American Ballet Theater Steadies Itself for Its Next Act


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Apr 03, 2024

American Ballet Theater Steadies Itself for Its Next Act

Advertisement Supported by Critic’s Notebook The company, now run by Susan Jaffe, concludes its season at the Metropolitan Opera House with familiar story ballets — and some important new faces. By


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Critic’s Notebook

The company, now run by Susan Jaffe, concludes its season at the Metropolitan Opera House with familiar story ballets — and some important new faces.

By Gia Kourlas

It was more heart-wrenching than usual when Mercutio finally keeled over and died at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday night. Of course, this is how it goes in “Romeo and Juliet” — the jocund pal of Romeo is stabbed by Tybalt, which leads Romeo to kill Tybalt, which leads to the lovers’ suicides. But it was Mercutio’s death that was the most tragic moment in this American Ballet Theater production.

After that scene, there would be no more Jake Roxander.

Remember his name! This corps de ballet member has been dazzling all season, beginning with a standout performance in the peasant pas de deux in “Giselle” with Zimmi Coker, another luminous corps dancer. (Why isn’t she a soloist? And how long till they are the leads in “Giselle”?) Sharing the Neapolitan Dance with Jonathan Klein — another rising talent — in “Swan Lake,” Roxander was astounding again, bounding so high into the air that he seemed to be floating.

But Mercutio, Roxander’s biggest role this season, really displayed his explosive talent. He is on the small side, but he has grandeur. His technique is formidable — there is scrupulous precision, detailed épaulement, multiple pirouettes (four rotations, even five) and gorgeous elevation and specificity in his jumps — but his dancing doesn’t stop at technique. Roxander, with an arched eyebrow and a quick smile, wakes up a story ballet with his inherent theatricality, no matter the part. His walk is jaunty; his hips have a bounce. He has swagger.

That has served the last three weeks of Ballet Theater’s summer season, which was made up of its usual versions of story ballets. Along with Kenneth MacMillan’s moody, sepia-toned “Romeo and Juliet” (1965), there was “Giselle,” staged by Kevin McKenzie, and McKenzie’s version of “Swan Lake.” (The season opened with the New York premiere of another story ballet, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate.”)

What does American Ballet Theater stand for? Sometimes the answer seems to be less about ballet than about its brand of theater — in which storytelling can get musty. “Swan Lake” is the most oppressive, with a fourth act that just drags.

With material this familiar (and sometimes stale), the pressure is on the dancers — obvious but true — to perform well, even transcendently. All the while, the performance schedule and casting structure spread the leading parts thin. This Met season was short (just over four weeks, down from eight weeks in 2019), yet Ballet Theater’s roster of principals is long (17). Principals mostly got a single shot at dancing big roles. Expecting the body to move with ease on the cavernous stage of the Met when the mind is thinking “don’t blow it,” can’t be easy.

But Roxander’s performances — and not just his — were hopeful signs for the future of Ballet Theater and for the leadership of Susan Jaffe, the new artistic director, whose casting of the younger generation has not been boring. It included the surprise of Fangqi Li, a corps de ballet member, as an icy new Myrta in “Giselle”; she held the stage with a bracing intensity. The willowy soloist Chloe Misseldine, spooky, alienlike and ever-improving as another new Myrta — her attitude position and leaps are heavenly — was also stunning in the pas de trois in “Swan Lake.”

In the same “Swan” pas de trois and in the peasant pas de deux in “Giselle,” Sunmi Park, another recently promoted soloist, strung steps together with such musicality and imagination that lightness and graciousness flowed from her limbs with nothing short of joy. Patrick Frenette, as Hilarion in “Giselle,” was heartbreaking in the first act — not boorishly one-note — and a whirling dervish in the second as the wilis (women who died before they were able to marry), made him dance to his death.

It was also lovely to see Joseph Gorak’s reprisal of Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet.” A longtime soloist with two of the most elegant feet in the business, he is parting ways with the company. Also leaving, the company announced on Monday, are Connor Holloway and Gabe Stone Shayer.

Veteran principals provided bright spots, too. As Juliet, Devon Teuscher took to the stage so startlingly alive, so full of innocence and anguish that she made MacMillan’s production seem as if it had been choreographed yesterday. The understated, elegant Teuscher, with a distinguished Romeo in Aran Bell, has found a way to fold her acting into the precision of her dancing so delicately that artifice dissolves. In “Giselle,” she illuminated her character with subtle gestures and a powerful technique, but her Juliet was something else. Not a moment was wasted. It was real.

Daniel Camargo, in his second Met season with the company, continues to be a necessary, ardent romantic lead. Dancing with Catherine Hurlin in “Giselle” and Isabella Boylston in “Swan Lake,” he was a marvel; his choices often feel thoughtful and raw, as in the poignant final moments of “Giselle,” when he pressed flowers to his chest while walking backward on a diagonal. They dropped to the floor like tears.

As glittering and thrilling as she was as Odile in the ballroom scene of “Swan Lake,” there was a tightness to Boylston’s Odette. Hurlin, whose wild power can make a role soar, has seemed a little lost at different points in the season; her Giselle was her most expressive and accomplished time on the stage, but her “Swan Lake” was missing some of its fragrant, fluid intensity.

As Juliet, she was vivid in the first act — more uninhibited and brazen than most — but by the end, there was a sense that she was acting the part more than feeling it. It could have been an issue of chemistry. She seemed to have more of a bond with her Nurse (Luciana Paris) than with Romeo (Calvin Royal III). But she has room — and years — to grow in the role.

Story ballets like “Giselle” and “Swan Lake,” with their themes of love and female suffering, redemption and forgiveness — especially when seen in such close succession — can feel less romantic than archaic. In the name of love, women die and become wilis. In the name of love, women, captured and transformed into swans, can be set free — if they find a man to love who also loves them.

But Cassandra Trenary, a wonderfully dramatic ballerina, found a fresh, modern — and because of that, less troubling — way into her mad scene in “Giselle.” After she learns that her love, Count Albrecht, is engaged to another, Giselle loses her mind and dies of a broken heart. The whole village is there. It’s the 19th-century version of finding out on social media you’ve been cheated on, lied to and dumped.

The look on Trenary’s face wasn’t dazed astonishment. Instead, she moved backward through time, remembering their shared moments. She turned still; her defeated expression and deflated body told a different story than the usual fraught anguish. Her Giselle wasn’t just going to go mad. She was mad at herself.

Gia Kourlas is the dance critic of The New York Times. More about Gia Kourlas