Two years of canceled seasons should have been enough time to come up with a comeback plan. So why did the American Ballet Theater return to the Metropolitan Opera House on Monday with so little imagination? In honor of its first opening night at the Met since 2019, the company has dusted off the cobwebs of a warhorse, the ballet in three acts “Don Quixote”. But still, the dust remained.
Even more daunting than presenting this crisp comedic ballet, prized primarily for its power of bravery, was the way the Ballet Theater dusted off the cobwebs of something else: the casting gimmick.
The production’s young lovers, Kitri and Basilio, as well as street dancer Mercedes and bullfighter Espada, were danced by different couples in each act. (There were also three conductors, one for each act.) The ballet theater has already experimented with multiple casts in “Don Quixote”; never has it seemed so erratic, so accidental, so last minute.
For dancers, jumping in and out of roles is a tricky business. There’s no time to develop the nuances and moods of the characters: it’s the difference between acting and pretending. In a ballet tale, even light as “Don Quixote”, this mixed casting exhausts the drama of the dance and the dance of the drama. The tone, temperament and technical expression were constantly changing; over the night, the ballet itself felt increasingly nailed down – like a prop.
It didn’t help that the gala performance was delayed 20 minutes for rambling speeches in which the company took out dancers (Erica Lall and Skylar Brandt) to pay tribute to a director, Susan Fales-Hill, and the artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, who is retiring after the season).
“You don’t see the world as it is, but as it could be,” Fales-Hill said of McKenzie. “Some of us call it madness, many of us call it vision.”
Vision is not the word I would use to describe the direction of Ballet Theater in recent years. With the exception of contributions from Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s artist-in-residence, the company has often seemed disconnected. The vision behind this “Don Quixote” was likely tied to solving a math problem: How many dancers promoted at the height of the pandemic in September 2020 could the company squeeze onto the stage?
All but one. On Monday we saw Calvin Royal III (Espada, Act 2); Joo Won Ahn (Basilio, Act 2); Aran Bell (Basilio, Act 1); Thomas Forster (Espada, Act 1); and Cassandra Trenary (Mercedes, Act 3). His Espada was Gabe Stone Shayer, who in that same block of promotions was elevated to soloist status. Brandt, the latest promoted dancer, didn’t perform until Tuesday when, as Kitri, opposite veteran Herman Cornejo, she had the night all to herself.
Her cheerful and luminous presence throughout the ballet was a relief. Directed by McKenzie and company manager Susan Jones, the production focuses on fiery Kitri whose love, Basilio, a poor barber, is fired by her father, Lorenzo, who wants her to marry Gamache. , a rich and affected nobleman.
On Monday, as Kitri in Act 1, Catherine Hurlin, a soloist, stood out for her powerful leap and speed, as well as her disarming personality – nodding with daffy encouragement as Basilio de Bell described his trade to his father or peeking behind his fan with an expression both sultry and sweet. Hurlin, scheduled to dance all three acts Wednesday night with Ahn, uses every corner of the stage as her canvas. It is divine and deliciously gamey.
Hee Seo brought her subtle touch of beauty to the Act 2 vision scene, but isn’t that supposed to be a dream? Has lighting always been this dark? Other stellar performances came from unexpected places. In the role of Love, Léa Fleytoux crossed the stage with feet that crackled as vividly as a necklace of broken pearls. His balances were light and unforced. And the quiet, elegant Chloe Misseldine, who stood out in Lauren Lovette’s ‘La Follia Variations’ last fall, continued as one of the Flower Girls on Monday.
In the wedding scene, Christine Shevchenko navigated Kitri’s technical demands with upbeat ease — at least when she was left alone. She was less safe when associated with Daniel Camargo, a Brazilian guest artist this season. His appearance as Basilio was a recent cast change; maybe they needed more rehearsal time. But in hard corners, he slowed Shevchenko down; for all his welcome boldness and zest, his takeoffs and landings made for some graceless moments: At times he seemed to be throwing himself into the air without quite knowing how he got down.
But where will one of the men land? The Met engagement is a transitional season, especially for the company’s new leading men. Their presence on stage on Monday had a fog, which was reinforced by the spectacle of “Don Quixote”, a ballet of stories in which they must become a character. Bell is the most natural, especially with Hurlin (and, thankfully, he’s tall). More established men are rare at the moment. James Whiteside is injured. That leaves Cory Stearns, who brings impressive partnership and intensity; Daniil Simkin, back in the company as a guest artist; and Cornejo, the veteran who still has moments of virtuoso dazzle and elegant exuberance as evidenced by his Basilio, opposite Brandt, but who has been with the company for over 20 years.
Brandt’s Kitri showed off something on Tuesday that her fellow Kitris couldn’t pull off on Monday: a full arc, in which she got to show off her comedic timing. It helps that she can hold her saucer eyes as still as a doll’s, then suddenly roll them as dismissively as a teenager on the subway. She’s petite, but her dancing is so fleshed out that she’s not exactly tiny; Brandt does not just hold the forms vibrantly, she expands them, sliding from one stage to another with a fluidity that allows her to indicate the trick without commenting on it.
Her Kitri will probably grow, but you can’t doubt that she already lives inside the character; in those moments when she leaps from the stage into a wing, you imagine her continuing, leaping into the unknown – whether someone is watching or not.
The Ballet Theater is also stepping into the unknown, with new management on the way. The company’s next artistic director is former company director Susan Jaffe. She has a lot of work ahead of her, but is changing, any change, feels long overdue. In his speech Monday, McKenzie, who was honored, spoke about cyclical periods in the history of Ballet Theater. Now, he said, the company “is on the brink of a new era and we know what happens when ABT enters a new era.
Wiping off the dust would be a start.
Until Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera House, abt.org.