The Changing Shape of American Ballet Theater

Jeffrey Cirio, center, in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Whipped Cream,” part of American Ballet Theater’s eight-week spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Each spring, American Ballet Theater moves into the Metropolitan Opera House for eight weeks like a juggernaut. How do you fill that vast, nearly 4,000-seat theater for eight performances a week? Every year, the answer changes as the season progresses.

Momentum seems to build throughout each season, this year in particular. Throngs have been flooding in for the final production, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Whipped Cream,” which closes on Saturday night. Such crowds were seldom seen in the opening week’s performances of “Giselle” in May or the following month, when the house was too often underpopulated.

That run of “Giselle” had other problems: Lighting was dim, and few dancers seemed interested in projecting to the Met’s further reaches. Projection was also an issue last week, when I watched three performances of “Don Quixote” from the Family Circle, the theater’s uppermost level of seats. It was instructive to see how several of the company’s stars were, successfully, addressing a larger audience. Even so, few seemed to perform as if they knew the Family Circle existed. Beneath the shoulders, they relished the expanse of the Met’s large stage. Their faces, however, kept focusing ahead as if on the classroom mirror, with no lift of the eyes and cheekbones. Ballet is a thrillingly multidimensional art: Too few dancers remember this.

In the past decade, Ballet Theater has changed considerably: It’s not long since the company catered to balletomanes who needed Russian names (Irina Dvorovenko, Natalia Osipova, Diana Vishneva and others); this season, Ms. Osipova’s sole Giselle was the only remaining token of that. Instead, the presence today of such principals as Stella Abrera, Misty Copeland (now the company’s main draw) and Hee Seo are helping it become an American exemplum of racial diversity. And these dancers have come up through the ranks.

All this century, Ballet Theater has been the world’s foremost haven of male virtuoso dancing. But here, too, the names keep changing. Jeffrey Cirio is leaving; Daniil Simkin plans to commute between New York and Berlin, where he will dance with the Staatsballett; and Alban Lendorf has long been absent with an injury.

The absence of Marcelo Gomes — who resigned from the company in December and will now return to New York in August with the Sarasota Ballet — would be less painful if other men were mainstays on his level. This spring, Herman Cornejo (still the company’s most miraculous stylist); Cory Stearns (at his finest in the season’s two final weeks); and James Whiteside (always startling in energy and focus) came nearer to being central artists.

But David Hallberg, who created roles in Mr. Ratmansky’s “Firebird” (2012) and “Whipped Cream” (2017), didn’t grace those ballets or several other vehicles with his presence this year. When he danced “Giselle,” with Natalia Osipova, and “Romeo and Juliet,” with Isabella Boylston, the ballerinas blazed fervently throughout, whereas he gave gracious guest-star performances, beautifully indicating his roles rather than inhabiting them.

There’s more to say of individual dancers. It’s more important, however, to observe that Ballet Theater keeps becoming more of a company — with a profusion of talented dancers at corps and soloist levels — and increasingly stylish.

When we talk of style, however, we turn to repertory. Here, Ballet Theater remains a divided soul.

The company has long been America’s foremost exponent of what has been called the Holy Trinity of classical ballet: Petipa the Father, Balanchine the Son, Ashton the Holy Ghost. This year, in an anomaly, Ashton has been banished — even though no story ballets make more glorious impressions at the Met than “Cinderella,” “The Dream” and “La Fille Mal Gardée”; and Balanchine returns only briefly in the fall with a revival of “Symphonie Concertante.”

That leaves Petipa. This year is the bicentennial of his birth; his name was among the credits in five of the season’s eight weeks, with “La Bayadère,” “Don Quixote,” “Giselle,” “Harlequinade” and “Swan Lake.” But these different views make Petipa seem to have multiple personality disorder. In “Harlequinade,” staged by Mr. Ratmansky from period sources, mime is bright, vivid, musical; but in “Swan Lake,” staged by Kevin McKenzie, large parts of the mime are missing, others have been changed, and few are played with power. “Don Quixote” is a flashy circus romp: Though Mr. McKenzie’s production is similar to most others, this is a ballet that trivializes any notion of classicism.

Mr. Ratmansky grew up in Soviet Russia, but his productions (he also staged “The Sleeping Beauty” for Ballet Theatre in 2015) show a passion to establish a view of Petipa that shakes off the many stylistic changes of the Soviet era: filigree footwork, vividly communicative mime, dramatic coherence underlying the dance. Mr. McKenzie grew up in the United States, but his stagings show a hearty indifference to such niceties. Odette, the Swan Queen, dances a version of the pas de deux that is full of Soviet accretions; Odile, her ballroom counterpart, dances a grand pas de deux so Sovietized that little Petipa is left but the famous 32 fouetté turns (of which most ballerinas deliver intensely embellished versions of fewer than 32).

Natalia Makarova worked this spring to refine her 1980 production of “La Bayadère”; I was grateful for the improvements. Occasionally, this ballet’s 1877 score is the masterpiece of its composer, Ludwig Minkus, though John Lanchbery’s 1980 arrangement often beefs it up into film music; in the dances of both Act I’s festivities and Act II’s vision of the Shades, there’s often an insufferable oom-chah coarseness. Mr. Lanchbery died in 2003; it might be time for a new arrangement that makes Minkus’s more formulaic numbers sound expressive, rather than trite.

Still, “La Bayadère” — a ballet whose classical beauties I’ve often admired — is a deeply awkward piece. It’s a culturally imperialist view of India. Nikiya is an Indian temple dancer; when she dies, she goes to a Christian idea of ballet heaven (Petipa was inspired by an illustration for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” by Gustave Doré). She has left behind all that was Indian about her. It’s an idealist ballet; but its ideals, in our era, now seem misplaced.

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