New York is one of the few cities in the world to have two world-class ballet companies, which compete but also nicely complement each other. One of them, American Ballet Theatre, which for many years made annual appearances in Chicago, has returned for the first time since 2014.

ABT undertakes an impressive national and international traveling schedule each year. Its stay in Chicago, which continues through Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, is part of a national tour that began Jan. 30 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

American Ballet Theatre
★★★★
When: Program A, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24; Program B, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and 2 p.m. Feb. 25; ABTKids (one-hour program designed for children 4-12), 2 p.m. Feb. 24
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $35-150 (limited seating available); ABTKids, $10-$15
Info: harristheaterchicago.org

Appearing is not some small subset of the company — the kind of “Stars of …” programs that are sometimes seen on the road – but a whopping 86 dancers who are accompanied by more than 30 supporting crew and staff members.

Kevin McKenzie marked his 25th anniversary as artistic director of ABT last year, and under his leadership the company has enjoyed renewed creative dynamism and a continuation of the performance excellence for which it is known. Both were richly in evidenced during ABT’s sold-out opening program Thursday evening that drew no shortage of cheers — a clear high point of Chicago’s 2017-18 dance season.

In its home theater in New York, ABT presents a combination of full-length story ballets and mixed repertory, with the programming typically weighted to the former. But for this visit, the company opted for the latter, a sound decision that allowed audiences to see these fine dancers in a more diverse range of choreography.

Across its four performances, ABT is alternating two completely different programs with a total of six complete works — the oldest from 1976 — and two excerpted pas de deux. The line-up performed Thursday evening and reviewed here will be repeated Saturday evening.

The 1983 death of George Balanchine, arguably the most influential choreographer of the 20th century, left a lingering creative void in the ballet world. That emptiness has been at least partially filled starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the emergence of three prominent talents: Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky (ABT’s artist- in-residence since 2014) and Christopher Wheeldon.

Misty Copeland and Gray Davis in “Thirteen Diversions.” | Marty Sohl Photo

Two members of that trio were represented Thursday. The evening’s longest and most substantial work was Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions,” which ABT debuted in 2011. It is set to Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra (ably performed by the Chicago Philharmonic, which also serves as the Joffrey Ballet’s pit orchestra), and capitalizes on a bold lighting design by Brad Fields with stark silhouettes, saturated colors and strategic spotlights.

This big 30-minute piece, which can feel a bit overpacked at times, features four central couples and 16 other dancers in a sprawling geometric interplay of ever-changing combinations and competing poles of action. At one point, it is hard to know where to look when the ensemble is lined up face-to-face along the back of the stage with dramatic backlighting and one of the spotlighted couples is center stage.

There is a coolness to the movement and interactions in this piece, but Wheeldon does inject a few moments of humor and romance. The latter was most on display in a handsome extended duet with principal dancer Misty Copeland and Joo Won Ahn.

Arguably, the most satisfying work came at the beginning – Ratmansky’s “Songs of Bukovina,” which premiered in October. It is set to excerpts from Leonid Desyatnikov’s spellbinding “Bukovinian Songs” (eloquently performed by ABT staff pianist Jacek Mysinski).

There is no narrative, no grand meaning behind this unhurried 20-minute work for five couples that puts the emphasis on lightness and gentle fun. With a few exceptions, this piece is not about fancy technique or elaborate lifts. Instead, it is constructed of simple movements like fouetté turns or walking steps, which have to be cleanly and clearly executed — and they were.

“Songs” is solidly anchored in classical ballet, but Ratmansky throws in a few twists along the way, like a kind of flapper move at one point. The piece opens with a repeated motif that consists of outstretched, slightly bent arms as the body slowly sinks, contracting with legs bent as though an unheard sigh has been released.

Offsetting these recent works were pas de deux from two historical masterworks — Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading” (1975) and Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky’s “Don Quixote” (1900). Principal dancers Hee Seo and Cory Stearns exhibited a lovely ease and real sense of connection as they fully inhabited the subtle romance and playfulness of the former.

The latter is meant to be a showpiece, and principal dancers Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo made sure it was. They delivered the classical technique, athletic prowess and, most important, sheer bravado this duet demanded.

Staging two alternating programs of this scale and ambition on the road is a hugely ambitious and costly undertaking. ABT deserves credit for summoning the artistic zeal and financial resourcefulness necessary to make such a tour happen, and plaudits go to the Harris Theater for bringing it to Chicago.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.