By Walter Rutledge
American Ballet Theatre (ABT) begins its summer New York season June 13 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Before we discuss the upcoming season, it would be remiss of me not to discuss one important event during the prior fall season. A season marked by many ABT firsts, making it truly a season of diversity.
On October 23, 2021, dance history was quietly made at the Saturday matinee of American Ballet Theater. Calvin Royal lll became the company’s first African American principal dancer to perform the lead role of Albrecht in Giselle. The production exuded with the extravagance befitting American Ballet Theatre, the grandeur of the David H Koch Theater, and Mr. Royal’s augural New York City performance. He was complemented by sumptuous sets, live music, focused staging and a stellar cast.
Cassandra Trenary in the title role of Giselle danced with a spirited conviction. We all were sitting in the front seats of her roller-coaster ride from exuberance to madness, death, and finally her transformation into a fearless and virtuous spirit. Patrick Frenette‘s Hilarion embodied the jealous spurled “let’s just be friends” suitor. And Susan Jones portrayed Berthe, Giselle’s mother, with both compassion and matriarchal protectiveness.
Giselle is my favorite romantic ballet. Although the story is set in the Rhineland in the 1500’s the ballet is a perfect example of 19th century French romanticism. Like many of its literary contemporaries such as Manon Lescaut, Madame Bovary, and les Demoiselles Camelias the heroine’s death absolved her of past transgressions. It also gave these heroines a virtue not obtained in their lifetimes- almost a deification.
In Giselle, a simple, lovestruck, peasant girl is courted by a nobleman pretending to be a peasant. The charming Count Albrecht of Sileca seduces the young girl. And when the ruse was exposed, the deception is more than frail Giselle can withstand and she dies.
Giselle is a true romantic story ballet. Here the mastery of “steps” is just the prerequisite to be considered for the role. This ballet is a theatrical production, a storytelling ballet that requires artists. Artists who can transcend the roles and make us believe we too are in an enchanted hinterland.
Someone of Albrecht’s entitled noble status believes he had the right to deceive these simple villagers to gain their trust. He seduces and deflowers a young maiden for sport and moves on. The precision of his plan suggests this is not his first peasant mascarade, nor his first peasant maiden seduction.
When Royal entered from the autumnal forest, he exuded an innate and natural elan.’ His swagger, confidence, and charming yet overt flirtations betrayed his guise as a humble village newcomer to the omniscient balletomanes. Regardless, we all were enthralled, seduced, and eventually betrayed.
This is a quality I first observed years earlier. Royal, then a member of ABT ll, performed the role of Prince Siegfried in the Black Swan Pas de Deux at the Joyce Theater on a split bill with Ailey ll. Even then, Royal danced in pure light, a quality you can’t teach, a quality that delineates a great dancer from an important and gifted artiste’.
What really struck me not what he did, but what he didn’t have to do. In this pas de deux the male danseur, is supportive and therefore invisible. The danseur should become just the setting around a perfect jewel. That evening Royal was a platinum setting.
Flash. forward to November 2021. It was evident Royal’s radiant pure light has become a mature focus beam of pure artistry. Choreographer Marius Petipa designed an ingenious second act plot twist. The perfect example of role and class reversal; and female empowerment through deification.
A remorseful Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave. Deep in the forest, cloaked in the amenity of darkness. The Count encounters the Willis; undead women, who died untouched, and now seeks revenge on men. Giselle saves the now powerless Albrecht from their bloodlust and redeems her soul. In hindsight, I wonder if the Willis plight was their purgatory and Giselle’s forgiveness of Albrecht her penance.
Royal is convincingly transformed from patrician to prisoner. The powerless mortal pleas for mercy are denied by the Willis’ Queen, Marta (Stephanie Petersen); but it is Giselle who fearlessly intercedes. Her former earthly love for him and her stoic selflessness reprieves Albrecht. Royal masterfully completes Petipa’s plot twist as the curtain falls. In these final moments Royal expresses the sadness and angst of losing Giselle. Through his remorse we sadly realize that the player (Albrecht) has played himself. Bravo!
Although act two was also visually stunning I was not pleased with moments of the second act lighting. The upstage lighting at times seemed dark and muddy. And shades of deep blue do not always compliment darker skin tones. Thankfully the light defused spotlights with the soft edges avoided most of the problem. I’m sure this light plot was designed long before a Calvin Royal III was in contention for the role, fortunately this is a minor adjustment.
The other point of visual ambiguity was the lighting for the dawn scene. The light seemed to rise from the east, west, north, and south making it visually and geographically confusing. It was especially disappointing when the side lighting (north and south) spilled onto the Willis costumes.
Royal’s fifteen-year journey from scholarship student to ABT principal danseur has been a dancer’s dream come true. In the company’s eighty-three-year history Royal is only the second principal of African descent and the first one in over twenty-three years. In the summer New York City season (June 13th thru July 19th) Royal will perform the roles of Espada in Don Quixote, Chaereas in the New York premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Of Love and Rage and in Alonzo King’s quintet Single Eye (also a world premiere) One of his most anticipated performances will be Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. A role he was scheduled to perform in the 2020 summer season opposite Misty Copeland (Odette/Odell), but that historic performance (two African Americans dancing both lead roles) was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Royal has truly broken one of ballets’ glass ceilings. During his two-year tenure as principal, Royal has become a role model; inspiring young classically trained male dancers of color to follow their dreams. We the public see his success as only the beginning, and expect the wheels of progress to move faster, giving more aspiring dancers of color a chance to live their dreams.