme matches the theater’s interior. How funny and relevant. The costumes are lovely - very citrusy in colors. The corps’ tutus are blood-orange or red grapefruit with apricot pink tips. The soloists wear apricot-peachy tutus, and the principal’s costume is a bright sunny lemon yellow. Honestly, what conveys "regal ballerina” more than a lemon tutu?
Gillian Murphy gave the principal choreography its due, clear and bright with energy, but might have delighted in taking the speed up a notch in honor of dancing on Balanchine’s stage. But this is ABT where the costumes are updated while the dancing stubbornly remains at the 1947 pace. Her partner, James Whiteside, did not have a good night. Even limiting his sequence of double tours to include all single pirouettes couldn’t keep him on course. Bent knees that should have been straight, lax feet, deficient turnout, miserable double pirouettes, and simplified steps all marred the performance. But he certainly had impressive and overdone eye makeup. More emphasis on getting the knees straight than the eyeliner straight would be helpful.
The demi-soloists were in fine form. Melanie Hamrick had the energy, attack, and legs made to dance Balanchine. Toward the end when the four men joined in, it was impossible not to focus on Jared Matthews whose stage presence and authority in his dancing fully eclipsed Whiteside’s. Jared should have been dancing the lead last night. He’s earned it and would do a better job than this most unattractive and unprepared import.
The corps was tidy but lacked verve. There was a mishmash of sizes of women which was kind of distracting. ABT has enough small, medium, and large corps women to create a T&V cast of each size, all of whom would look wonderful. Why mix them all up? Of the men, Eric Tamm, Sterling Baca, and Luis Ribagorda were noticed for their clean lines and handsome legs in white tights.
Marcelo Gomes premiered his new ballet, Aftereffect, to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence played by string orchestra. It featured the long-overlooked and under-appreciated Sascha Radetsky with seven men all costumed in low-riding blue tights and without shirts. Thomas Forster, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal, Julio Bragado-Young, Sean Stewart, Jose Sebastian, and Zhiyao Zhang completed the cast. It’s good to put all these guys on stage once in a while to remind everyone that ABT has men who can dance brilliantly and deserve to be featured a lot more – especially under Brad Field’s lighting that made them all look so handsome.
The choreography was a confluence of Tharp, Ratmansky, Forsythe, name-your-contemporary-choreographer styles that illustrated some of the mistakes that we see in their works. It started off with ultra high energy tricks and then meandered - the same problem that Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue had but which In the Upper Room did not. As frequently observed in Ratmansky’s work, there were arbitrary arm movements that had little harmony with what the rest of the body was doing. And as in Forsythe, there was the occasional throw of a limb for effect. There was also a lot of very pleasant ensemble work where one dancer’s actions caused a rippling after-effect in the others. Having the opportunity to see these fine dancers featured and appreciated as they so seldom are was one of the few highlights of the evening, but the choreography as a whole wasn’t very satisfying.
For the last featured ballet, Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest, the curtain rose to reveal a scrim that depicted a ship listing on its side following a shipwreck. Artistically, there were few survivors.
Back when this production was announced, Haglund expressed concern about the danceability of the Sibelius score and wondered why the Tchaikovsky version was not chosen for the choreography. From curtain-up to curtain-down last night, the music proved to be unsuitable. It may have told the story, but it lacked the energy and dynamics that are needed for dancing.
The choreography was comprised of sketches and details from Shakespeare’s play rather than a telling of it. The poetry just didn't translate into dance very well. Caliban and the two drunks under the blanket and Ariel’s ambiguous gender depicted by Daniil Simkin waving large wings while wearing a breastplate with full female breasts protruding from it were, unfortunately, some of the more memorable moments. A lot of the time, it all looked like bad opera choreography.
There were some worthwhile sections although not enough to support the whole ballet. Daniil Simkin as Ariel had a lot of Puck-like variations tailor-made to his arsenal of tricks which he did well. It was a pleasant surprise to see that he could move at such high speed. Sarah Lane as Miranda practically saved the whole ballet by providing the only moments where the audience could care about any of the characters or what was going on. Her PdDs with Marcelo Gomes' Prospero and Joseph Gorak’s Ferdinand illustrated what a fine dancer, partner, and actor she is as well as her complete ability to relate to all of the other actors on the stage. As Sarah was dancing with Marcelo, one could see the future possibilities of the two of them in a return of Lubovitch’s Othello as well as in Romeo and Juliet. Her moments opposite Gorak made Haglund look forward to seeing them in The Nutcracker. For such a small dancer, she certainly has a huge, starry stage presence.
Haglund doesn't have much interest in seeing The Tempest again. He can afford to be a little more tolerant when the tickets are $25 at the Koch Theater. But if ABT tries to charge four times that amount for a comparable view on a mixed bill with this piece at the Met Opera House, you will hear significantly more severe complaining. It’s about the money. It’s always about the money. One wonders if Ratmansky or McKenzie ever give a thought about what it takes for audience members to come up with the money for a ticket and then have to sit through such mediocre muck. Using top-of-the-world talent Herman Cornejo to grovel on the floor as a dirty person who then does a couple of tricks is not a responsible use of artistic resources. Ratmansky has gotten and continues to receive a lot of money from ABT, perhaps in part to prevent him from choreographing for NYCB, and other parts of our culture have showered him with monetary acknowledgements. We deserve better, more thoughtful efforts from him.
The final annoyance of the evening was observing that while Haglund was suffering through The Tempest, he received a phone call from ABT’s Tele-beggers. They're not getting a dime. Not even a pump bump award for this evening.