American Ballet Theatre is celebrating Alexei Ratmansky's tenth year as Artist in Residence by programming a spring season full of Ratmansky works. Last week there was Ratmansky's reconstruction of Harlequinade, and it was followed immediately by a Ratmansky triple bill. The program: Songs of Bukovina (2017), On the Dnieper (2009), and his just-premiered The Seasons.

Hee Seo in <i>On the Dnieper</i> © Gene Schiavone
Hee Seo in On the Dnieper
© Gene Schiavone

The weakest work was On the Dnieper, a ballet that ABT has outgrown. It's an overwrought love quadrangle. Sergei (Cory Stearns) loves Olga (Christine Shevchenko). But Sergei is engaged to a nice girl Natalia (Hee Seo), and Olga is engaged to a nice man (James Whiteside). Complications ensue.

Prokofiev's music, the sets by Simon Pastuki and costumes by Galina Solovyeva, and Ratmansky's choreography suggest an old-fashioned Soviet dram-ballet: hearty villagers, loving mothers, melodramatic pas de deux, and the heartbroken Nice Girl. When On the Dnieper premiered, ABT was full of dancers skilled at portraying outsized emotions. Cory Stearns, Christine Shevchenko, Hee Seo, and James Whiteside are all too reserved to make this piece work. Cory Stearns swung and lifted Christine Shevchenko in all different directions and James Whiteside had a solo where he stomped out his rage, while Hee Seo wept prettily. But it wasn't believable for a second.

Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven in <i>Songs of Bukovina</i> © Rosalie O'Connor
Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven in Songs of Bukovina
© Rosalie O'Connor

On the other hand Songs of Bukovina is perfect for ABT's current dancers. This work (set to "Bukovina Songs" by frequent Ratmansky collaborator Leonid Desyatnikov) is full of good cheer. The lead couple (Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven) exude healthy young love, and the four couples that accompany them support them. The ballet has some of Ratmansky's favorite mannerisms: dancers doing "everyday" things like stretching out their shoulders, or purposely looking bored as they watch other dancers onstage. The ballet ends with Boylston happily leaping into Hoven's arms and him happily catching her. Is it a great work? No, but it's pleasant.

The raison d'être for the evening was Ratmansky's ambitious take on Glazunov's The Seasons, originally set by Marius Petipa. Ratmansky has recreated several Petipa ballets through Stepanov notations but has gone his own quirky route through The Seasons. Winter was maybe the simplest section – a leading man (Joo Won Ahn) takes turns partnering Frost (Zhong-Ying Fang), Ice (Devon Teuscher), Hail (Courtney Lavine), and Snow (Betsy McBride) while corps de ballet icicles surround the leading couples.

Summer from <i>The Seasons</i> © Marty Sohl
Summer from The Seasons
© Marty Sohl

From then on the ballet becomes less cohesive. Spring has a Zephyr (Thomas Forster) take turns dancing with The Rose (Cassandra Trenary) and the Swallow (Breanne Granlund). Summer has some very lovely parts – the solos for the Spirit of the Corn (Stella Abrera), and the expansive choreography for the corps, which include blue cornflowers and red poppies (students of the JKO school). At one point the poppies lean on the knees of the cornflowers. The picture suggests future ballet dancers learning from their adult counterparts. Unfortunately there is some rather nonsensical choreography for the Faun (Blaine Hoven) and Satyrs, who keep chasing Corn around the stage.

In the Fall (Autumn) Bacchanale, Catherine Hurlin and Calvin Royal as Bacchante and Bacchus are dancing in a completely different ballet than what is going on the rest of the stage. Their steps are neat and academic, like Bournonville village dancers, while onstage the corps of all four seasons make sporadic appearances. The corps run around the stage, there are mini-solos for the soloists from the previous seasons, and too much is going on at once.

All of a sudden the stage empties for a pas de deux between Corn and Forster. It's only then that Robert Perdziola's costumes make sense – both Corn and Zephyr are dressed in green! The pas de deux models itself after a Petipa grand pas. Abrera and Forster are wonderful, she lyrical, him strong. There's of course a big leaping fish dive. Then everyone comes back for the final tableau. There are wonderful individual performances. All the Winter ladies and Ahn were fast and fleet, and Cassandra Trenary exuded springy cheer as the Rose.

<i>The Seasons</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
The Seasons
© Rosalie O’Connor

The Seasons is overstuffed, uneven and way too busy. There are so many steps, but they rarely made me "see the music". It's also confusing; one had to keep glancing down at the program notes to keep track of who was supposed to be representing what. It was a frustrating ballet, with so many lovely moments that were less than the sum of its parts.

Still, the final tableau drove home how much Ratmansky has changed the company. In 2010 Ratmansky made his version of The Nutcracker that included the big Soviet "torch lift" in the grand pas de deux. I saw numerous ABT dancers struggle with this big lift. Last night Forster lifted Abrera and it looked as natural as breathing. ABT is his company now, and they dance the way he wants them to dance.

****1