It's often thought that American Ballet Theatre's Fall Season is the season for real dance connoisseurs, as one gets to see more variety in programming than ABT's Met Season. A good example is last night's triple bill: Balanchine's Theme and Variations, a new piece by Twyla Tharp named A Gathering of Ghosts and Ratmansky's The Seasons is the type of program unlikely to be programmed in the Met season.

Scene from Ratmansky's The Seasons
© Marty Sohl

The good news first: Alexei Ratmansky's The Seasons looks much better in the smaller Koch Theatre, and the dancers also look more at ease with the ballet. As a result it was the highlight of the evening. When I first saw it this spring I thought it was fussy, with too many steps. Upon second viewing the complexity of Ratmansky's choreography is a feast for the eyes, and Alexander Glazunov's eponymous score is a feast for the ears.

"Winter" is still the strongest section – the pas de cinq between Winter (Aran Bell), Frost (Katherine Williams), Ice (Devon Teuscher), Hail (Catherine Hurlin), and Snow (Luciana Paris) with icicle corps de ballet circling the central characters is delightful. The pas de trois between Zephyr (James Whiteside), Rose (Zimmi Corker), and Swallow (Skylar Brandt) in the "Spring" section is also lovely.

"Summer" and "Fall" are considerably less cohesive. In the "Summer" section there is a disconnect between the solo of the Spirit of the Corn (Isabella Boylston) and the Cornflower (adult) and Poppy (children) corps sections. The "Fall" section has barely started before all the seasons come back. The pas de deux between Zephyr and Corn is beautiful and harmonic as Corn repeatedly jumps into Zephyr's arms in a fish-dive leap. Boylston and Whiteside's partnership was at its best here. The final tableau has all the seasons back and the backdrop now dark with sparkling stars. Boylston is held up in a triumphant torch lift that might as well signify the triumph of Ratmansky in creating such a gift for the company.

Herman Cornejo in A Gathering of Ghosts
© Rosalie O'Connor

Tharp's A Gathering of Ghosts is a piece d'occasion to celebrate beloved principal Herman Cornejo's 20th season at ABT. Alas, it's also a mess. This is one of those ballets where there's no connection between the music (Brahms' String Quartet in G Major), the costumes, the printed program, and the steps we see onstage. Tharp decided to give random names to the characters – for example, Herman Cornejo is the "host," while Blaine Hoven is Louis XIV, Stephanie Williams is Marie Antoinette, Calvin Royal is North Wind. Norma Kamali's costumes are flashy and distracting, Cornejo in a black and silver jumpsuit, Aran Bell in a glittery black jacket with biking shorts, and Blaine Hoven's Louis XIV in a black romantic-length tulle tutu.

The steps are predictably a fetishized tribute to Cornejo. He wiggles his hips, ripples his arms, strikes a pose, and of course does many double tours and pirouettes à la seconde. Since it's Cornejo, he looks great dancing anything, but when a ballet so fetishizes one dancer it cheapens the effect. Otherwise this is Tharp's predictable setup of modern vs. ballet with Herman the Host bridging the divide. The other dancers threw themselves fearlessly into Tharp's signature moves (the big moving crane lift, the athletic sprints around the stage, the kick-boxing) but this ballet was weak tea.

But the fact is ABT look in their comfort zone dancing Tharp. Balanchine's Theme and Variations was a disaster. Charles Barker's conducting was slack and shapeless and did not allow dancers to give those punctuated flourishes in the musical climaxes that are the hallmark of Balanchine choreography.

Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak in Theme and Variations
© The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Sarah Lane gave the kind of brittle, nervous performance that happens every so often with this otherwise luminous ballerina. She made no visible mistakes, but danced slowly and carefully without amplitude, or joy. The awkward partnering of Joseph Gorak did not help – the pas de deux had shaky hands and labored transitions. Gorak struggled throughout. In the famous variation that starts with the diagonal of ronde-de-jambes he never could get his free leg high enough for the movement to be accentuated. Then in the double-tour-pirouette series Gorak traveled sideways and looked like he was just getting through it.

The finale of Theme and Variations is usually a surefire applause generator with its accelerating storm of allegro dancing. Instead the corps, Lane and Gorak looked like they were on their last legs, and the ballet limped to the finish line. The fact that ABT struggles so much in a ballet that's a test of classical technique is worrisome. It's great that ABT can dance Ratmansky and Tharp so well, but standards need to be maintained for one of the most famous ballets ever created for the company.