Thursday night belonged to the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. With the ghost of George Balanchine watching from his customary spot in the downstage right wing at the theatre formerly known as the New York State Theater, his blissful Theme and Variations and Alexei Ratmansky’s electrifying Piano Concerto no. 1 gave them a daunting workout, showing off the corps at their technical and stylish best. Between these two monumental works, the Fabergé egg of Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country was illuminated by corps dancer Gemma Bond (formerly of the Royal Ballet) in the role of Vera, an impetuous young girl with an inappropriate romantic attachment.

Piano Concerto no. 1 © Rosalie O'Connor
Piano Concerto no. 1
© Rosalie O'Connor

Theme and Variations, Balanchine’s 1947 love letter to Marius Petipa, the French ballet master who reigned over late 19th century Russian ballet, establishes clear hierarchies for the principal couple, eight soloists and sixteen corps dancers. The technical demands on all are prodigious, however, in this 30-minute marathon. It is an obsessive-compulsive ballet-lover’s dream, ruled by marvelous symmetries, from the placement of the five chandeliers that suggest a ballroom setting, to the rapid interweavings of the ensemble. Crammed with nods to the Russian Imperial style, strung together in an often unclassical manner, Balanchine makes these dancers do everything Petipa required of his, only faster.

Polina Semionova and Cory Stearns, with their racehorse physiques, appeared perfectly matched from the moment the curtain rose on the glittering spectacle. Semionova sailed through her diamond-sharp petit allegro, with breakneck changes of focus. Both flaunted beautiful lines and melting transitions. Their pas de deux was a fluid push-pull that broke classical decorum with a tight clinch that established that this couple had gone beyond a first date. The proud ensemble kept ramping up the pace, amplifying the lead couple’s joy, to the lavish whirlwind finale that pays tribute to the high-kicking Rockettes.

A Month in the Country, inspired by Turgenev, transported us to a very Russian drawing room where a bored society matron longs to tangle with her son’s charming young tutor, but finds herself in a queue with her young ward and the French housemaid. Every dancer-actress in the lead role maneuvers in the shadow of the formidable Lynn Seymour. Julie Kent acts up a storm and is utterly believable, but her sharp and brittle lines lack the sensual allure of Seymour’s curves, from instep through the spine to the back of her expressive neck.

Victor Barbee and Jared Matthews get along remarkably for a husband and erstwhile lover, as they indulge Kent’s histrionics. Stella Abrera makes an improbably glamorous French maid; one longs to see her in the role of Petrovna. The fleet-footed Daniil Simkin was born to play the mischievous son, Kolia, dazzling us with his ebullient jumps and turns. When Kolia’s heart breaks at the forced departure of his beloved tutor, we see the world collapse around every child who is separated from a cherished caregiver.

Spitfire Gemma Bond steals the show as Vera, who petulantly exposes Kent’s dalliance with the tutor, and endures the resulting harangue. From the tip of her chin to her expressive shoulders and hands, and quicksilver feet, she embodies the coquettish but defiant young idealist.

Guest artist Guillaume Côté is impeccable in the role of the tutor, Beliaev; courtly and charismatic, vaguely aware of his allure, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. When he succumbs to Kent’s desperate advances, he seems more infatuated with the idea of romancing an older woman than with the older woman herself. Even as I – along with every other female in the audience – fell under the Côté spell, I could not help but wonder why ABT, with its deep bench of male talent, needed to reach outside the company to cast this ambitious role. David Hallberg and Cory Stearns rotate through, but surely there are others?

Piano Concerto no. 1 offered up one solution in the person of corps dancer Calvin Royal III, a commanding presence as he squired Gillian Murphy in her début on Thursday night. Along with Murphy and Royal, corps couple Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer completed the lead quartet in this wild, enigmatic chamber ballet that concludes Ratmansky’s Shostakovich trilogy. With the exception of Royal, the other three were all débuts in this piece – and what sensational débuts they were. Shayer seemed to spend more time in the air than on the ground, and Brandt, a tiny hellion, was propelled by unseen demons at a speed that would have impressed Mr Balanchine. Murphy and Brandt together form the emotional heart of this piece in an affecting sisterly relationship.

The spare décor by George Tsypin – the contents of an exploded tool-kit suspended in the air against a grainy black-and-white projection of what appears to be a photograph of the bow of a ship seen underwater – the cool blue backdrop against which the pas de deux à quatre unfolds, and the exceptional fluidity of the movement throughout the ballet, even at the zippiest pace, suggest that we are indeed under the sea. Shostakovich wrote this piece of music in the inter-war period when the Soviet Union was rebuilding its navy, which was to become one of the most powerful in the world. Ratmansky’s work seems to reflect this preoccupation with naval industrial development, and the acquisition of political might, in contrast with the impact of Stalinist repression on individual lives and slow-spreading fear.

Ratmansky tosses traditional ballet hierarchies and symmetries out the porthole by giving the ensemble as much virtuoso work as the leads; a deluge of classical challenges stitched together in unexpected ways. Much of the partnering employs classical holds, but the angles at which the men hold the women overhead – and there are many breathtaking overhead lifts – are unusual, giving the women the appearance of diving downward rather than soaring upward. A triumph for all, but most especially for Skylar Brandt.