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The Divided Soul of American Ballet Theater

At the Met, however, Ballet Theater can still — sometimes — draw thousands of viewers. Full-evening narratives, virtuoso display, character acting: An audience knows where it is with these ballets.


James Whiteside and Misty Copeland in “AfterEffect,” part of American Ballet Theater’s Tchaikovsky-inspired program at the Metropolitan Opera.

Harrison Hill/The New York Times

Still, traditions can be altered and developed. A few seasons ago, Misty Copeland was just one of a rich crop of dancers at American Ballet Theater; now she’s not only a principal (the company’s first African-American woman to reach that rank) but has also become an important box-office draw who brings new viewers into the Met’s audience. A year ago, few even among Richard Strauss’s admirers knew that he had written a two-act ballet called “Whipped Cream” (“Schlagobers,” 1924); now, thanks to Mr. Ratmansky’s production, it’s had 12 popular Met performances this spring.

These two points alone show how Ballet Theater and its audience can change. This spring season (May 15 through July 8), though, generally showed a reversion to artistic timidity. “Don Quixote,” “Le Corsaire” and “Onegin” are crowd pleasers with no serious artistic merit. The company’s “Swan Lake” (like most productions of this ballet today, unfortunately) is unworthy of the classic. After the artistic courage shown by this company in 2016 — when a high proportion of the repertory was choreographically distinguished — this season was depressingly devoted to tedium. The final “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” might have ended the season on a high note; instead it demonstrated the company’s profound self-contradictions.

Even so, Ballet Theater keeps renewing itself. Several principals — Herman Cornejo, Ms. Copeland, Cory Stearns, James Whiteside — reached new highs. Ms. Copeland’s June 17 performance of Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake” persuaded me that she can be an important interpreter of this role: Everything felt more individually shaped, with more vulnerability, pathos and intensity in Act II, and more warmth and sweep in Act III.

Alban Lendorf, in his first season at the Met, proved a complex marvel, a happy powerhouse of sensitive and voluptuous dancing. As yet, I don’t find him capable of tragedy, but he’s close. The senior ballerina Gillian Murphy, despite missing several performances because of injury, danced her first company “Giselle” with a kind of feverish intensity that seriously extended my idea of her.

Much of the season was carried by junior-ranked dancers, many of whom rose to the occasion. Some spend years before they have the heroic scale for “Swan Lake”; Devon Teuscher (though there are dance details to be refined) seems to have it by nature. I wish I could have seen Sarah Lane’s debut in the same double role of Odette-Odile — it often suits a petite dancer far more than people realize — the more so as this was a breakthrough season for her. For years, she has looked gifted but too self-critical to cast a sustained spell; in her first Giselle and other roles, she carried the audience, not least with impressively long legato lines. This week, both women were promoted to principal.

Among the season’s many important debuts, I single out the wide-eyed Skylar Brandt as Medora in “Le Corsaire.” She has been outstanding in divertissements for some seasons, but I’ve wondered if she wouldn’t prove too china-doll, too sweetly pretty, to keep your attention through a three-act role. Not so: She keeps showing new facets of theatricality, rising to one occasion (and to her music) after another.

How can I cover a Ballet Theater season and omit such beloved names as Catherine Hurlin, Cassandra Trenary, Gabe Stone Shayer? But the list of Ballet Theater’s best dancers grows only more numerous. They all deserve better repertory. The problem is Ballet Theater’s vision; and at the center of Ballet Theater’s vision is the endless problem of filling the Metropolitan Opera House.

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