A year ago, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) celebrated the world premiere of “Of Love and Rage” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County. The company flew home on a high of success with plans to ready the ballet for a New York premiere as part of the company’s 80th anniversary celebration. But there would be no rehearsal, and no Metropolitan Opera House performance.
Instead, the dancers, along with the rest of the world, retreated to their homes for what turned out to be months of isolation.
But there is finally light at the end of the tunnel and it began last month where it all unexpectedly ended last year. For the past five weeks, 18 dancers and ABT artistic staff lived and rehearsed in a quarantined “bubble” on-site at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, venturing out of the nearby hotel only to rehearse in the Center studios and Segerstrom Hall.
The short residency culminated in a recorded stage performance of a project called “Uniting in Movement” that will be available for on-demand viewing May 12-26. A very limited in-person viewing last Sunday, April 25 welcomed approximately 300 audience members into Segerstrom’s 3,000 seat theater, abiding by California’s coronavirus regulations.
“It is wild to think that our last performance was here,” said ABT company member Tyler Maloney. “Stepping into a theater again was surreal. I felt such a comforting relief to come back to a stage we all connect to.”
Despite the familiar feeling, the dancers’ visit to California was much different than usual as they adhered to strict medical and safety guidelines. They were relegated to specific hallways for passage through the Center, and had to have their traditional Pizza Ortica meal delivered to the hotel instead of dining at the restaurant.
“Knowing we (weren’t) free to walk around wherever we please was difficult at first, but we are all just so happy to be back dancing in a studio,” Maloney said. “The energy in the studio (was) supportive and uplifting. I think we are all grateful and realize this is not something we can waste.”
A Mix of Classical and Contemporary
The “Uniting in Movement” program is comprised of works by two contemporary choreographers, Lauren Lovette and Darrell Grand Moultrie, and also includes two repertory pieces that showcase ABT’s virtuosic ballet technique and pay homage to the company’s classical heritage.
‘Uniting in Movement’
Digital on-demand viewing: May 12 – 26
Choreographer Lovette’s “La Follia Variations” actually plays off of this classical history, presenting movement that is largely classical but has been deconstructed, in a sense, to include steps that expand the definition of ballet.
“When I think of American Ballet Theatre, I think of perfected technique and pristine work ethic at its finest. I used that as the core of this ballet and branched off into what I thought each dancer might want to do but might not often get the chance to execute,” Lovette said. “What resulted is a very classical ballet that folds itself inside out and shows equal parts conforming and resisting the structure of polished classical ballet.”
Maloney, who performed in Lovette’s piece, said her personalization of the choreography for each dancer resulted in strength and confidence that was truly appreciated coming out of the pandemic.
Lovette, who is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, understands where the dancers are coming from after also experiencing a year-long pause to her daily routine.
“(The pandemic) provided a great deal of needed space to cherish exactly what I care about when it comes to this career,” Lovette said. “When everything gets taken away, it becomes rapidly clear what you fight to get back in your life and what falls to the side in priority.”
During a dress rehearsal before a night of filming, Lovette’s excitement for the premiere could be heard over a Zoom call that allowed her to see the rehearsal in California from her home in New York.
“It’s amazing to see a curtain again!” she exclaimed before the piece started, followed by a muted cheer, with arms stretched that could be seen on the video screen.
The other new work, “Indestructible Light,” comes from choreographer Moultrie. A Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship Award winner, Moultrie has an extensive and diverse choreographic resume that includes the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, off-Broadway plays, and Beyoncé’s “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.” This is his first work for American Ballet Theatre. Having premiered it onscreen in November with company members in an East Coast bubble, he has now reimagined it for the stage.
The piece is set to music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Neal Hefti and Billy Strayhorn, and combines classical ballet and jazz techniques to make for a powerful and dynamic embodiment of the style and brilliance of American jazz music.
‘A Time of Recalibration’
“Lauren (Lovette)’s use of classical vocabulary for the dynamic effect of empowerment and Darrell (Moultrie)’s facile use of classical technique fused with classic jazz are contrasted with two pas de deux. All of which exemplify the vibrant spirit of American Ballet Theatre,” ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie said in a press release.
McKenzie, who recently announced he will retire in 2022 after 30 years at the helm of the company, was present in Costa Mesa, appearing on stage during rehearsal to coach and support the dancers.
“These creations (for ‘Uniting in Movement’) reflect a time of recalibration on how we create and deliver new work, reinvent how to gather together to create, and what it means to use this art form to lift us all, artist and audience alike,” McKenzie said.
As the world starts opening up, and live performances once again become the norm, dancers, choreographers and patrons of the arts have a unique opportunity to refresh their appreciation of the art form and return with new fervor for progressing the industry.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts Executive Vice President Judy Morr feels this call to arms and likens it to the early days of opening the performing arts center.
“We’re once again asking ourselves, ‘What is the theater about? What is it going to be?’” Morr said. “It requires cooperation from all of us together, and I think it is going to blossom.”
Morr is excited about the potential to use the on-demand video as an entry point into reaching new audiences, though she doesn’t think it comes close to replacing a live performance in the theater.
“It took my breath away to see the dancers onstage. This is the first real-life we’ve had on stage. A theater wasn’t built to be closed, but to have performances, people in the house, people on stage. It’s all coming back to life.”
Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.