American Ballet Theater’s Mixed Repertory
Twenty years ago American Ballet Theater was close to bankruptcy, and its artistic reputation was near its bottom. Long-time Artistic Director Oliver Smith had recently returned following Baryshnikov’s uneven tenure. But Smith was dying of emphysema, and the company was seriously considering a merger with Joffrey Ballet.
This would have been like an acting company dually led by Ralph Richardson and Shelley Winters. What would its style be? What could be its aim?
Among those who prevented this insanity from taking place was the company’s future Artistic Director and its then principal dancer, Kevin McKenzie, himself a former Joffrey member.
In the years since, the company has blossomed, gradually gaining broad recognition as the one with the best roster of dancers in the world. Among its extraordinary current stars only Paloma Herrera was already present at the launch of the McKenzie regime.
Yet since then an All-Star team has been assembled: Beloserkovsky, Bolle, Cornejo, Dvorovenko, Gomes, Hallberg, Kent, Murphy, Osipova, Part, Stiefel, Vishneva...
The ugly duckling has become a swan.
More, the company’s focus on the classical repertory has not been lost.
In acknowledgement, the company chose to commemorate the twentieth year of McKenzie’s stewardship as artistic director with a special program on Tuesday night during which it showed two short films and presented three dances.
The opener was a brief highlight video composed of clips and interviews. Still slim and elegant at 58, McKenzie humorously recounted his path to ABT and his astonishment at being offered the job of company head.
The rightly partisan crowd laughed and smiled.
The joy was augmented by the piece that followed: a lovely trio entitled "Triptych" choreographed by company member Marcelo Gomes. Set to an arrangement of a gorgeous Handel passacaglia, it featured Xiomara Reyes, Herrera and Veronika Part. Simple, abstract and refined, the piece showed off Reyes’ skill at fleet footwork and Part’s timing.
After this came a short movie of well wishes to McKenzie from other ballet celebrities (e.g. Mark Morris and Peter Martins), a dance by James Kudelka to Tchaikovsky and Christopher Wheeldon’s "Thirteen Diversions." This last work is an extended dance to the music of Benjamin Britten. First premiered by the company last year, it’s a treasure, comparing without disfavor to some of the most beautiful plotless ballets of Balanchine.
In the Wheeldon piece, four couples alternate and join one another on the stage with the corps as a tinkling piano backed by the orchestra plays. Sarah Lane and Craig Salstein were typically charming as the first couple and Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg dazzled as another.
But all this was preliminary to what came after intermission: the New York premiere of the company’s new production of "Firebird" with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky and sets by Simon Rastukh.
It would be hard to say that the production was an unqualified triumph. Misty Copeland, playing the part of the Firebird, was costumed in a strange red outfit that made her look a bit like a tarty girl playing a devil at Halloween. And the village maidens were presented in dresses that mostly swamped their legs.
It was also hard to tell if Ratmansky’s choreography, lucid as it was, failed to make the evil Kaschei come to life from a fault of Roman Zhurbin’s efficient but bland rendering of the role.
There could be no denying though the energy and vision of the production. Rastukh’s village was a vivid but strange world: charcoal trees with lipstick red tops breathing smoke. And in Ratmansky’s presentation the story was clear and passionate. Could this be a truly great version with different dancers or greater more familiarity with the piece? Time will tell.
What is readily apparent is the strength of the company at a generation’s remove from its near-death experience.