Bubbling Over with Joy
The all-Ratmansky program leading up to this premiere displayed ABT’s breadth, but also a conundrum—how to remain relevant while keeping the old classics fresh?
“ABT Live from City Center | A Ratmansky Celebration”
March 23 – April 18, 2021
One of the great joys of perennially watching the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is following the dancers’ evolution over the seasons. The pandemic robbed us of this over the past year, but in the company’s recent digital program, featuring a world premiere by Alexei Ratmansky, we saw how some of the brightest stars have grown and honed their artistry while we’ve hibernated. And the full-out physicality on a large stage contrasted with the ubiquity of that COVID-19 staple, the “dancer trapped inside” style of film made from necessity.
The title, Bernstein in a Bubble, refers to the music, Leonard Bernstein’s “Divertimento,” with lighting by Brad Fields. Ratmansky created the work for Cassandra Trenary, Tyler Maloney, Catherine Hurlin, Blaine Hoven, Patrick Frenette, Skylar Brandt, and Aran Bell while isolating in a bubble upstate in Silver Bay, New York. These are primarily younger company members, many of whom we’ve had the pleasure of watching develop for years. But during COVID exile, some—most notably, Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary, Catherine Hurlin, and Aran Bell—have matured physically and artistically, honing their technique and unleashing a power that is perhaps even more concentrated by having been repressed. Maybe in the short career span of a professional dancer, a realization that time is fleeting has catalyzed a greater sense of urgency. (Or is it because I’ve missed these full-out performances on big stages?) Either way, it was a treat to see them in peak form in a vehicle that pushed them to their limits.
In the last few seasons, even before COVID-19, it was difficult to ignore Aran Bell’s great growth spurt, paired with his rapidly ascendant technical skills. Now a principal, his youth (he was born in 1998), size, and stage command make him an invaluable presence in works from romantic ballets to contemporary premieres such as Bernstein in a Bubble. Here, he serves as a ringmaster of sorts, gathering the others around him, even becoming a kind of tree on which they hang. The music’s themes—variations on social dances—feature Bernstein’s signature blaring brass sections, and pensive and sultry solo lines by the clarinet or trombone.
Ratmansky’s foundational language is ballet, here embroidered with jazzy gestures and fragments of folk dance—jaunty, flat-footed walks, arms swinging freely with fists clenched. The three women dance as powerfully, if not more so, than the men, despite—or because of?—the pointe shoes they wear. I first thought how wonderful it would have been if the women wore soft slippers, at least for some sections. Then I realized that pointe shoes are a kind of superpower for ballerinas. While the slipperiness of the hard soles and satin boxes can limit mobility and grip, the enhanced leg and foot line, added height en pointe, and extra spinning ability, add zhuzh.
Ratmansky has worked with ABT for ten years and knows each individual dancer’s strengths. Thus we see Brandt and Hurlin turn like tops in flawless balance and Trenary slashing her legs from front extensions to arabesques. They’re occasionally lifted by the men; in one case, Brandt unwittingly gets an unwelcome lift by two guys, and makes clear she has no need for them by flicking their hands off of her legs. Gender roles are flipped, so after a men’s section to a pensive song, featuring a trio that evokes many female ballet tropes—the three graces, or muses in Apollo—their female counterparts walk on casually, as if in rehearsal, breaking the reverie. Even in his own new work, while Ratmansky remains faithful to classical ballet’s vocabulary and structure, he has also contemporized it by amplifying the emotional and technical palettes for all dancers.
Brandt’s technical facility and speed take on full force in a circle of piqués, fouettés, and multiple pirouettes. As she spins, each fellow dancer leaps from a crouch to point at her jauntily and give her props. How refreshing to see the choreography encourage the women to dance to their utmost power, rather than reining in this traditionally masculine aspect. No batted eyelashes or faux-shy airs here. And the men are permitted more lyrical phrases, released from being the constant muscle or backdrop to the women. That said, Bell’s undeniable presence and size put him centerstage at the finale, gathering the group around for a picture-worthy tableau.
A duet features Hurlin—suddenly a company dynamo—reluctantly paired with a lonely Bell in a matchmaking maneuver by Hoven. The music, with solos for cello and trombone, is Bernstein’s louchest. Hurlin humors Bell’s entreaties and slinks and sulks accordingly, as her rubbery partner collapses, reflecting indifference. In a possible flattering ploy, Bell mimics her as she extends her leg high in second. Alas, his efforts to impress her fall short; he lifts her overhead in the closing moment as she examines her fingernails with ennui.
The all-Ratmansky program leading up to this premiere displayed ABT’s breadth, but also a conundrum—how to remain relevant while keeping the old classics fresh? Brandt performed the “Rose Adagio” from The Sleeping Beauty (2015)—another vibrant display of her élan and unshakeable balance and technique. But, even with no set elements on the City Center stage (and a visually jarring neon background), and excised from the baggage of its full-length vehicle, this famous, difficult passage felt mannered, coy, and a tad musty. (In fairness, this section was created about 130 years ago.) A section of Seven Sonatas (2009) provided an antidote to this, in no small part due to Herman Cornejo’s unparalleled athletic command, couched by humility and sensuality. Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside danced a duet from The Seasons (2019). These frequent partners enjoy an ease and confidence together, and Ratmansky’s tendency to give equal weight to the women and men came into focus at the end of the segment, when they stood side by side.
In retrospect, Ratmansky has constantly given women extremely challenging featured roles in his contemporary ballets. Perhaps the female dancers felt even more unfettered in Bernstein because of their athletic wear, uncredited costumes. The piece conveyed the joys of camaraderie, work, and the combination of technical and artistic gifts on a large stage, in an excellent filmed production—a curative tonic during a time of global malaise.