ABT Zigs and Zags Across Contemporary Canvas at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater


American Ballet Theater continues to dazzle Chicago audiences with high-octane dancers, precision execution and, sometimes, dramatic intensity that transcends their beautiful bodies and phenomenal technique. ABT, how we have missed you!
The highlight of the evening for me was Christopher Rudd’s duet, Touché (2021), danced by Calvin Royal III and Joaaô Menegussi. The clever title clues us into the double-entendre of touch, and the exclamation, touché, of a fencing match that has been fought and won, here perhaps by both sides.

The effective use of both silence and Woodkid and Ennio Moricone's deeply resonating cello and piano contributed to the emotional intensity of the duet. Rudd gives his dancers the movement architecture for the journey of a relationship, but it was the dancers, Royal and Menegussi, who made that journey uniquely theirs, and yet universally ours as well. From their first fleeting encounter and physical brusqueness, to tentatively feeling each other out, they alternately resisted and entwined themselves around each other.

Their playful attraction led to abrupt denial and fear, a study in alternating movement dynamics, with arms and legs stabbing and full-body gestures that seemed to say, “Go away!” followed by tenderness and submission. They stood on each others backs, separated and reattached, became each other’s Christ on the cross.

The evolution of love in all its manifestations—from discovery to acceptance, emotional, spiritual and physical—Royal and Menegussi ignited the immediacy of the moment with a fire and dramatic intensity all their own. The crystalizing moment of the piece took the two dancers to the edge of the orchestra pit facing the audience as the house lights came up and we found ourselves all together in the same room. The culminating beauty of their sensuality and final kiss left a stunning afterglow on an audience left breathless before a cascade of applause showered down on them from the rafters as if from the heavens.

The other relationship duet on the program, Some Assembly Required (1989), by Clark Tippet, underwhelmed. While Zimmi Coker's coquettish vixen and Jonathan Klein’s ambivalent beau performed their roles with technical virtuosity, the choreographic devolution of their relationship seemed trite and clichéd. The dissonance of William Bolcom’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano, performed live by violinist Kobi Malkin and pianist Emily Wong, proved overkill.

The frolicsome Songs of Bukovina (2017), choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, provided a user-friendly program opener for dévotés of more traditional fare, while maintaining a contemporary flavor consistent with overall tone of the evening. Of special note were lead couple Christine Shevchenko and Blaine Hoven, who distinguished themselves with nuanced partnering and individual flare. Set to excerpts from Leonid Desyatnikov’s 24 Preludes for Piano, performed live by Jack Mysinski, the piece could have benefited from some judicious editing.

Jessica Lang’s program closer, ZigZag (2021), set to Frank Sinatra songs, began with what felt like a kitschy version of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (1982), but soon proved to be an animal all its own, with polka-dot flouncy dresses. It was the perfect upbeat crowd-pleaser to end a delicious evening of dance, with plenty of humor and some terrific, pull-out-all-the-stops dancing. This happy mix of upbeat ballet, jazz, and ballroom genres gave the company an opportunity to show off its versatility as well as individual strengths. Of special note was Joo Won Ahn’s solo, to which he brought an inspired floating quality, silken suspensions, and on-a-dime dynamic shifts. He made the tiniest flick of a heel a gesture  into a wise-crack that punctuated dynamic transitions with a wink. As fluttering “Hollywood” hands shifted to lyrical passages, his towering presence held the audience in rapture.

Lang’s quirky sense of humor put the dancers in laugh-out-loud group sight gags, especially the human cable car complete with driver set to “I left My Heart In San Francisco." A human jump rope had dancers flying doing “double Dutch” in break-neck rotation set to “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.”

The fun ramped up to the very end, sending the audience out barely able to restrain themselves from dancing out the door onto Congress Parkway to “How Do You Keep The Music Playing.” How indeed!