The 75th anniversary season of American Ballet Theatre will be marked by the retirement of three long serving female principal dancers. This matinée performance cast two of them, Julie Kent and Xiomara Reyes, in Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Seven Sonatas, set to the music of Domenico Scarlatti. Paloma Herrera, the third to retire this year, was unfortumnately not featured in the matinée.

Coming second in the program, Seven Sonatas was a revelation of Scarlatti’s music. Ratmansky artfully showcased the lush, romantic richness and density of these sonatas with movements that require the dancers to fully inhabit the music. But as perfect as the music is, and as deftly played as it was by pianist Barbara Bilach, it was the choreography that captured our imagination. It illuminated the music with a vocabulary of poetic gestures, great and small, that not only traced the phrases but also the dynamics of Scarlatti’s work. While this ensemble ballet is unencumbered by plot, it is rich of the emotional complexity of human relationships.

X Reyes and H Cornejo in <i>Seven Sonatas</i> © Rosalie O'Connor
X Reyes and H Cornejo in Seven Sonatas
© Rosalie O'Connor

Julie Kent, who joined the company in 1986 (the same year that just-retired Wendy Whelan received her first corps de ballet contract with NYC Ballet) is slowly winding down her long tenure and she continues to deliver first rate performances. Partnered by Joseph Gorak, she was beautiful and nuanced in her movement throughout the ballet. If her jumps are not as high as they once were, and if her développés aren't as extended, it doesn’t impair her dancing in great pieces like this one, where artistry counts most. Julie Kent will be sorely missed. Gorak's dancing captured every breath of the music as he moved over, under and around the notes...In no dancer was the richness of Ratmansky’s choreography more fully realized than in him. This was first class dancing. Xiomara Reyes, – here partnered by Herman Cornejo – has a special gift, that of being able to convey joyful exuberance. She brings sunshine wherever she goes and it’s contagious. Cornejo is a perfect partner for her with his compact power and flying jumps. Their duet is strong, each perfect individually, and indelible together. The rapid and playful push-pull of their pas de deux had them changing directions so rapidly that it was almost dizzying. The third couple, Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal, danced an emotionally dark pas de deux in which they seemed to be perpetually struggling and breaking apart. It seems the hardest assignment of the three, as the duet must convey their emotional struggle without any plot. The pair moved well together with their long limbs and sweeping gestures. This is the sort of profoundly satisfying ballet that can be seen over and over without it becoming tiresome as it has so much depth to it, and serves as a potent reminder of just how great a choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is.

Opening the show was the Raymonda Divertissements. Gillian Murphy was radiantly beautiful and richly musical in the lead although her handclaps (in her solo variation) were inaudible. She is one of these dancers that can pull off pretty much anything. Alexandre Hammoudi, as her partner, was not as great a pleasure to watch. Raymonda is one of these old Russian ballets in whihc there is no room for anything other than technical exactitude. Either you make it around three times in those slightly awkward en dedans pirouettes and land in a closed fifth position or you don’t. There’s no space for fudging the steps and, unfortunately, when you don’t make it, it’s glaringly obvious. Hammoudi was off in a lot of the choreography and with a stiff upper body, did not manage to convey the princely conviction required to carry off the role. Among the variations, Cassandra Trenary's was very good and a pleasure to watch, as were the four men in the pas de quatre. Soloist Devon Teuschera was powerful, charismatic, technically brilliant, and even thrilling to watch. On the whole, Raymonda Divertissements always seems to be programmed to plug a hole in a repertory program. And the 'old' classical ballet nature of it provides balance in evenings.

D Simkin in <i>Fancy Free</i> © Queensland Performing Arts Center/ Darren Thomas
D Simkin in Fancy Free
© Queensland Performing Arts Center/ Darren Thomas

The program closed with Fancy Free, the much loved Jerome Robbins chestnut. With the combination of Robbins’ jazzy,almost Broadway-like choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s music, is about as all-American as a ballet can get. As such, it fits some dancers better than others. James Whiteside was delightfully impetuous and ruggedly handsome. Eric Tamm was a youthfully innocent sailor and well paired with Isabella Boylston, a gal with much moxie. All managed the choreography with comfort and familiarity. Daniil Simkin pulled off his tricky double tours to the splits with astonishing ease but this is a choreographic second language for him. He lacked that particularly brash American attitude, and was more Fred Astaire than Gene Kelly, but deserves a hand for a great effort.

With three important retirements coming up late spring, there will not be many more opportunities to see these great ballerinas, who are some of the greatest performing artists of their generation. They are all still terrific dancers and their experience in these great roles is well worth going out of your way to see, one last time.