Wednesday’s matinee and evening performances of Natalia Makarova’s exquisite production of La Bayadere included debuts by the tallest and the shortest ballerinas portraying Nikiya for ABT. At the end of the day, they both stood tall as Himalayan peaks among the ever-rolling range of highs and below-sea-level lows that ABT puts on its stage.
At the matinee, Devon Teuscher’s Nikiya was of towering strength, sturdy form, and cool grace - not unlike the Nikiya who Makarova chose for the opening of ABT’s Kingdom of the Shades in the mid-1970s, the 28-year-old Cynthia Gregory who had Made in America / Built to Last stamped all over her steely technique. The Kingdom of the Shades proved to be Devon’s strongest of the three acts for the superb technical control in her dancing, her unruffled nerves, and beauty of line. In the Act I dance in the garden of the palace, Nikiya could have offered more bend in the back to convey the depth of her love of Solor. Overall, the acting did not come from within her; rather, it seemed laid over the steps.
Making his debut as Solor, Joo Won Ahn already is more interesting to watch than most of the “homegrown” principal men in the company. Ahn's guiding principal, Marcelo Gomes, who was abruptly pushed out of ABT last year during the NY Times's irresponsible frenzied feeding on and publication of hearsay and rumors, has had a huge and obvious impact on this young dancer’s growth and style. Gomes first paired Ahn with Teuscher in the Black Swan PdD a couple of summers ago during an off-season tour to his home town in Brazil. This occurred a couple of months after Ahn, while racing to the back of the stage carrying Medora, pitched her to the floor and fell on top of her in a most memorable performance of Le Corsaire. (Balletomanes never forget.) Things have definitely smoothed out for him, though, and he’s now very watchable. We can’t say that there was much natural rapport between Ahn and Teuscher — both are relatively new to the idea of creating rapport with a partner in a principal role – but their partnering was highly coordinated and musical.
Christine Shevchenko brought stunning technique, confidence, and first rate drama skills to her debut as Gamzatti. Not since the Days of Dvorovenko in this role have we been so tantalized by the seething Gamzatti and her sense of entitlement. Shevchenko’s Act I was technically secure in every way, but it was her Act III solo that combined desperation, humiliation, anger, passion, and to the extent possible for Gamzatti, love for Solor. A fine debut, indeed, and we were ready to see this performance again, but unfortunately, it was a one-off.
Also a one-off was the evening performance in which Sarah Lane gave a reading of Nikiya of such depth and complexity that we thought we were seeing this character for the first time. She is nearly as tiny as Makarova was 38 years ago when she debuted her full La Bayadere for ABT. We keep mentioning Makarova because of her unmistakable and authoritative presence in the main orchestra section at each performance. Seventy-seven years old going on 50. That means, hopefully, that ABT dancers will have to continue to strive to meet her standards for many more years to come.
Sarah Lane had such a light burning within her that we could see the love in her soul for Solor. The Act I solo revealed achingly beautiful arabesques and a deep bend in the back without punching out the ribs. We could see that she was aiming for those Tereshkina balances during her dance at the betrothal of Solor and Gamzatti. Hopefully, she’ll get a few more chances to achieve her goal long before McKenzie decides it’s time to march those ballerina hooves off to the glue factory. Sarah’s Act II, but for the turns in the scarf dance, was exceptionally well-danced. Her diagonal of racing soutenus and backward arabesque chugs were thrilling. Those scarf turns were odd in that a couple of times Sarah finished with a point tendu to the front rather than in 5th position which meant that she repeated the same miscalculations in her turns instead of correcting them. Her Act III Nikiya was all beautiful spirit – in high distress. She was a slender trace of the gorgeous vision that Solor had dreamed about while in an opium stupor – now running through the wedding nuptials trying to disrupt them while only visible to Solor.
Herman Cornejo gave a convincingly theatrical and brilliantly danced Solor. Upon his entrance he had Haglund totally believing that he had just killed the tiger whereas with Joo Won Ahn in the afternoon, we weren’t sure whether perhaps he might be telling some kind of fish story. Herman didn’t try to turn Solor into Basilio who throws himself around for the sake of flash. This guy was a noble warrior and noble was Herman Cornejo. His saute battement fouette battu were gigantic and crystalline clear. His endings of combinations were dramatic. His partnering of Sarah was secure and tender. Their rapport was the best of any pair of dancers at ABT — maybe that’s not saying as much as it used to say but nevertheless it is now the truth. We should be seeing these two together in Swan Lake rather than seeing the Swan Lake week soiled with two slog-filled performances by the Celebrina who has to fake her way through the steps. The Celebrina in Swan Fake - that’s what they should call it.
Skylar Brandt’s debut as Gamzatti showed great promise. The technical dancing was masterful, but nailing down and holding onto Gamzatti’s character was more challenging. The fight with Nikiya where Gamzatti tried to buy her off with a necklace was pretty darned good theater.
Some supporting roles deserve mention for either being good or not. Both Tom Forster and Roman Zhurbin were overpowering brutes as The High Brahmin, but Forster nearly stole the show in Act I from the sheer force and expansiveness of his mime. Great as he was, we would rather have seen him as Solor, and we all know that we should have seen it this year.
The Bronze Idols, Arron Scott and Joseph Gorak, gave good tries, but nobody seems to understand this role the way Renvall and Corella did. We’ve often wondered whether Luis Ribagorda might be able to bring back the role’s original intent. It takes a special type of dancer who knows how to harness and release energy in staccato increments.
Several of the Shade soloists turned in very pleasant performances, most notably Catherine Hurlin and Anabel Katsnelson. We continue to be alarmed by what ABT is allowing April Giangeruso to present as a classical developpe that bears little relationship to academic form. The hiking of the hip, scrunching and rolling of the torso, lack of turn out, and hideous shoulder placement — all in the name of getting the leg to the ear and crushing the tutu against the body is plain and simply unattractive if not ugly.
Now, about the Shades. Oh my goodness. What is going on here? Is it that ABT’s daily classes don’t include practicing developpe during center work while wearing pointe shoes? Seems they may not. Seems that they may not practice arabesques either.
For many years ABT’s Shades use to come down the ramp by stepping forward with a tendu to the floor to steady their balance before raising the leg to arabesque. That memory is clear as vodka. Now, it seems the corps is trying to do this section the grown-up way of the Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet who step forward and immediately raise the back leg to arabesque without the benefit of a steadying tendu. Nearly everyone was having trouble, and those who were not having trouble were lifting the arabesques at different speeds. While we applaud Natalia Makarova for trying to make these dancers grow up, it’s a lost cause when they don’t have the discipline instilled by rigorous classes where developpes in center while wearing pointe shoes are a common feature. But there is hope: Madam Makarova’s original Gamzatti of 38 years ago can eventually fix this embarrassing problem all by herself, because she now runs the JKO school. The students who land jobs in the corps don't need misplaced extensions to the ear; they need to be able to stand still on the supporting leg when developping to the side or when lifting an arabesque. There are no excuses for what we are seeing from the corps of Shades. Priorities of fundamental classical technique seem to have gone awry at ABT.
Sorry to have to end on such a sour note when in fact we were thrilled with so much that we saw in both performances. Our H.H. Pump Bump Award, Guiseppe Zanotti's Cruel Wings, is bestowed upon Sarah Lane for her glistening, fresh, and soul-baring debut as Nikiya.