After a summer performing Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and the new Christopher Wheeldon ballet Like Water for Chocolate on the Metropolitan Opera stage, American Ballet Theatre returned to New York for a two-week fall season featuring short, mostly abstract works at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Spread across double and triple bills, the ballets flaunted the chameleon-like abilities of ABT dancers: plucked from around the world and cast in a wide-ranging repertoire, they excel at adapting to new ballet styles. Nowhere was this ability more on display than in the three pieces of “21st Century Works: King, Ratmansky, and Bond.”

First up was Single Eye, a thirty-minute piece commissioned for ABT last year by Alonzo King, the American founder-director of San Francisco’s LINES Ballet. Set to music by the jazz composer Jason Moran, the piece was inspired by a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, adapted from the King James Version and printed in the program: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” In dividing the work into seven sections—a number often connoting completeness in the scriptures—King has embedded symbolism into the structure of the piece, which loosely progresses, in both its music and its steps, from discord to harmony.

A  scene from Single Eye. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

Various combinations of ensemble dancers and soloists appear in gold-toned bodysuits, leotards, and tunics against a shifting backdrop sometimes resembling gold foil (all by Robert Rosenwasser). On the opening night, Calvin Royal III crumbled to the ground before opening his eyes to the sky in a mysterious solo at the apex of the work, and at another moment held his hands as if in prayer. Elsewhere, there were duets with difficult pivots and twists performed with both partners’ holding hands. At one point, a dancer slowly pushes two men to the ground. This tension was resolved in a tender pas de deux between Cory Stearns and Skylar Brandt, who in earlier sections held single-foot balances on pointe and in later a section seemed to wipe something from her eyes. As intriguing as these moments were, much of this complex work remained obscure.

The second ballet, Depuis Le Jour, is a jewel from 2012 by the former Royal Ballet and ABT dancer Gemma Bond. A seven-minute pas de deux, Depuis is set to an aria from Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise (1900), here sung live onstage by the Venezuelan soprano Maria Brea. At this point in the opera, the title character, a seamstress, has just run off with her artist lover, Julien, whom her parents forbade her from marrying. Though abstract, Depuis has the quality of a daydream and entwines closely with Charpentier’s music and lyrics in its portrayal of idealized love.

Hee Seo & Joo Won Ahn in Depuis le Jour. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The work begins as it ends, with a pair of dancers (Joo Won Ahn and Hee Seo) seated facing the backdrop, sweeping their arms in a yawning arc before performing a gentle back stretch resembling the cobra pose in yoga. Bond has expressed Louise’s joy and triumph in her moment of freedom by giving the dancers flurries of mirrored steps, spins during moments of embrace, generous arm movements, and a gorgeous lift in which Seo, held horizontally above Ahn, appeared to fly. The pair, dressed in simple costumes with Seo in a flowing lavender skirt, danced with a youthful freshness that made Depuis feel like a scene from a MacMillan ballet.

The night concluded with Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnipro (previously On the Dnieper), a one-act story ballet set in a Ukrainian village in the early twentieth century. Named for the river that runs through Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, Dnipro was Ratmansky’s first commission upon joining ABT as artist in residence in 2009. Dnipro’s revival is both a farewell gesture—Ratmansky left ABT in August for the same post at New York City Ballet—and a nod to current events, the importance of which is far from abstract for the Kyiv-raised choreographer (and onetime Bolshoi director), an outspoken supporter of Ukraine.

Devon Teuscher & Cory Stearns in On the Dnipro. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

Dnipro stems from a lost work, Sur le Borysthène, choreographed in 1932 by the Ballets Russes star Serge Lifar (himself Ukrainian) for the Paris Opera Ballet. Ratmansky took Lifar’s scenario and the surviving forty-minute score by Sergei Prokofiev to create a new work that harnesses the dramatic abilities of ABT.

In the opening night’s performance, Cory Stearns starred as Sergiy, a young soldier who returns home to find that he no longer loves his fiancé, Natalia, danced by Devon Teuscher. Sergiy is drawn instead to Olga (Christine Shevchenko), provoking the ire of her unnamed fiancé (James Whiteside). White cherry blossoms, fences, and, in the second half, a massive full moon projected onto the backdrop make up the cool-toned set.

Stearns and Whiteside were well paired as opposites. The former was smooth and lyrical, conveying the gentle strength and melancholy of a war-weary veteran. Whiteside, bold and fiery as the jealous fiancé, began with a jovial swagger while keeping an eye on Olga, whom he circled possessively. In a magnificent solo performed after his ill-fated engagement party, Whiteside channeled the character’s overflowing rage into virtuosic sequences of turns and traveling jumps.

Like the “psychological” ballets of Antony Tudor, some of Dnipro’s most impactful moments are the least flashy. Stearns’s raised hand, telling his fiancé to leave after she liberated him from an angry mob, was quietly devastating. In the ballet’s final moments, after watching Sergiy dance with Olga, Teuscher as Natalia kneeled and performed a deep backbend towards the couple with outstretched arms, a peace offering tinged with resignation. Teuscher, a deeply poetic dancer, gave the heroine a haunting innocence, conveying her delight at Sergiy’s return and gradual acceptance of his indifference with admirable restraint.

While it seems unlikely that Ratmansky will pursue many character-driven ballets for NYCB—most of the company’s recent commissions, including his own, have tended towards abstraction—the subtle emotional realism of Dnipro makes you wish for at least a few more.

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