Say “American Ballet Theatre” and the words technical prowess, effortless beauty, and calculated strength come to mind. The 82-year-old company is beloved for turning out some of the finest evening-length classical ballets and ground-breaking, contemporary, choreographic endeavors. Their latest touring feat, “ABT Across America,” is the perfect summation of both their history and future.
On Friday, housed in Chicago’s iconic Millennium Park, 20 effervescent dancers graced the Jay Pritzker Pavilion thanks to ABT’s partnership with the Auditorium Theatre. The overcast sky and cool summer breeze welcomed throngs of people to what was just the third live event in the park after a year off due to the pandemic. The joyous energy of the gregarious, shoulder-to-shoulder audience—practically every seat filled with a smiling person—was echoed by the cast of performers. The exposed pre-show warm up not only consisted of practice leaps and turns, but also tutu-clad dancers eagerly snapping selfies from the stage, with Chicago as a sparkling backdrop.
The one-night-only spectacle spanned just 50-minutes, but it left a time-old phrase lingering in my mind long after the lights had faded to black: Something new, something old, something borrowed, something blue. It’s a phrase that has inspired numerous weddings, and though I can’t fully articulate where each element comes from, it ties together the four pieces in “ABT Across America” seamlessly.
Opener Lauren Lovette’s “La Follia Variations” stands as something “borrowed;” the hypnotizing choreography pays a subtle tribute to the founding mothers of modern dance. The stage—flooded with eye-catching, jewel-toned tutus and unitards—sprang to life as eight of ABT’s corps de ballet artists jetéd, developéd and pirouetted with fervor. The work, which originally premiered virtually in February, is fresh and fun. The tiny wrist snaps and calculated épaulment were captivating, everything executed with a fluttery energy that was maintained without diving into monotony. Modern lovers could find a Graham-based arm placement during a stag leap or a lilting Humphrey fall, each cross-pollinated moment paired perfectly with the classical ballet technique we’ve come to know and expect from ABT.
The “old” rears its head in a suspected program switch to the ever classic Lev Ivanov’s “Swan Lake,” here the act II pas de deux.” Soloist Catherine Hurlin and corps dancer Sung Woo Han stunned to the musings of Tchaikovsky. Even without the full storyline to enhance emotional attachment to the movement, every fiber of their being—down to their perfectly placed fingertips— was visibly engaged in performance mode. Their effortless grace proved pleasantly surprising as promotional materials indicated it’d originally been slated to be the pas de deux from “Don Quixote.”
Though “something blue” seems a slight stretch, the endearing, crooner-inspired love story “Let Me Sing Forevermore,” allowed audiences to see a duet of blue-sequin-studded dancers shed ballet shoes for jazz shoes. Straight from the choreographic mind of the famed Jessica Lang, principal dancers Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns brought tears to the eyes of audience members via their genuine vulnerability and precise musicality. The lilting voice of Tony Bennett enhanced the palpable connection between these coy performers, but the choreography instantly evoked feelings of being enamored by another person. Extended moments of touch, lingering handholds and floating lifts so perfectly captured the beauty and complexity of being in love.
And finally, something new. Crafted entirely during quarantine by Darrell Grand Moultrie, the hard-hitting, Fosse-inspired closer, “Indestructible Light,” breathed fresh life into the company’s repertoire. With each strike of Count Basie’s piano there was a flick of perfectly pointed feet to match, and with every strum of a double bass there was a spinal roll to reflect it. Taking the visually flawless technique out of it, the eight corps de ballet dancers—different from the eight in Lovette’s opening work—looked like they were having the time of their lives. It was contemporary ballet at its best and I’m eager to see more from this vivacious choreographic mind.
As someone who’s trained in ballet since the age of three, I’m intimately familiar with the right and wrongness that goes hand-in-hand with the technique. The knees must be straight, arches high and head angled with detail and care. When seeing ABT, the standard for technical excellence is set. What made seeing “ABT Across America” so immensely special was how committed the dancers were to the emotion and performance. Maybe it was simply the excitement of being in an audience watching live dance, but feeling mirrored joy resounding off the dancers as they performed makes me believe it was for them as much as it was for us.