At the Ballet Theatre, Visions of the Natural World and ‘Swan’ Debuts

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American Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake,” which wrapped up performances at the Metropolitan Opera House on Wednesday, may seem restless, as if its swans are pushing through water that gets rougher with each passing year. This production, dating from 2000, was directed by Kevin McKenzie, who will soon be retiring as artistic director of the Ballet Theatre. Is it time for his “Swan Lake” to leave the company as well? Alexei Ratmansky, the artist in residence, has in his back pocket a jewel of a “Swan Lake”, already made.

In McKenzie’s staging, the dramatic and playful moments faded, notably the brash seduction scene between von Rothbart, the evil wizard, and the princesses in Act 3. What was mildly entertaining in 2000 is embarrassing in 2022. This season, a debuting Rothbart, Gabe Stone Shayer, swung his cape around like a hungry vampire and looked like he was going to bring the queen down with his gaze. In a later performance, he toned it down, but not enough. His dance, brittle and unfinished, suffered.

In another debut album, Skylar Brandt played Odette, the princess who falls in love with Rothbart, with her diminutive stature weighed down by the gloom of melodrama. It was disconcerting. What happened to Brandt, whose sense of drama, while clearly considered, is generally more unforced? As Odile, Rothbart’s deceitful daughter, she was more dynamic – bubbly and glamorous while relishing in the speed of her turns, the quickness of her feet.

A few days later, it’s the real magic: soloist Catherine Hurlin makes her debut in the role of Odette-Odile on Wednesday afternoon, and her “Swan Lake” is unlike any other. This has stolen. A moving and innocent Odette – Hurlin’s face sometimes softens with the hint of a gentle smile – and a fiery Odile, she not only heard the music, she also played with it spontaneously. Starring alongside Joo Won Ahn as Prince Siegfried – so handsome and capable, yet bordering on bland – she was the picture of delicacy and authority, from the arc of her long legs to her slender arms springing from an eloquent back and powerful shoulders.

Hurlin is the future of Ballet Theatre, the kind of dancer who takes a fresh look at narrative ballets, the daily bread of the company, and even on the most arid ones. Is there such a natural ballet dancer? She’s even better than she was before the pandemic break. It is more sophisticated, more feminine. What hasn’t changed, fortunately, is its glorious abandon. It was a major debut, but she shone all season.

Devon Teuscher, also dancing Odette-Odile with Ahn, was excellent – ​​particularly luminous as Odette with her amazing line and placement. Christine Shevchenko, opposite Calvin Royal III, making a dynamic and childish debut as a prince, was his usual competent self. What if, in addition to his technique, Shevchenko could add a little luxuriance? Her stances are firm, she’s always correct — sprinkling the second turns into her whippings is an integral part of her skill set — but she’s most memorable when she can be earthy, expressive, vulnerable.

The company entered a more contemporary realm on Thursday with a mixed bill. It started with George Balanchine’s ‘Theme and Variations’, featuring the eloquent Teuscher opposite Ahn, and ended with Jessica Lang’s ‘ZigZag’, an inconsequential and overlong play on songs performed by Tony Bennett (including a duet with Lady Gaga). It is lighter than it has ever been, made all the more striking by its closeness to Balanchine’s classic, created for the Ballet Theater in 1947 and staged on Tchaikovsky.

The Balanchine is a scintillating display of virtuosity and musicality, and Teuscher, apart from a small wobble out of a bend, was majestic: clean, clear and expansive, distinct in its upper body. His partner, Ahn, did not fare so well; slipping here and slipping there, he was out of his depth.

Stuck in the middle of the program was a more mysterious dance, making its New York premiere: Alonzo King’s subtle and witty “Single Eye”, whose name was inspired by a Bible verse – “If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”

Composed of seven sections, the ballet is set to music by composer and jazz pianist Jason Moran. The elegant score, stripped down at times and more propulsive at others, also included sound recordings by Bernie Krause, which evoked trains and the noise of distant traffic.

In the solos and duets, the principal couples enter and leave the stage, in states, it seems, of contemplation and conflict. The duet that opened the second section for Isabella Boylston, slender in a yellow leotard, and Thomas Forster ended as she pushed him slowly, resolutely backstage. Herman Cornejo took over the stage in a solo that knocked him off balance; he pushed the air like he was chasing demons. Its twists weren’t from the usual school of dance angst, but hinted at something more internal.

The whole ballet had this quality of looking within, of using the body, and with it, the mind, as a vessel for a greater purpose than mere dance steps: to fight against dark forces to stay open and clear. His lack of pretension was absorbing; it’s a ballet full of artful shadows that sweep across the stage with ever-changing shapes – twisting, bending, bending – seemingly inspired by the natural world. At the start, the members of the corps de ballet, en pointe, descended in deep bends and crossed the stage like slender insects.

Fittingly, Robert Rosenwasser’s sets – he also designed the costumes – transported the dancers to otherworldly landscapes; it was as if they had been let loose in a forest of shimmering gold. Jim French’s lighting, in at least one instance, bathed the scene in the dappled glow of an early sunrise. In the end, Brandt and Royal – often with hands tightly clasped – leaned in and away from each other, struggling and succumbing to the weight while expanding and contracting their body. Gradually, the tension dissipated, and calmly, they turned their backs on the public. More than the lights going out at the end of a ballet, it’s as if the planet had fallen asleep.

Throughout “Single Eye” there was the notion of a spiritual awakening or a prayer for the natural world. And excitingly there was some robust dancing – especially from the corps de ballet, performing here with more individuality and snap than the Ballet Theater repertoire often allows. Powerful, even fiery interludes were woven throughout, including those of airy Breanne Granlund, quicksilver and daring as she strode across the stage in a striking blue leotard. Chloe Misseldine, with delicate fish fins protruding from her hips – part tutu, part shorts – was almost supernatural in the serenity of her poise. And Michael de la Nuez, while spinning in a pirouette at the second, abruptly sliced ​​his free leg back and forth. It was dazzling; He came out of nowhere.

Or did he? King said that when dancers “get into it” — meaning they get into their bodies for real — they lose their self-awareness. When this happens, they sing their song. What was most seductive about “Single Eye” was that it was not just about a body seeking the light, but about a community dancing for each other and with them: together , they went into their song.

American Ballet Theater

Until July 16 at the Metropolitan Opera House, abt.org.


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