Smoke, mirrors and passing the torch at American Ballet Theater

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Smoke, mirrors and passing the torch at American Ballet Theater
An undated photo provided by Rosalie O’Connor of Calvin Royal III in Christopher Rudd’s “Lifted” at American Ballet Theatre in New York. American Ballet Theater had its fall gala on Thursday, celebrating Kevin McKenzie’s final New York season as artistic director. Rosalie O’Connor via The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- American Ballet Theater had its fall gala on Thursday, celebrating Kevin McKenzie’s final New York season as artistic director. In a preshow talk, he was joined by Susan Jaffe, the company’s incoming artistic director and a former principal. Their attempt at back-and-forth banter — with some bickering thrown in for laughs — was more than a little strange, but eventually they hit on a theme: what it takes to be an artistic director. Hiring dancers and staff, commissioning choreographers, casting, fundraising — it’s not for the meek.

“Don’t worry,” McKenzie said. “Just the whole ballet world will be looking over your shoulder — pick, pick, pick, pick.”

Finally, McKenzie passed the torch, which turned out to be the image of one on his smartphone.

“Sorry, fire regulations,” he said, handing her the phone.

The lights dimmed as Jaffe held the phone until all that remained was its image of a flame glowing in the dark. Hokey? Juvenile? Dramatic? All of the above. As artistic director, Jaffe will need an inner flame, too.

The gala had its typical awkward speeches that repeated public relations talking points, but it unveiled dances, too: Jiri Kylian’s “Sinfonietta” (1978) — a sweeping, repetitive ballet that drives along while going nowhere — and the premiere of Christopher Rudd’s “Lifted.”

Rudd, who previously choreographed “Touché,” a pas de deux with a gay narrative, for Ballet Theater, chose to work with an all-Black cast and an all-Black creative team for “Lifted.” In it, principal dancer Calvin Royal III is joined by the corps de ballet members Erica Lall, Courtney Lavine, Melvin Lawovi and Jose Sebastian. Rudd has said that he considers “Lifted” a protest dance, born from the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the ballet is less directly about that, and, in the end, sadly inert. Set to music by Carlos Simon, “Lifted” seemingly focuses on the inner worlds of five dancers starting with Royal, who is first seen curled up on a shiny black circle within an arrangement of movable mirrored walls. (Rudd is credited with the scenic design.)

Royal stretches his arms luxuriously, contorting and twisting until he stands and is confronted with his reflection and more — the angle of the mirrors create multiple images of his face, his body. He touches the mirror in confusion and curiosity, eventually pushing the wall aside. Is he upset? Fearful? Rudd’s artistic team includes a dramaturge, Phaedra Scott, but the opaque back story is lost in the fog. (There’s plenty of that in “Lifted,” too.)

Lall appears, grabbing Royal’s hands and arching her back plaintively. She hooks a leg over his shoulder; they hug. As the others appear, Rudd’s choreography grows to encompass the group with lifts as well as more static moments. The dancers stare into the mirrors. Unison patterns repeat. At one point, the dancers raise both arms, arch back and point a finger to the audience and then up in the air, echoing a similar, early gesture of Royal’s.

Fabric is draped and layered in shades of brown that mimic an array of skin tones in Carly Cushnie’s costumes. She gives the dancers something designs don’t always allow for: the ability to really move. But where would they go? To make room for the set, the dancing space is pushed toward the front of the stage. It’s cramped, yet “Lifted” is too intimate a dance for the Koch Theater. The emotion doesn’t read.

It’s hard to tell from where the ominous sensations of “Lifted” emanate: From the outside, from within or a bit of both? Rudd seems to want to show how Black people see themselves and how the world sees them. But the dancers are pretty much left on their own; it can hardly be their fault that they sometimes seem to be adrift.

What’s most disappointing about “Lifted” isn’t how rambling it is, but how it seems to ignore the dancers’ individuality. These are performers that I always pay attention to, starting with the gentle, sensitive Royal, the kind of artist I wish Jerome Robbins could have known, to bring out even more of his noble, unaffected self. Sebastian, tall and silky, is also refreshingly solid. Lall dances with an abundance of unaffected joy; Lawovi is crisp and magnetic, a hero in the making.

Lavine, in particular, spent too much time in motionless states. To see her really dance beyond a lift or a brief turning sequence might have given “Lifted” a boost. Her elegance and line hold a special allure; she lights up the corps de ballet. But where was her light?

“Lifted” did create a hall of mirrors, tricking the eye into believing that there were more than five dancers onstage — a dream, perhaps, for the future, when a choreographer will have more Black dancers to choose from.

Hardly groundbreaking artistically, “Lifted” was one of McKenzie’s last choreographic commissions. More uplifting was the return of Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” a sumptuous rendering of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It starts with a fight and ends with love. But not just any love. The climax is an intense pas de deux of reciprocal sensuality: a dream within a dream.

In the opening moments of this one-act work, performed on Wednesday, Ashton starts by telling the story: Titania and Oberon — our Fairy Queen and King — yank and tug at a Changeling Boy with such ferocity that he has no choice but to crash to the floor.

This action, volatile yet adorable, is a window into their relationship: tumultuous and competitive, full of tension and heat. Ashton’s 1964 production remains a shining example of a story ballet, in which the narrative is cohesive and the ballet glitteringly alive. It transcends time.

As Oberon, Daniel Camargo, filling in for Cory Stearns, approached the part with characteristic abandon — flying through his leaps, his landings are getting softer — that lent heat and heart to Gillian Murphy’s Titania. Murphy, especially lovely for the way her red hair amplified the emerald sheen in her dress, is a restrained, innately cool kind of dancer. They balanced each other in temperament and size; Camargo is blissfully tall. And in Ashton’s shimmering pas de deux, they used classical dancing to crack open the playful, mysterious, elusive energy of desire.

Paired with “The Dream” was Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Seasons,” an ambitious production teetering between lively and overstuffed, set to Alexander Glazunov. Each ballet spills over with energetic steps, but old as it is, “The Dream,” with more fluidity in its ever-whirling, fleet-footed petite allegro, remains the more modern of the two.

The dancing can start to feel incessant with Ratmansky handing out solos to whomever he can. It’s refreshing to see so many dancers having a moment — Ballet Theater doesn’t have enough meaty roles to go around — but “The Seasons” starts to feel like an exercise that is both weightless and weighed down by its entrances and exits. There’s a pre-pandemic frivolity to it; the starry night ending seems like a fantasy time before the world changed, and what seemed under-rehearsed when it had its premiere still seems under-rehearsed now — and, in moments, excessively difficult.

The opening Winter section remains the most invigorating and sleek, but Spring and Summer fizzle out with starts and stops; the gleaming Autumn, led by Catherine Hurlin (Bacchante) and Royal (Bacchus), is over before you know it. As for the look of it? The costumes, by Robert Perdziola, have not improved with time. The jarring array of colors and patterns still screams ballet recital.

“The Seasons,” for all its faults, still sparks with life and Ratmansky, the company’s artist in residence, remains Ballet Theater’s greatest treasure: He challenges the dancers, he pushes them to their limits. It goes hand in hand with what Jaffe said at the start: “The legacy of American Ballet Theater is not an intellectual proposition, but it’s felt in the bones, it’s ingrained in the body.” Really, it’s where the flame starts and ends.

American Ballet Theater

Through Sunday at the David H. Koch Theater;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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