The Standouts: Our Top 12 Favorite Performances of 2016

November 22, 2016

Miami City Ballet’s National Tour

Artists of Miami City Ballet in Justin Peck’s Heatscape. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

In late April at the Harris Theater, Chicagoans found Miami City Ballet firing on all cylinders, following the company’s Lincoln Center debut and an engagement at Northrop in Minneapolis. Stage-filling Balanchine classics like Bourrée Fantasque, Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements struck a perfect balance between relaxed exuberance and clean execution, while seasoned stars like Jeanette Delgado and Renato Penteado shone in contemporary works by Justin Peck (Heatscape) and Liam Scarlett (Viscera), respectively. Most memorably, a dream team of 23 artists—including the irrepressible Nathalia Arja—gave a commanding presentation of Symphonic Dances, created for MCB by Alexei Ratmansky.

Those who caught the company during its spring tour were grateful for the occasion to exhale; the circumstances around Edward Villella’s departure as artistic director raised hackles and agitated dust, which took a long time to settle. Leadership transitions are rarely tidy, but there’s no doubt that Lourdes Lopez has successfully restored the vigorous, singular spirit of Miami City Ballet. —Zachary Whittenburg

Tiler Peck

Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

Any role created to celebrate the unique gifts of a special dancer is, by definition, a hard one to step into. Nearly four decades after its premiere, Ballo della Regina remains inextricably associated with Merrill Ashley, and for good reason: Balanchine’s breezy curtain-raiser calls for crystalline technique, luxurious épaulement and nonchalant musicality—an uncommon concoction.

During New York City Ballet’s winter season, Tiler Peck exceeded high expectations in her Ballo debut, with fellow principal dancer Gonzalo Garcia, bringing coloratura phrasing to the punishing pointework and awe-inspiring core strength to the pas de deux. It wasn’t a performance to make you forget Merrill Ashley, but rather, an iteration of the original which Peck made entirely her own. Appropriate for a ballet choreographed to music Verdi composed for an opera, her dancing looked like singing sounds. —Zachary Whittenburg

Yulia Stepanova

Stepanova as a wickedly intelligent Odile. Photo Courtesy Ani Collier.

Not many dancers have performed Odette/Odile with both the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi Ballets. Yulia Stepanova, a 2009 graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, performed Swan Lake on tour in London in 2014, when she was still a coryphée with the Mariinsky. Last summer, she returned to Covent Garden with her new company, the Bolshoi, and demonstrated a newfound maturity.

Despite a late change of partner, the performance reached a perfect balance. Stepanova’s vintage Vaganova style and soulfulness have always stood out, and nothing seemed forced in her fluid, elegant phrasing. The 27-year-old is also coming into her own as a dramatic dancer: Her melancholy, guarded Odette was in complete contrast with her Odile, a wickedly intelligent yet never over-the-top creature. New Bolshoi director Makhar Vaziev clearly has plans for Stepanova, and promoted her to principal (skipping two ranks) following the tour, in September. Her Swan Lake certainly promises great things to come. —Laura Cappelle

The Cast of Serenade after Plato’s Symposium

ABT’s men in Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.

At its spring gala in May, American Ballet Theatre unveiled a new work by Alexei Ratmansky unlike anything he has done before. His Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, set to Leonard Bernstein’s music of the same name, is a chamber ballet for seven men and one woman. Drawing from both Plato’s Symposium (a series of monologues about love) and the music, Ratmansky created a work with an almost Socratic feel, a dialogue of ideas. Each dancer introduced a contrasting “argument,” with movements as articulate as words. The mood shifted from grave to ecstatic to drunkenly gleeful to darkly longing. The dancing was phenomenal, particularly Herman Cornejo, who opens the ballet with a grave soliloquy. But also Calvin Royal III in a melancholy passage that ends with a group embrace, and a syncopated romp by James Whiteside, in which he careens cheekily across the stage like the sailors in Fancy Free. Blaine Hoven, too, shone in a rippling solo full of loose and limber moves. (He was promoted to soloist at the end of the season, for good reason.) —Marina Harss

Tamara Rojo and Irek Mukhamedov

Mukhamedov and Rojo: perfectly paired as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

It was a pairing no one expected to see again. While Tamara Rojo and Irek Mukhamedov briefly overlapped at The Royal Ballet, when she was a young ballerina and he a superstar nearing the end of his career, Mukhamedov’s departure in 2001 didn’t allow them to develop a partnership.

Enter choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who reunited them for Broken Wings, her contribution to English National Ballet’s She Said program. They played the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and her great love, Diego Rivera. For Lopez Ochoa, it was a no-brainer to pair Rojo, now ENB’s director, with Mukhamedov, who had joined as principal ballet master and character artist at Rojo’s invitation.

The Russian dancer has lost nothing of his stage presence and partnering skills: His larger-than-life Rivera was full of color, an apt answer to Rojo’s fiery, vulnerable Kahlo. Their pas de deux to Chavela Vargas’ La Llorona sizzled with chemistry. Mukhamedov and Rojo prove that dancers over 40 can be a gift to choreographers who are able to channel their experience; let’s hope they return for more. —Laura Cappelle

Harrison James

As Albrecht, James’ remorse was total and heart-wrenching. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, Courtesy NBoC.

How do you play a philanderer without coming across as a total cad? It’s the dramatic challenge for anyone approaching the role of Albrecht in Giselle. In his June 15 opening-night performance at National Ballet of Canada, 25-year-old Harrison James pretty much nailed it. Partnering NBoC principal and former Bolshoi Ballet star Svetlana Lunkina, James captured the ballet’s Romantic Era essence by portraying Albrecht as a young nobleman entranced by the elusive promise of pure, unalloyed love in the form of an innocent peasant girl. He means no harm even as he causes it; his subsequent remorse is total and heart-wrenching.

Born in New Zealand, James completed his training at San Francisco Ballet School, danced for two seasons with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet and then spent a year with Béjart Ballet Lausanne before joining the NBoC corps in 2013. His combination of strong technique, innate musicality, rock-solid partnering skills and dramatic intelligence soon earned him major roles and a skip-a-rank promotion to first soloist in 2015; little wonder that artistic director Karen Kain has now made James a principal. —Michael Crabb

Frances Chung

As Swanilda, Chung set the standard for comedic acting. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

San Francisco Ballet principal Frances Chung is a technical powerhouse, known for effervescent allégro and bravura pirouettes. But as the first-cast Swanilda in SFB’s Coppélia last March, she also set the standard for comedic acting. While attacking Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s demanding choreography, she built a farcical pyramid one flirty step, and one mischievous glance, at a time—until everything came crashing down in Act II. Chung timed every gesture and reaction to her dual partners, Vitor Luiz (Franz) and Pascal Molat (Coppélius), as well as to Delibes’ lively score, creating the hilarious—and believable—illusion that each outlandish new development was a genuine surprise. “What helped most in perfecting our timing was being in character 100 percent of the time,” says Chung. “Pascal and I did so in every rehearsal.” Practice made perfect: Simultaneously toying with Franz and winding up Coppélius’ dolls and delusions, Chung set glorious chaos into motion. —Claudia Bauer

Lauren Fagone

Fagone’s powerful swan song: The Rite of Spring. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

It’s a rare gift for a dancer to have a career-defining role. For Richmond Ballet’s Lauren Fagone, that role was the Chosen One in Salvatore Aiello’s The Rite of Spring. She has performed the part many times over the years and garnered critical acclaim for it. Last April in Buffalo, New York, the company star capped her 14-year career at Richmond Ballet with one final, stellar performance of the role, marked by deft skill and fiery passion.

Danced to Stravinsky’s groundbreaking score played live by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Aiello’s ballet captured the tension-filled and often brutal rituals of a primitive society.

Fagone’s tour-de-force portrayal of the Chosen One revealed both a desperate victim and a defiant heroine. “The brilliance of Aiello’s version is that she chooses herself,” says Fagone of her character. “She is this fierce being who challenges the very nature of these rituals.” —Steve Sucato

Laura Bachman

Lauren Bachman (center) took effortlessly to LADP’s style. Photo by James Welling, Courtesy L.A. Dance Project.

When L.A. Dance Project appeared at New York City’s Joyce Theater this summer, a fleet-footed soloist in Benjamin Millepied’s On the Other Side left me grabbing for my program. Laura Bachman was a delightful surprise in the work, showing off quick, immaculate footwork one moment and shaking her upper body wildly with childlike exuberance the next. She acknowledged the audience’s presence with refreshing directness, her chic bob framing dark eyes that sparkled with mischief—inviting you to join the dance, yet advising you to sit back and watch closely.

Bachman caught Millepied’s eye during his tenure at Paris Opéra Ballet, where she had been a quadrille (the equivalent of corps de ballet) since 2011. Her precise classical technique and charmingly enthusiastic manner make her an easy standout, yet she took effortlessly to LADP’s style, never once seeming like a ballerina trying contemporary dance on for size. Now she is putting her contemporary chops to the test, having left her POB contract this summer to work with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. —Courtney Escoyne

Seo Hye Han

Han proved a consummate contemporary ballerina. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.

When Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen promoted Seo Hye Han to principal this year, he referenced her company Swan Lake debut in an interview with The Boston Globe. Yet the South Korean dancer’s classicism also makes her a consummate contemporary ballerina. Case in point, Karole Armitage’s ballet Bitches Brew—with its dancers clad in neon dip-dyed tights, matching hair pieces and pointe shoes—took “electric” to a literal level. Han’s costume was more subdued, but her performance, particularly in the bookend solos at the beginning and end of the piece, burned itself in memory more enduringly than the zany colors. The lengthy sections might have been tedious in the hands of another dancer. But Han’s intensity—employing a seemingly impossible disassociation between the lyric ease of her upper body and her sharp, dynamic footwork—offered a through-line. With no set, no partner, no plot and not even her full vision to work with (her eyes were often covered by her free-flowing hair), Han injected the movement with a charged current that carried us through Miles Davis’ relentless rhythms. —Hannah Foster

Anastacia Holden

Holden in Forgotten Land: wild fury paired with total control. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Anastacia Holden is a compact dynamo whose speed, strong jumps and overall attack instantly mark her as a performer you need not worry about.

Yet it’s Holden’s theatrical flair that has really come to the fore in recent seasons. And it was in full flower earlier this year when she performed the first “red” duet (partnered by Yoshihisa Arai) in Jiˇrí Kylián’s haunting, highly dramatic Forgotten Land. Flying across the stage in her long red dress, Holden blazed her way through this strongly sensual variation with her feverish leaps, powerfully arched back and an overall intensity. There is heat and rage in this variation, a kind of personal exorcism. And the high-impact dynamism of Holden’s dancing—a wild fury paired with total control—told the story brilliantly.

Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director, describes Holden as “one of the most dependable, smart and committed dancers in the company.” He adds: “She brings a musicality to her movement that is not necessarily clear from the choreography. It is a form of alchemy, and the basis of true artistry.” —Hedy Weiss

Karen Wing

Wing made a sizzling Carmen. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet.

From the moment she burst onto the stage last February as Carmen in Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s Carmen.maquia, BalletMet’s Karen Wing captivated. Wearing a jet-black dress, red lips and a sly smile, the Petaluma, California–native wowed Columbus, Ohio, audiences and critics alike with a whirlwind portrayal of the iconic Spanish seductress.

Originally choreographed in 2012 for Luna Negra Dance Theater, Sansano’s two-act contemporary ballet takes its inspiration from Pablo Picasso’s black-and-white illustrations, created for 1940s reissues of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella. Yet while the aesthetic may be abstract, the ballet packs an emotional punch. Wing displayed an alluring mix of brashness, sex appeal, vulnerability and adroit dancing. And whether she was expertly infuriating her fellow cigarette factory workers or enticing Don José and the men in town, Wing was every bit the character of lore and more. —Steve Sucato