ABT’s Summer Season Dances Great Works of Literature

'America's National Ballet Company' is the master of the story ballet, but don’t mistakenly assume that means they're putting fairy tales on the stage.

A duo of ballet dancers
Chloe Misseldine (Odette) and Aran Bell (Prince Siegfried) in Swan Lake. Emma Zordan

This summer, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is bringing five stunning ballets to the Metropolitan Opera House stage. Four are based on great works of literature, three are repertory favorites, two are contemporary masterpieces and one is a New York Premiere. Founded in 1940 and designated America’s National Ballet Company in 2006, ABT is dedicated to preserving and presenting full-length ballets from the 19th and 20th Centuries while also performing exciting new works. They are, quite simply, the masters of the story ballet, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that means putting fairy tales on the stage. The stories of this Summer Season, which kicks off today (June 18) and runs through July 20), are based on a 19th-century Russian verse novel, three British modernist novels, a Shakespearean play and a contemporary Mexican novel. There are no fae or witches, but do not fear—there’s still plenty of lust and love, betrayal and heartbreak and magic.

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While some of the ballets are literal visualizations of the tales that inspired them, others present a more abstract exploration of the source texts’ themes and ideas. Either way, as ABT’s Associate Artistic Director Clinton Luckett told Observer, “there will be great storytelling through great dancing.”

The season opens with Onegin (June 18-22), one of the greatest story ballets of the 20th Century. This ballet adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin falls into the “literal visualization” category, remaining faithful to the source’s plot and characterization. Choreographed by John Cranko and set to music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stolze), the three-act ballet received its World Premiere by Stuttgart Ballet in 1965. ABT first performed the work in 2001, and though it has been part of their repertory ever since, they last performed it in 2017.

A group of dancers in fancy dress
A scene from Onegin. Gene Schiavone

The story, set in 19th-century Russia, is powerful—full of passion, duty, honor, shame and regret—but Cranko’s delicate choreography adds another layer of poetry to it. In ABT’s Pop Up Book Club: Onegin, Principal Dancers Cory Stearns and Hee Seo (the only Principals who have previously performed in Onegin) spoke on the importance of not over-dramatizing the already dramatic plot, on trusting that the choreography and physical movement—though never slipping into mime—will express the storyline accurately enough. Stearns said that over his years of performing Onegin, he has learned, “It does not require extra embellishment… less is more.”

Pushkin’s characters are complex and demand a lot from dancers, which is one of the reasons ABT’s Artistic Director Susan Jaffe (who has danced in Onegin herself) wanted to bring the ballet back into rotation. It takes seasoned dancers to accurately portray the lead roles, Luckett (who has also danced in Onegin) explained, especially the role of the romantic heroine Tatyana. The Company currently has several strong female Principal Dancers ready to take on the challenge of such rich material and character arcs. Seo will return as Tatyana, and Christine Shevchenko and Chloe Misseldine will make their debuts in the lead role as well.

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Next is the season’s highlight: the New York Premiere of Woolf Works (June 25-29). The award-winning ballet triptych, directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and set to an original score by composer Max Richter, received its World Premiere by The Royal Ballet in 2015. Inspired by three of Virginia Woolf’s modernist novels (Mrs. DallowayOrlando and The Waves), it falls into the “abstract exploration of the texts’ themes and ideas” category. McGregor worked with dramaturg Uzma Hameed to delve into not only Woolf’s novels but also her life—as told in her letters, essays and diaries. The result is, as ABT’s Dance Historian Elizabeth Kaye says in Behind the Ballet with Elizabeth Kaye: Woolf Works, “the portrayal of a woman’s soul” and “a revelation, a marvel, and an artistic triumph.”

A duo of ballet dancers
Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo in Woolf Works. Ravi Deepres

McGregor is a contemporary choreographer, the first ever to hold the role of Resident Choreographer for The Royal Ballet, and his movement language is, I promise you, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. McGregor calls it “bodies misbehaving beautifully.” I’ve been following his work since seeing a performance by his company Random Dance (now Company Wayne McGregor) many years ago. His style is extremely physical, extremely exact—a movement-based pointillism.

Woolf Works is structured into three dramatically different acts: “I now, I then,” “Becomings” and “Tuesday.” But there are thematic throughlines, held together by repeated movements and the compelling score by Richter, McGregor’s frequent collaborator. “You can really feel the symbiosis between the sound environment and the movement environment,” Luckett said. “It’s deeply emotional… And that’s what Wayne has mined, too. He’s mined the deep emotion in Woolf’s work.”

McGregor created the work for ABT’s former Principal Dancer Alessandra Ferri, and Ferri will make a guest appearance in two performances (Tuesday, June 25 and Friday, June 28) alongside Herman Cornejo in his debut. Gillian Murphy and Joo Won Ahn, Teuscher and James Whiteside, and Seo and Aran Bell will all make their New York debuts in this work as well.

A male ballet dancer lifts a female ballet dancer into the air
Christine Shevchenko (Juliet) and Thomas Forster (Romeo) in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Rosalie O'Connor

Following Woolf Works are two repertory and audience favorites: Swan Lake (July 1-6) and Romeo and Juliet (July 9-13). 

Swan Lake, with its gorgeous choreography by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 production, and its incredible score by Tchaikovsky, remains ABT’s best-selling ballet. It is, as Kaye says, “the crown jewel of classical ballet.” Isabella Boylston will be first to take on the show-stopping thirty-two fouettés as Odette-Odile alongside Daniel Camargo as Prince Siegfried. Misseldine, alongside Bell, will be making her New York debut in the lead role at the July 3 matinee. Romeo and Juliet, created by Kenneth MacMillan in 1965 and in ABT’s rotation since 1985, with its beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev, will open with Teuscher and Bell in the title roles. Another ballet in the “literal visualization” category, it stays true to the plot and passion in William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of star-crossed lovers.

A duo of ballet dancers
Cassandra Trenary (Tita) and Herman Cornejo (Pedro) in Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate. Marty Sohl

Closing out ABT’s Summer season is Like Water for Chocolate (July 16-20), which premiered to great critical and audience acclaim in 2022. Based on Laura Esquivel’s novel of the same name, the ballet was created by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon with music by composer Joby Talbot. It straddles the two categories of adaptation, remaining true to much of Esquivel’s story of familial duty and forbidden love but veering into abstraction in a visually lush production steeped in magical realism. It will open with Cassandra Trenary as Tita and Cornejo as Pedro—a duo whose chemistry and execution in these roles are hard to beat. The talented Murphy will make her debut as the formidable Mama Elena—an experience not to be missed.

There are a few other auxiliary performances and events to mention. For younger ballet fans, the one-hour ABTKids Performance will take place on Saturday, June 22. And throughout the season, ABT will host a series of pre-performance workshops for children ages 4-12 and several post-performance celebratory toasts for grownups.

ABT’s Summer Season Dances Great Works of Literature