True to its latter-day form, American Ballet Theatre is devoting most of its annual spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House to program-length story ballets. Too many of these are excessively decorated trash (The Snow Maiden, for instance) or, nearly as discouraging, gaudy constructions that do little more than puff up some splendid kernel to Brobdingnagian dimensions. We don't really need the whole of La Bayadère, only the "Kingdom of the Shades" act, a marvelous example of classicism-according-to-Marius Petipa, which means as pure and sharp as a multifaceted diamond. We certainly don't need Don Quixote or Le Corsaire full-length. The virtuoso pas de deux from both do fine as party pieces; apart from the "Jardin Animé" sequence in Corsaire, the rest is excess baggage. Even where these multi-act ballets have an authentic nineteenth-century provenance, the work's mime, character-dance, and "ethnic"-dance passages have been savagely altered according to contemporary whim, which tolerates these once-relevant aspects of ballet hardly at all; the audience won't watch the stuff, and the dancers either can't do it or hate to.
In choosing such a scenery-laden repertory, ABT's artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, his board of directors, and his colleagues in the company's administration have indicated that "the public must be served." Sometimes I wonder what public they have in mind. It doesn't include me or many other veteran dance aficionados. If they're cultivating a new, sizable audience with this programming, what is their purpose? Are they, perhaps, producing a commodity that passes for ballet for a public that will pay for spectacle but is not all that keen on dancing?
Consolation for fans of the real thing lies in the performances of individual dancers. ABT's current season runs through June 19, and these are some of the artists I'll be watching closely: Ashley Tuttle, the most musical ballerina since Violette Verdy; Alessandra Ferri, whose technical strength is a sometime thing but who can act, giving the most fervid extravagances the impact of home truths; and Nina Ananiashvili, Russia's finest, with her cool aplomb and a receptive intelligence that is continually expanding her expressive range. Most fascinating to me among the men are Vladimir Malakhov (another Russian import), of the princely body and neurotic-hayseed face, whose artistic growth is remarkable; our native Ethan Stiefel, who has mercifully emerged from his look-at-me! phase to offer his astounding virtuosity with a more relaxed grace; and Jose Manuel Carreño, not just for his considerable athletic prowess but for an infallible courtesy through which he makes any woman he partners seem beloved.