American Ballet Theatre School Turns 10

Ratmansky premieres an enchanting work for the company’s students

Alexei Ratmansky’s Rondo Capriccioso from ABT’s opening night performance.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Rondo Capriccioso from ABT’s opening night performance.

Ballet Theatre—now American Ballet Theatre, or if you’re on friendly terms with it, ABT—was born in 1940 with an ambitious program, some stars (most impressively, the major choreographer of his time, Mikhail Fokine), and no financial liquidity. It was kept alive through the determination and money of Lucia Chase, who also danced in it. And in its early years it gave birth to several great hits—most importantly Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire and Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, plus Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, although it didn’t know what it had there—and started serving up Classics with Stars. Seventy-five years have gone by and nothing much has changed, except that stars aren’t what they once were and the definition of classics has been stretched to include just about anything that lasts a full evening. 

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On the other hand, ABT now has a choreographer-in-residence worthy of the title. He’s Alexei Ratmansky, who’s responsibly giving the company what it needs when it needs it—a Nutcracker here, a Sleeping Beauty there (coming up in the spring), but also various exemplary new works such as On the Dnieper, Seven Sonatas, The Tempest, a Shostakovich triple-bill, and his Bolshoi triumph, The Bright Stream. For opening night last week at the Koch he created a work of utter enchantment: Rondo Capriccioso, with galvanizing music by Saint-Saens and featuring 140 (that’s right, 140) dancers, ranging from company apprentices and ABT Studio Company members all the way down the levels of the company’s school to four teeny-tinies labeled Primary B and Pre-Primary, who could barely walk. (Were they cute? I’ll say they were.)

Here Mr. Ratmansky is acknowledging and rejoicing in the 10th anniversary of ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School with a pièce d’occasion that is so much finer than most new ballets anywhere that we have to keep our fingers, toes and eyes crossed in the hope of seeing it again someday, somewhere. The girls are in white, the boys in gray, and they’ve been given a work that does justice to every level of academic accomplishment—not only because Mr. Ratmansky knows how to show dancers off to their advantage, but because he’s taken them, and this opportunity, seriously: His Rondo is full to the brim of rushing activity and super-complicated weaving of groups, yet perfectly structured, totally balanced, and completely entertaining. There hasn’t been anything of this kind so joyous and satisfying since Balanchine’s “Garland Dance” (from The Sleeping Beauty) in 1981.

That’s where the good news ended. Next up at the opening night gala was the world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s With a Chance of Rain, piano music by Rachmaninoff, for four couples and a lot of lighting. Mr. Scarlett is a talented young choreographer out of England’s Royal Ballet, and he’s working everywhere. Which would be fine if he’d get out of the rut he seems trapped in: over-complex and over-sexed leotard ballets with even more fancy lifts than we saw throughout the recent Fall for Dance season. Up and over and down and round, swing your partner, but no do-si-do—we’re not in square dance territory here, we’re in Lustville. Fair enough if the movement weren’t faux-lust. The most convincing bit of it was between two guys, in what’s becoming an obligatory he-and-him encounter in trendy new works. But then these two guys went dutifully back to their appointed hetero-partners.

The lead male was Marcelo Gomes—we know he was the lead because he was the only fella stripped to the waist, and because, of course, he’s such a magnificent dancer. His woman was Hee Seo in a unitard, and we got to appreciate what a gorgeous body she has, and how well she can move it. Second couple was Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, equally engaged in aggressive partnering. As were two other lustful couples.

All this could have been fun for a while if Mr. Scarlett hadn’t succumbed to naughty-boyness (English guys apparently just can’t help themselves), at one point having Mr. Whiteside place his hands on Ms. Copeland’s breasts and jiggling them; at another, mauling her backside. And so on. This was all so against the spirit of the music and the rest of the ballet that With a Chance of Rain died on the spot.

The other world premiere of the season came the next night: the millionth attempt to use Glazounov’s great Raymonda music without staging Raymonda. Balanchine did it three separate times, and his Raymonda Variations is a staple around the world. ABT gave us a feeble version, staged (after Petipa) by Irina Kolpakova and Kevin McKenzie. First of all, this high-classical work needs a backdrop of some kind—the dancers in their 19th century period costumes look isolated and unanchored with nothing but a blue background. Then the dancers need to dance it better. Here, Ms. Seo looked flat, without the dazzling inflections essential to this famous work. Mr. Whiteside (who’d shaved since his Scarlett outing the night before) is improving, but is still far from a danseur noble. The other soloists and demis tried hard, but the corps were mostly listless, the boys in particular oddly assorted and dull. (Hurry up, you appealing youngsters from the school—your company needs you.)

Then an ABT classic, although it was born in England in the 1930’s: Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden), that drama of muted despair as a young girl is married off to a rich older man and is torn from her young lover, while the older man’s ex-mistress is cruelly rebuffed by him. The ultra-romantic “Poème” by Chausson is the ravishing music. Alas, it didn’t quite come off. Cory Stearns as the lover was somewhat stiff and Veronika Part as the Other Woman was just too tall in relation to the others; not her fault, but it badly skewed the ballet. There was recompense, however: Devon Teuscher, a new soloist, was exquisite as Caroline, the bride-to-be, revealing the most beautiful shoulders and arms we’re seen in a long, long time. But Jardin is an ensemble piece—if it doesn’t come together into a moving whole it’s just sad.

Finally, Fancy Free. What is there left to say about it? The three sailors were Herman Cornejo (brilliant as always), Mr. Gomes (not at his best) and Mr. Stearns (at his best—relaxed and going all out). Mr. Stearns is always being cast as a Leading Man, but it seems to me he’s happier in character roles than as an Albrecht or a Siegfried. The two girls, Stella Abrera and Julie Kent, know what they’re doing, but they’re too mature and too knowing. The problem with Fancy Free these days, both at ABT and City Ballet, is that it’s full of deliberate jokiness, cute mime, underlined “moments.” Way back—and I go back to the first cast, in the mid 1940’s—these were nice gobs and gals, unsophisticated and tentative; they seemed like real young people, just like the gobs and gals on the streets outside the theater. They weren’t stylized, and the ballet was touching, not retro. Maybe “touching” and “unsophisticated” just don’t exist any longer.

American Ballet Theatre School Turns 10