two men dancing onstage wearing flesh-tone briefs. The man on the left is Black and the man on the right is light-skinned.
Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi in Christopher Rudd’s Touché. Credit: Rosalie O’Connor

In general, touring performances of dance companies strive to show the range of the company’s work. And the performance by American Ballet Theatre at the Auditorium Theatre Friday, April 14, fit that bill. With a quartet of works that showed the company’s technical expertise, it included a range of choreographic voices and seemed designed to fit a wide breadth of tastes and audience demographic categories.

At the top was Alexei Ratamansky’s Songs of Bukovina, set to excerpts from “Bukovinian Songs [24 Preludes for Piano]” by Leonid Desyatnikov. (Bukovina is a historic region between Romania and Ukraine known for its lush, mountainous landscapes and religious monasteries.)

This piece, which incorporated choreography from Bukovinian folk dances and folk traditions, felt like a lukewarm introduction to ABT’s work. The piece was technically good, with lots of low, grounded movement, hoppy interludes, and many opportunities for different combinations of dancers between the corps de ballet and soloists. Moritz Junge’s costumes and the dancers’ hair design suggested traditional folk costumes with fluttery skirts, ribbon-belted waists, panels of varying colors, and tightly braided hairdos on the women in the corps. Men wore high-waisted leggings in earthy colors and blousy white tops. The two soloists, Isabella Boylston and Daniel Camargo, did a fine job of holding down this folksy piece with pas de deux work and different ensemble combinations that fit the 24 variations on the traditional Bukovinian songs, providing ballet and ragtime jazz dance influences on the seemingly conventional regional dances.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III in Alexei Ratmansky’s Songs of Bukovina. Credit: Rosalie O’Connor

The second piece, Touché, provided a stark contrast from Songs of Bukovina. Choreographed by Christopher Rudd, a Jamaican-born dancemaker and 2019 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow who blends contemporary ballet with other influences, including circus and yoga, in order to illustrate contemporary social issues, the piece examined the beauty and tension of gay relationships between men. Touché was created in 2021 by Rudd for principal dancer Calvin Royal III and corps de ballet member João Menegussi.

Starting with a stark stage set and requiring separate “intimacy direction” (sensitively executed by Sarah Lozoff), two dancers (one Black man and one white man) costumed in street clothes began onstage in silence, with one shouting “GOD. FUCK. WHY. NO. GO AWAY” at the beginning of the piece. The first section’s music, “Que Te Mate el Desierto,” an original score by Woodkid from the film Desierto, had the effect of a sad lament. With legato passages and moody strings, it set the tone for the beginning of the dance.

With moments of extreme intimacy, the dancers then enacted the push and pull of a queer relationship between men in contemporary America. The piece incorporated contrasting moments of sharp athletic moments, standing stillness, and some breathtaking aerial lifts. One such sequence included the partners lying on top of each other with heads at each others’ feet and then rolling downstage as one, transformed from a stacked double plank into a yogic square pose into a flying superman dismount. In the beginning of the piece, this move was a little more frantic and seemed like the dancers were somewhat unacquainted. When this was repeated later in the dance, it felt more languid, like the dancers were then more intimate partners.

About a third of the way in, the dancers stripped down to their shorts, each flesh-toned for their skin color—peachy pink and medium chocolate brown. The beauty of their skin together added to the overall effect of intimacy, illustrating the relationship between two men as beautiful and tender. The movement depicted moments that no one body could do without the other. Music by Ennio Morricone (the “Giuseppe Tornatore Suite” from the film Malèna) with gorgeous cello solo work by Yo-Yo Ma gave the second half an air of emotionality and pulled at the heartstrings with its cinematic sweeps.

Touché was a partner dance in the most essential way. Sensual, sexual, full of tension and gorgeous moments, it was greeted with an overwhelming outpouring of tears, hearty cheers, and a partial standing ovation at the end.

After watching the achingly beautiful tenderness of Touché in putting a gay man’s lens on queer relationships, by contrast, Some Assembly Required, while interesting in construction, played like an appeasement and a “throwing a bone to” the cisgender hetero audiences. It felt like a choreographic “no homo.”

Two white dancers, a man and a woman, jeans and white T-shirt and a floral dress, began their dance with a bouncy stroll from backstage to front. Going through a series of stylistic phases corresponding with the Second Sonata for Violin and Piano by William Bolcom, the couple embraced, “fought,” made up, had tension, and eventually reconciled.

This piece was choreographed by the late ABT dancer Clark Tippet, who created it originally in 1989 for his frequent muses, former ABT principal dancer Amanda McKerrow and her husband, former ABT soloist John Gardner. Ironically, Tippet, who was gay, wouldn’t have had the chance to create something like Touché, because he died of AIDS in 1992. Because of the deep history of rampant homophobia in ballet—with straight men dancing while staunchly pushing their sexuality to the front with macho bravado, Russia’s “no gay propaganda” law of 2013, and the compulsory heterosexuality of most ballets—it felt like a retrograde decision to remount this piece and place it after Touché in the run of show. A swap in the order of the show might have benefited ABT in not trying to pander to straight audiences and would have reinforced the power of Touché

Katherine Williams and Jarod Curley in Clark Tippet’s Some Assembly Required. Credit: Millie Elangbam

That said, dancers Katherine Williams and Jarod Curley did an admirable job with the material, demonstrating the push and pull of relationships and the drama that can occur between lovers. Especially delightful were the moments where Williams pulled herself up, straight as an arrow, with her ponytail. With moments of push and pull, and a beginning and end that contained a playful buoyancy, it’s just a shame that it felt slightly insulting after its preceding piece. (It looks like, from the press release, it was supposed to be before Touché. Moving it was an unfortunate choice.)

And speaking of tone, the final dance, ZigZag, provided a lighter-than-air dessert topping for the evening. With playful neon colors and patterns (in the backdrops and polka-dotted costumes), black-and-white graphic patterning, and the songs of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, this attempted crowd-pleaser walked off the set of Singin’ in the Rain and into the ballet studio for some modernization.

While audiences can appreciate what the company was trying to achieve here, from the perspective of jaded and cultured Chicagoans, it can be exhausting when coastal companies act as if they’re bringing the sparkle of New York City to the sticks. This piece fell flat.

What could have been a cute and fun homage to the Bennett/Lady Gaga collab (which was fun and darling when it happened almost a decade ago) turned sickly sweet and way too literal in the hands of choreographer Jessica Lang. With ten selections—including songs sung by Bennett with a moving New York skyline on the backdrop (It’s on top! It’s sliding to the center! It’s on the bottom!)—this piece wouldn’t have been out of place in a touring corporate Broadway show or a group act in a slickly produced burlesque show.

The stagecraft was retro. The backdrop had an ever-changing neon wash with graphics that rotated between the skyline and a Charlie Brown zigzag with a rectangular “jazz band” illustration popping in at the end. The principals’ costumes—1950s-style dresses in royal blue, canary yellow, and hot pink; bandeau tops, peekaboo torsos, and Dior’s New Look silhouettes for the women; and either all-white or all-black stretchy sailor-like pants and stretchy tees for the men—all pointed to a desire to zap back to the “good old days” with a side of saccharine kitsch. Given the current political climate of extremely conservative politicians using that kind of propaganda to push increasingly totalitarian-ish laws and policies, it didn’t feel like a good look for the company’s artistic choices.

Scene from Jessica Lang’s ZigZag. Credit: Rosalie O’Connor

Choreographic moments that seemed too pat included moments where the dancing emulated a lyric in the songs: “Left my heart” became a clutching of the chest; “golden sun” became an ensemble circular-jazz-hands moment with yellow lighting in the center; “above the blue” became a group point at the blue backdrop. An oddly placed “ballerina doing The Worm” move collapsed into her just lying face down, playing dead on the stage (out of mortification of being forced to do The Worm as a part of her duties as an ABT company member? We may never know.)

As eye roll–worthy as most of it felt, there were some shining moments of pure joy in this piece, and the dancers looked really happy to be doing a lot of the moves. If there was a saving grace in this work, that was it. It looked fun, and some of the audience probably thought it was charming. Mostly, though, it felt unworthy of the seriousness of a company like ABT.

Overall, ABT’s performance at the Auditorium Theatre felt a little uneven and not as weighty as one would expect from such a storied company, with the exception of Rudd’s Touché, the shining star of the night.

Two men dance onstage, both wearing briefs. The man on the left is Black. He stands on his toes, his back arched and his arms stretched behind him. A lighter-skinned man stands behind him, holding him up by his arms and with his legs in a sort of lunge position. The stage is bare except for two small piles of dark cloth, and the lighting is dim.
Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi in Christopher Rudd’s Touché Credit: Rosalie O’Connor Credit: Rosalie O’Connor
Two men dance onstage, both wearing briefs. The man on the left is Black. He stands on his toes, his back arched and his arms stretched behind him. A lighter-skinned man stands behind him, holding him up by his arms and with his legs in a sort of lunge position. The stage is bare except for two small piles of dark cloth, and the lighting is dim.
Calvin Royal III and João Menegussi in Christopher Rudd’s Touché. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor. Credit: Rosalie O’Connor