American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
July 5 (M & E)
-- by Jerry Hochman
The final performances after a long season are supposed to be celebratory, and maybe a little bittersweet. The final performances of American Ballet Theatre's 2014 Met Season were certainly celebratory, but, despite memorable portrayals and a personal milestone event, they were also more bitter than sweet.
ABT's final programs consisted of three more performances of “Coppelia,” supplementing the three earlier this season. I was unable to see the July 3 performance, at which Sascha Radetsky portrayed Franz opposite Xiomara Reyes as Swanilda. The two Saturday performances that I did see featured Yuriko Kajiya and Joseph Gorak as Swanilda and Franz in the matinee, and Paloma Herrera and Jared Matthews in the same roles in the evening. After ABT unveiled the initial scheduling, and casting, for its 2014 Met Season, Mr. Radetsky announced his retirement, and both Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews, who are a couple offstage, announced that they were leaving the company and joining the Houston Ballet. Subsequently, these performances morphed into their 'farewells'.
This review will focus on the performances of the departing dancers, and then comment on the past season and on issues facing the company.
My understanding from people in a position to know is that Mr. Radetsky’s portrayal was superb, that the performance was attended by a slew of current and former dancers, and that the celebration following it was marked by repeated floral salutes and curtain calls. Mr. Radetsky, who was promoted to soloist in 2003, has always been a highly competent and respected danseur, leaving memorable impressions in each of his roles. My particular strong memory, as I recently mentioned, is of his previous portrayal of von Rothbart (the ‘human’ one), but they also include his performances in prior seasons of Tybalt, the Champion Roper (in “Rodeo”), and in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Symphony No. 9.”
Each of the Saturday performances was a memorable valedictory for the departing dancers.
Simply put, the matinee performance of “Coppelia” was one of the finest of the season. I wrote previously that the portrayals of Swanilda by Sarah Lane and Gillian Murphy earlier were exceptional – and they were – but Ms. Kajiya’s Swanilda was that and more.
I tend to use words like ‘remarkable’ and ‘superb’ and ’extraordinary’ all too frequently – there are only so many ways to express the same thing. But on Saturday, Ms. Kajiya’s Swanilda was better than outstanding, and her dynamic characterization reflected that quality of effervescent joy that has marked her stage persona since I first saw her dance. As I once observed, you can’t watch Ms. Kajiya dance and not smile. At this performance, her technique was impeccable, and her acting was every bit as fine as Ms. Lane’s earlier in the season, but broader. And although she didn’t quite look like the ideal Swanilda as Ms. Lane did, by the strength of her acting and the effortlessness of her dancing, this didn’t matter in the least.
Although most of her character’s qualities are those she displayed on her own, certainly Mr. Gorak’s polished partnering and demeanor helped make Ms. Kajiya’s performance as memorable as it was. Although his partnering had always been somewhat tentative, whatever issues caused this appear to have passed; his portrayal of Franz was pitch-perfect in every respect. Recently promoted to soloist, which surprised no one, he is well on the way to fulfilling the promise I saw two years ago, when I characterized his future as ‘the sky is the limit’.
In 2010, I wrote that Mr. Matthews was an ‘unfortunate choice’ for the role of Espada in “Don Quixote.” In the four years since then, he has developed far more consistently, and far more splendidly, than anyone could have dreamed possible – other than perhaps Mr. Matthews himself. He now owns that role, and dances exceptionally well in every role in which he’s cast, including his deliciously fiendish von Rothbart and his youthful and passionate Albrecht this season. His performance Saturday evening as Franz was on the same level.
Until Act III, the role of Franz is significant more for his mere presence as a foil to Swanilda and Dr. Coppelius than his acting or dancing. So throughout Acts I and II, except for appearing, appropriately, to be one of the duller knives in the drawer, there was little for Mr. Matthews to do except again demonstrate his skill at creating a character. But he came alive when the choreography did, in Act III (which is also when Ms. Herrera did), and delivered a performance in the pas de deux that had the audience cheering. His circle of leaps, for example, was full-throttle into the wings – and looked like they’d continue all the way to Houston had he not had to return to the stage for the coda.
When the afternoon and evening performances ended, Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews each received ovations from their casts, and were presented with enough floral bouquets to fill a warehouse – not only stage bouquets and a blizzard of them tossed from the standing and cheering audience, but also what appeared to be matching little stuffed teddy bears. After the matinee curtain fell for the last time, a friend heard a cheer from behind the curtain. Amid the evening post-performance celebration, we learned what the cheering was for: Ms. Kajiya, with a big smile on her face, even bigger than usual, flashed the engagement ring she’d been presented with by Mr. Matthews a few hours earlier.
This, their quality performances, and the genuine enthusiasm from fellow cast members and the respective audiences, would seem to have made these farewells happy occasions. And they were – to a degree. But they were also terribly sad – presumably for the dancers, but also for ABT and its audience. Given the timing of their announcements, losing these highly competent and engaging dancers must have been, to at least some extent, a consequence of the company’s failure to provide them with casting opportunities they had earned and for which they were well qualified.
On the surface, this season has been a good one, despite a larger than usual number of injuries that the company seemed ill prepared for. There have been stellar performances in lead and ‘second lead’ roles, not only from ABT’s principals, but also from soloists when given the opportunity, particularly by Ms. Kajiya, Mr. Matthews, Ms. Lane, and Stella Abrera in everything they were given, by Misty Copeland, who was assigned more opportunities this year than other soloists, in several of the roles she assayed (Gamzatti, the ‘street’ Mercedes, Lescaut’s Courtesan, and a promising Swanilda), and by Craig Salstein as Cinderella’s shy stepsister. And Isabella Boylston continued to take advantage of repeated opportunities to dance new leading roles and to grow in them. Certain of ABT’s corps dancers have also shown continuing excellence. In addition to those recently, and deservedly, promoted to soloist (Christine Shevchenko, Devon Teuscher, Roman Zhurbin, and Mr. Gorak), they include Melanie Hamrick, Luciana Paris, and Gemma Bond, each of whom merited promotion as well, and dancers who have excelled in the demi-soloist roles they’ve performed, including (in no particular order, and not exclusively) Skylar Brandt (who has an infectious spirit and should be given more opportunities to show it), April Giangeruso (a most pleasant surprise), Zhong-Jing Fang (who has shown considerable improvement this season), Stephanie Williams (who still, as I observed previously, looks like an eventual Odette/Odile), Katherine Williams (a crystalline technician who provides extraordinarily detailed characterization where appropriate), Adrienne Schulte (whose ability as a comedienne in her portrayal of Helena was a revelation), and Luis Ribagorda (who has had a break-out year). And there are corps dancers who have been with the company for a shorter period, or are new this season, who are already making positive impressions, including (again, not exclusively) Brittany DeGrofft, Courtney Lavine, Puanani Brown, Catherine Hurlin, Mai Aihara, Alexei Agoudine, Gabe Stone Shayer, and Sterling Baca. Several years ago, at a ‘Works and Process’ presentation, Artistic Director Keven McKenzie stated that ABT’s dancers were the best in the world. While other companies’ artistic directors say the same thing, ABT’s dancers certainly qualify.
And within the past three years, ABT has promoted two of its own home-grown soloists (by that I mean dancers who began their ABT careers in the corps) to principal: Ms. Seo and, this year, Ms. Boylston (in between, James Whiteside, a lateral from Boston Ballet who joined ABT as a soloist, was also promoted to principal); and, as noted, four more were promoted to soloist this year. It certainly would appear as if ABT is expanding performing opportunities for its own dancers.
But these promotions mask a serious problem: the lack of sufficient leading role opportunities for all of ABT’s highly qualified soloists, and the promotion logjam between the corps and soloist level that to a large extent is a consequence.
For years, I’ve noted the dearth of casting opportunities in leading roles given to ABT’s home-grown dancers, as well as the overwhelming number of leading roles given to “guest artists.” ABT has always had guest artists, and as long as these dancers can contribute some extraordinary quality that its own dancers may lack, their presence is a benefit to ABT and its audiences. But in the past few years, and particularly this season, the trickle has become an avalanche. Of 27 ‘principal’ positions listed in programs this year, 11 were occupied by guest artists (or ‘exchange artists’ – the difference, if there is any, has no significance with respect to casting). At least two appeared on more than one occasion. That’s a minimum of 13 leading roles that might have been assigned to ABT’s own dancers. (And this total does not reflect performances by company principals who are only members of the company for a limited time at high visibility performing venues.) Combined with inexplicable casting decisions that reward seniority at the expense of internal growth, or that give ‘most-favored-nation’ status to one or two dancers for whatever reason, ABT is increasingly viewed as acting not just unfairly with respect to certain dancers, but irresponsibly and unwisely in terms of the company’s future.
The problem, in the first instance, is the repertoire that ABT primarily relies upon at the Met and for its international tours. At that same “Works and Process” program, Mr. McKenzie said that the story ballets were not the ‘real’ ABT. Whether they represent the ‘real’ ABT or not, they’re the ballets that ABT is known for, and that dominate its programming at the Met and other prestigious venues. This repertoire is not going to change. But in‘story’ ballets, there are precious few leading roles to go around. As a consequence, those soloists stuck in what I’ve previously described as soloist purgatory who are not given significant leading roles stagnate in featured roles they’ve danced for years. And awarding the few leading roles there are to guest artists necessarily reduces the number of lead roles available to soloists still further.
From my vantage point, the promotion of Ms. Boylston has caused something of an uproar – because it appears to have been both premature and preordained. Some dancers are natural wunderkinds who leap over others because they are ‘instant’ ballerinas. As fine a dancer as Ms. Boylston is (and she is – or I would not have singled her out as a dancer to watch the first time I saw her dance), she isn’t that. She still has considerable work to do in classical roles. (A ‘ginched’ upper body, for example, as well as a tendency toward power at the expense of musicality.) This is particularly apparent when Ms. Boylston dances the same choreography opposite, or immediately before or after, another dancer. For example, in “Coppelia” this weekend, after she danced ‘Dawn’, when they danced at opposite sides of the stage during the coda, she looked disheveled and hunched compared to Ms. Hamrick (who had danced ‘Prayer’ at the same performance). And compared to Ms. Abrera’s ‘Dawn,’ perfectly danced in the evening, Ms. Boylston’s was ‘out there’; more aggressive, more about her (as I previously described, like ‘high noon’ rather than ‘dawn’).
I celebrate the repeated opportunities she’s been given, and don’t doubt that eventually Ms. Boylston will grow into whatever role she’s assigned. She’s already doing that – as any dancer at this level of accomplishment would. (And I note that similar outrage was expressed when Ms. Seo was promoted, and although still somewhat weaker technically than other principals, she has nevertheless provided ABT’s audiences with many brilliant performances.) But the issue is opportunity. And where the only path to advancement, or self-fulfillment, is to be given an opportunity to prove yourself in a role, and the only available opportunity (with respect to Giselle, for example) is given to the dancer who would appear to be less qualified for it than other soloists (Ms. Lane; Ms. Kajiya), it makes it appear as if the reason Ms. Boylston got the assignment in the first place was to cement her promotion.
A solution to this problem would be either to expand the number of available opportunities to dance leading roles (which would mean reducing the number of guest artists or reconsidering the casting of certain ballerinas who may no longer be the best choice for a role, neither of which ABT seems willing to do), or to spread the already limited number of opportunities around. A variant might be to agree that for every guest artist, an opportunity will be given to a soloist or corps dancer who has not previously been cast in a particular role. Giving opportunities to dance significant leading roles (those, like Odette/Odile, Giselle, and Juliet, which many consider to be predicates to promotion) only, or primarily, to one soloist a year, which is a continuing pattern, only makes the system look rigged. And ‘auditioning’ a dancer once, and then not allowing him or her to grow in the role, is foolish and self-defeating. Surely ABT can spread opportunities around and focus on more than one soloist’s performance qualities and achievements at a time.
The loss of Ms. Kajiya, Mr. Matthews, and Mr. Radetsky might, logically, have been avoidable if they, rather than guest artists, had been cast in roles for which they were qualified when this season's schedule was first announced. (Although if the present policy continues, perhaps Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews -- and others, like Maria Riccetto, who have left ABT in recent years without being given the opportunity to fulfill their potential -- may yet return some day… as guest artists.) But ABT will survive regardless. If certain dancers are not given opportunities, for whatever reason (they don’t fit a particular image; they don’t bring with them a book of business; they’re not what high-profile donors want; their casting wouldn’t be as good for publicity as others), there's no consequence: there will be other dancers just as talented in the future. Life isn’t fair, and artistic directors will always have inexplicable blind spots with respect to certain dancers regardless of their objective level of accomplishment and capability. But not giving sufficient opportunities to well-qualified dancers not only fails to recognize and develop talent and artificially restricts the scope of a particular dancer’s career, it also cheats the public. Not everyone attends ABT performances to see visiting stars; many go to see what purportedly is the best of America’s ballet companies, and the best of America’s dancers.