American Ballet Theatre's fall season is packed with interesting works. 

Jessica Lang’s Her Notes is an attractive ballet with lovely, gauzy costumes, well-chosen music and an interesting set. A scrim at the back of the stage has a square hole in it that serves alternately as a window, a door and a roof. It lends a touch of nostalgic mystery. Her Notes is timely because we need more work by and about women to even the balance and most of the elements of a successful ballet are there. The music is a selection of pieces from Fanny Mendelssohn’s Das Jahr, a work that features musical post cards from a year she spent traveling. It’s musical high romanticism that is descriptive and colorful but not especially memorable. Mendelssohn was an avid pianist and composer whose work was never published and she didn’t have a public performing career. That may be part of why her compositions never developed to a level that could compete with her brother, Felix. The ballet has a similar problem. It has a cast of heavy hitters with Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary, Devon Teuscher, Marcelo Gomes, Jeffrey Cirio and more. That’s a lot of talent to throw into one ballet and it definitely sets expectations high. Lang seems to be suggesting vignettes of the trip and as such, it is evocative but not particularly moving. Many of the movements begin and end with a tableau and the choreography features strongly geometric arms and legs. You smile and nod, you sigh and it’s satisfying, but ultimately it lacks passion. I wished that it had been a stronger work.

Scene from <i>Her Notes</i> © Rosalie O'Connor
Scene from Her Notes
© Rosalie O'Connor

Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato's Symposium, set to Leonard Bernstein’s violin serenade of the same name, is not quite as good without its original cast. It may be that this group needs more time to develop. Alexandre Hammoudi was strong in the central role and it was one of the finest performances I’ve seen from him. Hee Seo was beautiful but curiously blank in the pas de deux with Hammoudi. Thomas Forster danced his part very well but he was a little tentative, not as definitive in owning the stage. Alban Lendorf didn’t look quite comfortable. José Sebastian was the strongest performer in the Symposium with dancing that was transcendentally fluid.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn contains all the grace of Haydn’s original theme. It’s like a gentle walk in a stately formal garden. Brahms added the exuberance of thoroughbreds racing along the pathways. The mixture of elegance and power makes it one of Brahms’ most beloved pieces of music. Twyla Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations, the ballet set to the music, is a highly classical ballet made with the choreographer's usual intelligence.

Gillian Murphy in <i>The Brahms-Haydn Variations</i> © Marty Sohl
Gillian Murphy in The Brahms-Haydn Variations
© Marty Sohl
She clears the stage after each variation which makes each of them stand alone and it’s full of great musical moments. The ballet depends on its pairings for success and this show was terrific. In this case there were several couples that were fun to watch. Alban Lendorf, formerly of the Royal Danish Ballet, is the new guy in town and likely no one is happier than Isabella Boylston who will surely be paired with him frequently. There came a point midway through their second duet when something seemed to click and they began to move with astonishing exuberance. Her smile went just a little further than ear to ear as they flew around the stage. Skylar Brandt and Arron Scott were endearingly sweet. Sarah Lane and Craig Salstein moved together with lovely grace. Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes were the stately pair, every move they made was nuanced musicality and pure elegance. The cumulative effect of these great pairings brought the crowd to its feet.

This was an uneven but interesting program. I can only regret the brevity of this two week long fall season, especially since ABT will no longer be presenting its Nutcracker in New York City. That makes this fall season the prime occasion to see the company perform repertory programs as the spring season is largely dedicated to the story ballets. I hope that they will consider expanding it to three weeks and bring back some of those seldom performed Tudor ballets and other gems from the vault.