NEW YORK -- There are often cheers and shouts of "Bravo!" in the New York ballet audience. But screams? As in, adoring fans at a rock concert? Not often.
To some dance fans, though, Ethan Stiefel, the blond, athletic, longtime principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, fit the rock-star bill nicely over his long career. A natural for the classics, with a beautiful and pure line to his dancing, he was able to play a perfect Siegfried in "Swan Lake" and then leap effortlessly into some edgier Twyla Tharp. (And yes, he also played the dishy Cooper Neilson in the silly-but-fun 2000 dance movie "Center Stage.")
So there were indeed genuine screams from high up in the rafters on closing night of ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House this past weekend. Stiefel, now 39, was saying farewell to ABT with a final performance as Ali the Slave in the campy "Le Corsaire," a 19th-century ballet full of slave girls and pirates and a pasha with a big belly.
And despite years of injuries and non-dancing commitments that had sapped his time and energy – he canceled his appearances last spring because he felt he wasn't in shape – to say Stiefel rose to the occasion is an understatement. Bare-chested, with muscles rippling, he performed Ali's brief but famously entertaining leaps and turns to virtuosic perfection, nailing the scissor kicks, the revolving jumps, and the flashy spins, one last time.
The festive aura of the evening – more on that later – was fitting, because it ended a significant season for ABT on several levels. Most importantly, one couldn't help but feel the guard was changing, not just with Stiefel's departure but with that of the Spaniard Angel Corella a week earlier, an occasion met with an equal outpouring of emotion from his own ardent following.
Together, the two, along with Jose Manuel Carreno of Cuba who retired two years ago, had been instrumental in establishing ABT as a home for virtuosic and charismatic male dancers. Much more than New York City Ballet, where the ballerina has always reigned supreme, ABT began drawing audiences who wanted to see how high its men could leap, how many times they could spin, and with how much passion they could portray the young lover Romeo.
Now Corella and Stiefel move on full time to directing their own companies – Corella's Barcelona Ballet, which he founded in 2008 (then called the Corella Ballet) and is now struggling to stay afloat amid Spain's dire economic problems, and the Royal New Zealand Ballet, where Stiefel took over last year as artistic director. ABT's loss will hopefully be the gain of both those companies.
The season had other notable highlights. Alexei Ratmansky, along with Christopher Wheeldon one of the most important choreographers working today, introduced New York to his new "Firebird," a visually arresting production that divided critics but served as a vehicle for the high-flying Natalia Osipova and the up-and-coming Isabella Boylston (Misty Copeland was unfortunately injured during the run). It also featured the most fascinating sets of the season: were those tree branches? Or giant cigarettes, or lipsticks? It didn't matter too much – Ratmansky's world was weird but pretty cool.
His "Bright Stream," a comedy set on a Soviet collective farm, was back from last year and still charming, giving a host of ABT principals a chance to let loose. David Hallberg, who now splits his time between ABT and the Bolshoi, and has absorbed some of the grandeur of the latter, seemed to particularly enjoy his scenes in drag and en pointe, where he struck some "Giselle"-like poses and showed a sweet comic side.
Speaking of "Giselle," the company had an embarrassment of riches in that role, including Osipova, Diana Vishneva and guest artist Alina Cojocaru of the Royal Ballet, who had a memorable pairing with the retiring Corella.
And Cojocaru, all delicacy and lightness, performed her first ABT Juliet, with her longtime partner (onstage and off) Johan Kobborg, also a guest this season. Though Kobborg is a less flashy dancer than many of his fellow Romeos, he handled expertly the acting demands of the role, and the two together delivered a heartfelt performance.
It would be remiss, in mentioning so many international stars at ABT, not to note Gillian Murphy, the company's great American ballerina. She was luminous this season, particularly in Frederick Ashton's "The Dream," where she played a delicate and beguiling Titania – a role that suits her perfectly.
And if she shined particularly brightly as Medora in "Le Corsaire" on closing night, especially with those blazing, technically brilliant turns of hers, it was no accident – Murphy is Stiefel's fiancee, and together they formed an all-American dream team at ABT.
Now, Murphy will continue to perform with the company (and with Stiefel's Royal New Zealand Ballet as well), but she'll have to do it without her favorite partner. For a final time, they shared the curtain calls, with colleagues and dance-world friends (like Damian Woetzel, with whom Stiefel danced for years at New York City Ballet) piling onstage to ply Stiefel with flowers and hugs.
Was it an accident that the confetti guns went off precisely as Murphy planted a huge kiss on Stiefel's lips? It would seem hard to perfectly synchronize such a thing. In any case, as the cheering audience surely noted, the couple's timing was, one more time, perfect.