NESTLED IN BETWEEN New York City’s Union Square and Madison Square parks is a cornerstone of American dance history. Overlooking Broadway are the dance studios of American Ballet Theatre (ABT), an institution that has served as a home to countless giants of classical dance. That includes legends like famed choreographer Antony Tudor and Misty Copeland, arguably the most well-known contemporary ballerina. Their faces, portraits, stills, and notes line the walls of the dancers’ lounge as a gentle (and aesthetically pleasing) reminder of ABT’s role as a launchpad for brilliant dance professionals through the ages. Walking through the halls on a recent visit, I saw boxes piled with Champagne-pink pointe shoes, heard piano music accompanying young dancers through their barre exercises, and even helped the photographer for our shoot set up her backdrops. Given the buzz of activity, I had to pause to remind myself that for the past three years, these halls have been completely silent.
Since its founding in New York City in 1939, American Ballet Theatre has toured each year throughout the U.S. (playing to an audience of over 300,000 people annually), and completed more than 30 international tours in 45 countries. In 2006, the company was officially recognized as America’s National Ballet Company by an Act of Congress. With 79 current performers hailing from over 15 different countries, ABT is a global conversation starter for the ballet community. The company’s long-standing mission — “To create, to present, to preserve and to extend the great repertoire of classical dancing, through exciting performances and educational programming of the highest quality, presented to the widest possible audience” — all but guarantees that ABT’s productions reach far beyond the company’s spiritual home of New York City.
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As was the case with so many important cultural institutions in New York City, the pandemic brought all ABT performances to a standstill. As a graduate of an MFA acting program, I studied different dance styles extensively: jazz, tango, modern, musical theater, and ballet. My classmates and I studied at the Moscow Art Theater, training under retired ballet dancers from the Bolshoi. While we focused solely on the basics, it was strenuous work, which helped me develop a deep appreciation for the craft and the undeniable athleticism of any principal dancer. My time in Moscow illuminated how, no matter where in the world you are or what language you speak, the popcorn-like liveliness of a performance community feels like the best kind of family reunion. Thinking of the height of the pandemic in New York City, the unlit Theatre Row, the silent courtyard of Lincoln Center, the leaf-laden Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and the hushed, empty dance studios at ABT, I’m reminded of how close we came to losing hundreds of artistic oases.
So as opera and playhouses are opening up this spring and summer, it’s a romantic homecoming for ABT as it launches its new season (June 13–July 16) in New York’s Lincoln Center, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House (colloquially known as the Met). While an entire industry of dancers and performers is eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, the creative direction at the newly revived ABT will be anything but business as usual. It doesn’t matter if you’ve grown up attending the ballet with your family your whole life, or if this is your first time considering popping into an opera house: Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of ABT, has worked tirelessly to make this season as accessible and colorful as possible. Ballet is arguably the strictest style of dance when it comes to adhering to tradition and form, but the work of ABT continues to prove that there’s still so much room for stylistic innovations, contagious play, and unconventional storytelling.
According to McKenzie, the ballets slated for the upcoming season, while very different from each other, are connected by one common conceptual thread. “The thing that links the ballets [in this season] is that they are all about the human condition, the choices that humans have to make to get through their lives,” he explains. “And they are usually focused around a love story.”
The season will showcase seven ballets with a variety of entry points, from the easily accessible to the more challenging. Kicking things off is “Don Quixote”; based on the Cervantes novel, its larger-than-life characters and classically grandiose scoring makes it the most accessible piece of the season. Second is “Of Love and Rage,” the work of ABT’s artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky, which originally premiered in California in 2020, just two days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down live performances across the U.S. Based on what many historians believe to be one of the earliest books of fiction in first-century Greece, the ballet examines the fragile nature of human relationships. While the story itself is more realistically honest than conventionally pretty, the style and storytelling are thought-provoking, exploring the question, If one moment of violence can ruin a perfect love, what could open the door to forgiveness? The third and fourth productions in the lineup are the ever-iconic, tour-de-force duo of “Romeo and Juliet,” with choreography created by Kenneth MacMillan in 1965, and “Swan Lake,” choreographed by Kevin McKenzie himself in 2020. It seems fitting that these pillars of international ballet repertoire would be included in this season. While many are familiar with the stories they tell, ballet is an art form that finds a way to breathe new life into the classics while also respecting tradition. Here, both pieces will be reframed to give them a potent new historical context.
Rounding out the season is the repertoire trio “American Splendor.” McKenzie included this piece as an entry point for younger audiences who may not have grown up experiencing ballet, to provide something more approachable than the classics. The three-part production was created solely by ABT-commissioned artists. Within this series, we first have George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” which leans heavily into classical ballet tropes but is only 17 minutes long. So even if it’s not quite for you, McKenzie recommends waiting for the intermission, having a drink, then diving back in. In the second repertoire title, Alonzo King (choreographer) partnered with Jason Moran (jazz musician) on a production that, according to McKenzie, is up for any and every interpretation. At its core, the piece serves as King’s topical analysis of everything that he sees as right and grossly wrong with society today, from climate change to women’s rights. This piece is meant for viewers to analyze and critique; whether you agree to disagree or rally alongside King’s statements, it will be difficult to leave feeling indifferent. The final title in the trio is a tribute to the life and work of Tony Bennet, paying homage to his discography, passion for painting, and the optimism coursing through everything he does.
A brilliant ballet can only shine as brightly as its players. Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III will both be principal dancers this season, which Shevchenko has been preparing for since long before the studio doors opened again, knowing that in order to have the stamina to perform in pieces like “Don Quixote” (which is a three-act, almost three-hour-long ballet) she would need to keep her body and form in pristine condition throughout the tumultuous quarantine period. While she does admit that the first return performance of that title was a little difficult, because of her continued training during the pandemic, she was able to shine as effortlessly as she usually does by the second performance. When thinking of Shevchenko as a dancer, two words come to mind: bright and disciplined. This season, in addition to landing a principal dancer position, she’s been given the opportunity to dance one of the most iconic roles of the ballet world: Juliet. For both Shevchenko and Royal, this will be their first time playing the leads in the timeless love story of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Royal, Romeo to Shevchenko’s Juliet, is only the second African American man to be a principal dancer in ABT’s history. While ABT has an increasingly diverse cast of dancers, McKenzie recognizes that there’s still a long way to go. He hopes that this casting can help create space for other aspiring dancers of color to dream a little bigger for themselves and for the future of ballet. As for Royal, he will also be premiering as Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake” in 2022. Of all the roles he’s playing this season, this is the one he most identifies with. “I can relate to the pressures and confusion that the prince experiences throughout his journey, his struggle between how he’s seen by others versus how he sees himself, and identifying what he wants and needs for his path forward.” As he sees it, trying to weave through today’s politics and the ongoing pandemic echoes the Prince’s efforts to decipher what’s real and not, and to learn to accept what he can and cannot change.
For both Shevchenko and Royal, the chemistry that comes with deep collaboration has been one the most fulfilling aspects of getting back to work. “There’s something very special I feel when Calvin and I dance together,” says Shevchenko. “Even our proportions, the way our bodies work together … it just comes so naturally. It’s really lovely when you can find a partner like that, that you can blend with them so nicely.” It’s a feeling that Royal also shares: “She’s a wonderful friend, she has a quiet confidence that’s contagious on stage, and she’s one of ABT’s most exquisite swan queens. She makes me feel like I belong every time we work together. She has the personality that makes you want to create magic.”
Given the pedigrees of everyone involved — and the general thirst for a return of live performance — there’s no doubt that ABT will cast some stardust onto the hardwoods of the colossal Lincoln Center stages, but, beyond that, hopefully these performances will spark conversations about why we consume art in the first place. McKenzie hopes that these performances will encourage audiences to consider the transformative power of beauty. “Beauty isn’t just ‘pretty,’” he states. “It’s about the quality and depth, pride and humility of this life that we live.”
Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancer
Anyone particularly inspired by the long-delayed new season of performances by the American Ballet Theatre (or anyone still clinging to a long-buried ballerina fantasy from childhood) can now explore said daydreams with the added benefit of actually getting in shape at the same time. A new series of classes from Equinox, designed to honor the classical roots of ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, will provide a safe space to learn the basics of classical dance while also providing a healthy, holistic approach to gracefully moving your body through space. The “50-minute classical ballet experience” known as Ballet by Equinox x ABT will involve across-the-floor combinations, center barre, jumps, turns, and unique exercises involving a Thera-band. Designed with the needs of both the professional dancer and the novice in mind, the ultimate goal of the class is to provide a cardio-based challenge that is both physically rewarding and at least a little bit inspiring. Equinox members will be able to take Ballet by Equinox x ABT in select clubs in the New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., markets, so if your secret dream has always been to pas de chat, pirouette, and plié — while also twirling your way into a fitter, more lithe body — then this is your chance. Start practicing your best arabesque now.
Shayna Condé Writer
Shayna Condé is a New York–based food, lifestyle, wellness, and travel writer. Her work can be found in Allure, Food52, USA Today, Well+Good, Stylist Magazine, Greatist, and more. She is also a Cave Canem semifinalist for 2021 and is currently querying for her memoir.
Sasha Arutyunova Photographer
Sasha Arutyunova is a Moscow-born, Brooklyn-based photographer whose practice brings a cinematic and intimate perspective to found narratives and interrelationships in the world around her. Arutyunova's work has appeared in Time, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, among others, and has been exhibited by the Houston Center for Photography, Photoville, and Museo Casa Giorgione. Her first monograph, “Shelter,” was published by TISbooks in 2021.