Two years of canceled seasons should have been ample time to hatch a comeback plan. So why did American Ballet Theater return to the Metropolitan Opera House on Monday with so little imagination? In honor of its first opening night at the Met since 2019, the company dusted the cobwebs off a war horse, the three-act ballet “Don Quixote.” But still, dust remained.
Even more dispiriting than presenting this crusty comic ballet, mainly beloved for its bravura power, was the way Ballet Theater dusted the cobwebs off something else: gimmick casting.
The production’s young lovers, Kitri and Basilio, as well as the street dancer Mercedes and the bullfighter Espada, were danced by different couples in each act. (There were three conductors, too, one for each act.) Ballet Theater has experimented with multiple casts before in “Don Quixote”; never has it seemed so erratic, so incidental, so last minute.
For the dancers, jumping in and out of roles is an awkward task. There’s no time to develop characters’ nuance and mood: It’s the difference between acting and playing make believe. In a story ballet, even one as slight as “Don Quixote,” this mixed-up casting depletes the drama of the dancing and the dancing of the drama. Tone, temperament and technical expression were ever-shifting; over the course of the night, ballet itself felt increasingly tacked on – like an accessory.
It didn’t help that the gala performance was delayed by 20 minutes for rambling speeches in which the company trotted out dancers (Erica Lall and Skylar Brandt) to pay tribute to a trustee, Susan Fales-Hill, and the artistic director, Kevin McKenzie , who is retiring after the season).
“You see the world not as it is, but as it could be,” Fales-Hill said of McKenzie. “Some of us call this insanity, many of us call it vision.”
Vision isn’t the word I would use to describe the direction of Ballet Theater in recent years. With the exception of contributions by Alexei Ratmansky, the company artist in residence, the company has often seemed out of touch. Likely the vision behind this “Don Quixote” had to do with solving a math problem: How many dancers promoted during the thick of the pandemic back in September of 2020 could the company squeeze onstage?
All but one. On Monday we saw Calvin Royal III (Espada, Act 2); Joo Won Ahn (Basilio, Act 2); Aran Bell (Basilio, Act 1); Thomas Forster (Espada, Act 1); and Cassandra Trenary (Mercedes, Act 3). Her Espada was Gabe Stone Shayer, who, in that same block of promotions, was elevated to soloist. Brandt, the final promoted dancer, didn’t perform until Tuesday when, as Kitri, opposite the veteran Herman Cornejo, she had the night all to herself.
Her gleeful, bright presence throughout the ballet was a relief. With staging by McKenzie and Susan Jones, the company’s régisseur, the production focuses on the spirited Kitri whose love, Basilio, a poor barber, is dismissed by her father, Lorenzo, who wants her to wed Gamache, a rich, affected nobleman.
On Monday, as Kitri in Act 1, Catherine Hurlin, a soloist, stood out with her powerful jump and speed, as well as her disarming personality – nodding with daffy encouragement as Bell’s Basilio described his occupation to her father or peeking behind her fan with an expression both sultry and sweet. Hurlin, scheduled to dance all three acts on Wednesday night, with Ahn, uses every bit of the stage as her canvas. She’s divine and delightfully game.
Hee Seo brought her subtle brand of loveliness in the Act 2 vision scene, but isn’t it supposed to be a dream? Has the lighting for it always been this gloomy? Other vivid performances came from unexpected places. As Amour, Léa Fleytoux fluttered across the stage with feet that pattered as briskly as a string of broken pearls. Her balances were light and unforced. And the tranquil, sleek Chloe Misseldine, a standout in Lauren Lovette’s “La Follia Variations” last fall, continued to be one to watch as one of the Flower Girls on Monday.
In the wedding scene, Christine Shevchenko sailed through Kitri’s technical demands with upbeat ease – at least when she was left to do so alone. She was less secure when partnered by Daniel Camargo, a Brazilian guest artist this season. His appearance as Basilio was a recent cast change; perhaps they needed more rehearsal time. But in supported turns, he slowed Shevchenko down; for all his welcome daring and zest, his takeoffs and landings made for some graceless moments: Sometimes he seemed to throw himself in the air without really knowing how he’d come down.
But where will any of the men land? The Met engagement is a transition season, especially for the company’s new principal males. Their stage presence on Monday had a fogginess to it, which was heightened by the showiness of “Don Quixote,” a story ballet in which they need to become a character. Bell is the most natural, especially with Hurlin (and, mercifully, he’s tall). More established men are scarce at the moment. James Whiteside is out with an injury. That leaves Cory Stearns, who brings impressive partnering and intensity; Daniil Simkin, returning to the company as a guest artist; and Cornejo, the veteran who still has moments of virtuosic dazzle and stylish exuberance as his Basilio, opposite Brandt, attested, but has been with the company for more than 20 years.
Brandt’s Kitri on Tuesday displayed something that her fellow Kitris could not achieve on Monday: a full arc, in which she could show off her comic timing. It helps that she can hold her saucer eyes as still as a doll’s and then suddenly roll them as dismissively as a teenager on the subway. She’s tiny, but her dancing is so fleshed out that she isn’t exactly diminutive; Brandt doesn’t just hold shapes vibrantly, she expands them, gliding from one step to the next with a fluidity that allows her to indicate the trick without commenting on it.
Her Kitri will likely grow, but you can’t doubt that she’s already living inside of the character; in those moments when she leaps off the stage into a wing, you imagine her continuing on, jumping into the unknown – whether anyone’s watching or not.
Ballet Theater is leaping into the unknown, too, with new leadership on the way. The company’s next artistic director is Susan Jaffe, a former principal with the company. She has a lot of work ahead of her, but change, any change, feels long overdue. In his speech on Monday, McKenzie, who was honored, spoke about the cyclical periods in Ballet Theater’s history. Now, he said, the company “is on the brink of a new era and we know what happens when ABT enters a new era. It soars. ”
Wiping off the dust would be a start.
Through Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera House, abt.org.