American Ballet Theater’s “Swan Lake,” which wrapped up its performances at the Metropolitan Opera House on Wednesday, can feel choppy, as if its swans were pushing through water that becomes rougher with each passing year. This production, from 2000, was staged by Kevin McKenzie, who will soon retire as Ballet Theater’s artistic director. Is it time for his “Swan Lake” to leave the company, too? Alexei Ratmansky, the artist in residence, has a jewel of a “Swan Lake” in his back pocket, already made.
In McKenzie’s staging, dramatic and playful moments have worn thin, notably the brash seduction scene between von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, and the princesses in Act 3. What was mildly entertaining in 2000 is embarrassing in 2022. This season, one Rothbart making his debut, Gabe Stone Shayer, swung his cape like a hungry vampire and looked like he was going to take down the Queen with his glare. In a later performance, he toned it down, but not enough. His dancing, brittle and unfinished, suffered.
In another debut, Skylar Brandt performed Odette, the princess who falls under Rothbart’s spell, with her tiny frame weighed down by the gloom of melodrama. It was bewildering. What happened to Brandt, whose sense of drama, while clearly considered, is usually more unforced? As Odile, Rothbart’s deceptive daughter, she was more dynamic — sparkling and glamorous while relishing the speed of her turns, the swiftness of her feet.
A few days later, there was some real magic: The soloist Catherine Hurlin made her debut as Odette-Odile on Wednesday afternoon, and her “Swan Lake” was not like any other. It flew. A stirring and innocent Odette — Hurlin’s face sometimes softened with the hint of a gentle smile — and a spirited Odile, she not only heard the music, she also played with it to spontaneous effect. Performing opposite Joo Won Ahn as Prince Siegfried — so handsome and competent, yet bordering on bland — she was the image of delicacy and authority, from the arc of her long legs to her willowy arms springing from an eloquent back and powerful shoulders.
Hurlin is the future of Ballet Theater, the kind of dancer who has a fresh take on story ballets, the company’s bread and butter, and even on arid ones. Is there any ballet dancer so natural? She’s even better than she was before the pandemic broke. She is more sophisticated, more feminine. What hasn’t changed, mercifully, is her glorious abandonment. It was a major debut, but she has shone all season.
Devon Teuscher, also dancing Odette-Odile with Ahn, was excellent — especially luminous as Odette with her astonishing line and placement. Christine Shevchenko, opposite Calvin Royal III, making a buoyant and boyish debut as the Prince, was her usual competent self. But what if, in addition to her technique, Shevchenko could add some lushness? Her positions are firm, she’s always correct — sprinkling à la seconde turns into her fouettés is very much a part of her skill set — but she’s more memorable when she can be earthy, expressive, vulnerable.
The company entered a more contemporary realm on Thursday with a mixed bill. It started with George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” featuring the eloquent Teuscher opposite Ahn, and concluding with Jessica Lang’s “ZigZag,” an inconsequential and overlong romp set to songs performed by Tony Bennett (including a duet with Lady Gaga). It’s as slight as it ever was, made all the more glaring by its proximity to Balanchine’s classic, created for Ballet Theater in 1947 and set to Tchaikovsky.
The Balanchine is a glittering display of virtuosity and musicality, and Teuscher, aside from a tiny wobble out of a turn, was majestic: clean, clear and expansive, distinct in her upper body. Her partner, Ahn, didn’t fare so well; slipping here and sliding there, he was out of his depth.
Wedged in the middle of the program was a more mysterious dance, making its New York premiere: Alonzo King’s subtle and spiritual “Single Eye,” whose name was inspired by a biblical verse — “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
Featuring seven sections, the ballet is set to music by the jazz composer and pianist Jason Moran. The elegant score, spare at times and more propulsive at others, also included sound recordings by Bernie Krause, which brought to mind trains and rumbling distant traffic.
In solos and duets, principal couples wandered in and out of the stage, in states, it seemed, of contemplation and conflict. The duet that opened the second section for Isabella Boylston, sleek in a yellow unitard, and Thomas Forster ended as she pushed him slowly, resolutely into the wings. Herman Cornejo took over the stage in a solo that kept him falling off balance; he pushed at the air as if beating away demons. His twists and turns weren’t from the usual school of dance angst, but hinted at something more internal.
The entire ballet possessed that quality of looking inward, of using the body, and with it, the mind, as a vessel for a more important purpose than just dancing steps: for fighting against dark forces to remain open and clear. Its lack of pretense was absorbing; this is a ballet full of artful shadows that wash over the stage with ever-evolving shapes — twisting, curving, bending — seemingly inspired by the natural world. At the start, members of the corps de ballet, en pointe, lowered into deep pliés and crossed the stage like svelte insects.
Fittingly, Robert Rosenwasser’s backdrops — he designed the costumes, too — transported the dancers into otherworldly landscapes; it felt like they had been dropped into a shimmering gold forest. Jim French’s lighting, in at least one instance, bathed the stage in the dappled glow of an early sunrise. In the end, Brandt and Royal — often with their hands joined tightly — leaned toward and away from each other, fighting and succumbing to weight while expanding and contracting their bodies. Gradually, tension melted away, and calmly, they turned their backs on the audience. More than the lights going out at the end of a ballet, it was as though the planet had fallen asleep.
Throughout “Single Eye” was the notion of a spiritual awakening or a prayer for the natural world. And enthrallingly, there was robust dancing — especially from the corps de ballet, performing here with more individuality and snap than the Ballet Theater’s repertoire often allows. Woven throughout were powerful, even fiery interludes, including those for the airy Breanne Granlund, quicksilver and daring as she zipped across the stage in a striking blue leotard. Chloe Misseldine, with delicate fish fins jutting from her hips — part tutu, part short-shorts — was almost supernatural in the serenity of her balance. And Michael de la Nuez, while spinning in a pirouette à la seconde, suddenly sliced his free leg backwards and forwards. It was dazzling; it came out of nowhere.
Or did it? King has said that when dancers “get into it” — meaning get into their bodies for real — they lose their self-consciousness. When this happens, they are singing their song. What was most alluring about “Single Eye” was that it wasn’t just one body seeking light, but a community dancing for and with one another: Together, they stepped into their song.
American Ballet Theatre
Through July 16 at the Metropolitan Opera House, abt.org.