A Summer Celebration from ABT

July 16, 2021

From its origins at the start of the Second World war melding the great Russian traditions with the emergent American dance scene, American Ballet Theatre became America’s National Ballet Company by Act of Congress in 2006.

Reflecting that, this summer, the company is taking to the road with ABT Across America, 20 dancers and 28 support crew traveling by bus and truck across 15 states for a total of 3,100 miles, staging socially distanced, outdoor performances in eight US cities. The tour concludes on July 21 with two free performances on the plaza at Rockefeller Center in New York City, the site where Ballet Theatre offered its first public performances in 1940.

Introduced by First Lady Jill Biden, ABT’s A Summer Celebration digitally premieres three recently-filmed outdoor performances of choreography by Silas Farley, Helen Pickett, and James Whiteside.

A scene from Collage & Creed by Silas Farley
Photo Tom Kimmell Photography, courtesy Green Box Arts Festival

The program begins with a snippet from Alexei Ratmansky’s Bernstein in a Bubble to the eponymous composer’s Divertimento which he wrote for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s centenary in 1980 exactly a decade before his death. The music explodes into life. Whimsical in tone and just a touch dangerous, it suits perfectly the sassy style of ABT dancers. It definitely left me wanting much more than the topping and tailing of this programme.

The ‘Geneology’ section from Silas Farley’s Collage & Creed to music by Arvo Pärt presents the white-kitted dancers echoing the ecclesiastic flavour of the composer’s score but with a backdrop of mixed woods and light rain. The choreography has a cool classicism, combining ensemble work with a duet and a trio for the men who dance on a small, intimate stage. The air of restraint is restful, although one senses that it might be danced with more brio given a larger stage.

Erica Lall and Joo Won Ahn in Helen Pickett’s Desire
Photo Alex DiMattia

Desire by Helen Pickett with music by Peter Salem is inspired by Madame Bovary and takes place on an uncovered platform, again with a background of trees. It opens with three men and two women sitting on a bench. A strip of carpet is moved around the stage. Pickett’s introduction tells us that the bench represents ‘structure’ and the carpet ‘nature or Emma’s imagination’. The dancers are apparently not meant to represent any particular character but aspects of all the characters.

While this might be a valid starting point for the team working on it, none of this would be apparent to the audience without prior introduction or programme notes. It is difficult to engage with a work that otherwise appears completely abstract. Salem’s music is also rather dull. Devoid of a tangible thread, the whole feels over-long.

Staying in the same venue, the excerpt from James Whiteside’s City of Women danced to Schubert is based in the very tangible way that so much in ballet is passed down from generation to generation. It is a witty look at ‘feminine’ gestures with a fair amount of technical challenge making exciting viewing. Three women loosen their tresses and flick their hair à la Miss Piggy, if not quite in high heels and backward, at least on pointe. Six women almost seem to conjure movement from their three colleagues and certainly enable all to cover the stage, the lack of a canopy and the vista giving an especial sense of freedom.

My only note of disappointment: although not expecting the elaborate under the circumstances, costumes could at least have been more flattering and, dare one suggest, feminine?

Cassandra Trenary and Calvin Royal III in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet
Still from film

Cassandra Trenary and Calvin Royal III dance the balcony pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet which takes place on an actual balcony at Wave Hill, the beautiful mansion and public garden in the Upper Bronx that overlooks the Hudson River. West Side Story eat your heart out and full marks to the location scout! Royal has the advantage of limb length which creates a pleasing line and the sense of a jump that travels, the sweep of limbs echoing the expansiveness of Prokofiev’s swelling strings.

There is a lot of padding in between the dance with the welcome acknowledgement of a variety of people who support the company and the inevitable and necessary appeals to funders. Still, as they state “red velvet seats are no longer required.”

ABT’s A Summer Celebration is available free on YouTube until September 15, 2021.