A ballet gala is a curious event. Ostensibly celebrating dancing, its true focus is on philanthropy. The real centers of attention, women with money who buy expensive tickets and fabulous dresses, show up just before the early curtain time and parade down the aisles with their escorts, men in so-called penguin suits that somehow make even dumpy guys look dashing.
At American Ballet Theatre’s Fall Gala last Wednesday, I spotted a woman who appeared to be shrouded in a giant spider web. Others wore long trains, fur schmattas, gowns made of white flounces. Unusual at this event was the presence of a number of families of color, whose young sons or daughters were attending on behalf of the company’s Project Plié, a diversity and inclusion initiative celebrated in one of the evening’s two short films. The second movie honored the 25th anniversary of Kevin McKenzie, a former member of the troupe who’s been artistic director since 1992. Several rich and/or important people, including the redoubtable ballerina Misty Copeland in an elegant long dress, made speeches.
There were, oh, right, also three dances. The first, another tribute to McKenzie, was a product of ABT’s Women’s Choreography Initiative, here supporting a world-premiere pièce d’occasion by Jessica Lang. Called The Gift, and performed to music by Arcangelo Corelli conducted by David LaMarche, it was subtitled “a silver jubilee,” and it mobilized ABT’s apprentices, studio company, and students from its affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in a very pretty academic exercise; the girls all dressed in white, the boys in silver tights and white shirts, with one young lady swathed in a huge silver bow, its trailing ribbons lifted by attendants. The older students bourréed across the stage, the younger ones streamed rapidly, and the whole thing resolved into a sweet tableau under a rain of silver sparkles.
The intermissionless program proceeded with a second world premiere, Songs of Bukovina, by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky to a new score by his countryman Leonid Desyatnikov, also a world premiere. Based on folk songs from the region of Bukovina (located half in Romania and half in Ukraine), the score supports a cast of ten dancers led by Christine Shevchenko (herself a native Ukrainian, recently promoted to principal) and the long-legged Calvin Royal III, newly promoted to soloist rank.
Against a blue cyclorama, with Alexey Goribol at the piano, male and female dancers in delicate colors dashed in and stopped, lifting their elbows and then letting their arms drop slowly. We saw folk motifs wedded to ballet tropes, with the men seemingly about to erupt into Cossack line dances, their displays of strength and power juxtaposed against delicate circle formations to plaintive melodies. Eccentric gestures — the men crawling and leaping — and welcome asymmetries crept in toward the end. Although lovely moment to moment, the totality of Bukovina seems not to have quite coalesced.
A high point of the evening was Brad Fields’s sophisticated lighting for Thirteen Diversions, a 2011 work by Christopher Wheeldon to a piano suite by Benjamin Britten, played by Barbara Bilach and the ABT Orchestra conducted by Ormsby Wilkins. Each section was heralded by a dramatic change, either of color or shape, projected across the rear cyclorama, and occasional downspots spilled light across the floor like fancy shower heads. Twenty-four dancers, sixteen in black and eight in white, swept in and out, sometimes in same-sex trios, rarely alone, always in motion.
Among the featured performers here was Misty Copeland herself, delivered from her prom confection and wearing one of Bob Crowley’s sheer black shirtwaists. Skillfully partnered by Gray Davis, she was a comfortable, commanding presence in this flowing display of virtuosity. The other strong leads here included Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak, Stella Abrera and Thomas Forster, and Skylar Brandt and Zhiyao Zhang. More than two-thirds of the company’s current roster of ninety-plus dancers have risen through the ranks (and the studio company) at ABT, a welcome change from an era when guest dancers swept in from international troupes and were as quickly gone, making internal advancement difficult. Check out the rest of the fall repertoire, which includes new and older works by Benjamin Millepied, another dance by Jessica Lang, a pas de deux by Liam Scarlett, two more Ratmansky dances, and classics by Jerome Robbins and Frederick Ashton.