Love is in the air — and in the sumptuous dance — of American Ballet Theatre in dazzling Chicago program

ABT celebrated romance in all its incarnations in a quartet of works at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.

SHARE Love is in the air — and in the sumptuous dance — of American Ballet Theatre in dazzling Chicago program
American Ballet Theatre dances Alexei Ratmansky’s “Songs of Bukovina.” 

American Ballet Theatre dances Alexei Ratmansky’s “Songs of Bukovina.”

Rosalie O’Connor Photography

It’s not often that a touring show, planned well in advance, seems to capture so truly the sense of our own moment in history, but the American Ballet Theatre has just about nailed it in its current visit to Chicago.

For more than half a century, the New York-based company has been a favored visitor at the Auditorium Theatre, where the sight lines for ballet are ideal, offering us not only fine acoustics but also a good sense of the stage at full depth.

The mix of four ballets on this program, which opened April 14 and runs through April 16, touched on issues of homeland and heartland, the agony of self-discovery, and most of all the grip of love’s truths, whether sweet and sudden, awkward and forbidden, or mature and bittersweet in memory.

American Ballet Theatre

ABT review

When: Through April 16

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive

Tickets: $48-$154

Info: auditoriumtheatre.org

The program opener, “Songs of Bukovina,” which dates from 2017, was drenched in nostalgia, a vision of village youths courting and coupling as they have for centuries. The choreographer is the Russian-American Alexei Ratmansky, who is Jewish with a Ukrainian bloodline, and he still has family in the old country. Ratmansky knows ABT inside out as an artist-in-residence for 13 years, and this work does fit the company like a glove.

Is the memory of time long past ever reliable? In specific details of circumstance, rarely so, but Ratmanksy’s ballet does indeed capture the intense emotional sprouts of spring love, and the delicate rhythms of spring courtship traditions. (Ratmanksy will be joining the New York City Ballet as an artist-in-residence later this year, but not before the May premiere of one more ABT creation later this spring.)

Supported by a fluid company of eight, lead dancers Isabella Roylston and Daniel Camargo were quietly elegant. Simple costumes by Moritz Junge and nostalgic lighting by Brad Fields sustained a timeless rustic feel. The music, from a nostalgic suite of piano preludes by Leonid Desyatnikov, is imbued with something of a Jewish klezmer element; it was superbly performed by pianist Jacek Mysinski.

American Ballet Theater’s João Menegussi and Calvin Royal III in “Touché.” 

American Ballet Theater’s João Menegussi (left) and Calvin Royal III in “Touché.”

Rosalie O’Connor Photography

Celebrating its Chicago premiere was the newest work of the evening, “Touché,” one of the most beautiful recent creations on the subject of forbidden love that I have seen in recent memory. In sum, it is what might seem a difficult topic, persuasively done. To consistently tasteful and elegant choreography by Christopher Rudd and with music by Woodkid and Ennio Morriccone, two young male dancers meet, as if under an overpass, or in an abandoned lot, and as if previously arranged.

But nothing is certain, especially not safety, in a setting that always seems one flashlight beam from discovery. The two seem persistently aware that they are, in the eyes of many, a danger. The telegraphing of tenderness and mutual respect between these two individuals longing for touch is quite moving. Calvin Royal III and Joaõ Menegussi, who originated the roles for the pas de deux in New York, are superb dancers, at the same time powerfully athletic and acutely sensitive to refinements of detail.

American Ballet Theatre performs “ZigZag.” 

American Ballet Theatre performs “ZigZag,” which features the songs made famous by Tony Bennett.

Rosalie O’Connor Photography

“Some Assembly Required,” which has been around since 1989, couldn’t be much different in tone from “Touché.” As such, Clark Tippet’s charmingly wobbly choreographic take on budding teenage love, set to the happy-go-lucky music of William Bolcom, offered vibrant contrast in its brightly animated movement. Dancers Katherine Williams and Jarod Curley were great as energetic kids beginning to practice the art of cool. Kobi Malkin on violin and Emily Wong on piano stoked a jovial mood against backyard-simple staging of Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner.

“ZigZag,” the finale of ABT’s four-part program (also a Chicago premiere) was on the one hand a feast of Tony Bennett’s greatest hits, and on the other an almost too kitschy conception overall. Yes, the songs that Bennett made famous are sung today by young and old alike — people who respond to that great honeyed baritone voice, and to his tunes, in different ways. But let’s be fair: Bennett was a great artist who captured the full spectrum of emotion relating to love remembered, especially with the passing of years, and the unforgettable beauty of some of these songs was somewhat lost in the production’s pop aesthetic.

The costumes by Wes Gordon (for Carolina Herrera), the lighting by Nicole Pearce and the scenery by Derek McClane incorporating Bennett’s own artwork, and even Jessica Lang’s assured choreography, communicated an elegant consistency. And as the work featuring the evening’s greatest number of dancers, it had a lively grand finale feel. But as an homage to the quintessence of the wise and wonderful Bennett, it fell short.

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