Dance Review: A Ratmansky Evening at New York City Ballet

Two works by one of the most-in-demand choreographers of our time received powerhouse performances from some of the most highly praised dancers in the New York City Ballet.

Sara Mearns in the New York Ballet's production of Mamouna's "A Great Divertissement" Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Sara Mearns in the New York Ballet’s production of Mamouna’s “A Great Divertissement” Photo: Paul Kolnik.

By Iris Fanger

For a veteran admirer of New York City Ballet, it felt odd to be entering the New York State Theater (oops, now re-named David H. Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center, to watch a program containing no works by the company’s founder and ballet master in chief, George Balanchine. Of course, Balanchine has been gone since 1983 and, although the troupe is the vigorous keeper of his repertory, it has never faltered in its support of new choreography. Led by Balanchine’s successor, Peter Martins, NYCB is currently in the midst of presenting Here/Now, a part of its spring season, which started off with two weeks of ballets by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. It will end on May 28 with a week of performances of Balanchine’s full-length work A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Here/Now celebrates works by a plethora of choreographers who never knew Mr. B. No other company on the planet can match this troupe’s remarkable ability to mount 43 ballets in just four weeks. These ballets, created for the company by 22 different choreographers since 1988, will include world premieres by Alexei Ratmansky and NYCB’s resident choreographer, Justin Peck.

My choice was the evening entitled All Ratmansky, part of a week that also scheduled programs entitled All Wheeldon and All Peck, referring to Christopher Wheeldon and Peck. A ballet fan must travel from Boston to find Ratmansky’s ballets, but we have seen several of Wheeldon’s works at the Boston Ballet (the first commissioned by Anna-Marie Holmes when she was director), a take on The Firebird (original choreography by Michel Fokine, music by a young Igor Stravinsky) that was fun to watch, but undercooked. The BB has also performed Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, and we had the great treat of seeing his Broadway hit An American in Paris, on tour earlier this season. One of Peck’s works is scheduled to be performed next season by the Boston Ballet. But a gander at material from Ratmansky, who is in demand world-wide — nada.

Currently Artist in Residence at the American Ballet Theatre, Ratmansky is allowed to choreograph for whatever companies he likes. He trained in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet School, danced for a number of companies, including the Royal Danish Ballet, and returned to Moscow as director of the Bolshoi in 2004. A few years later he resigned and came to America, first to NYCB, where he created Russian Seasons in 2006 and Namouna, A Grand Divertissement in 2010.

The All Ratmansky program on April 26 featured Russian Seasons, a short abstract ballet set to music by the contemporary Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov. The piece included violin solos performed by Kurt Nikkanen and songs performed by Veronica Mitina. Also on the program was the hour-long Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. As the title of Russian Seasons suggests, the ballet and its score are filled with references to Russian folk music and dance, particularly illustrations of the life cycle in motion. A cast of six women and six men are dressed in bright colors: a pair in red, a pair in orange, a pair in bright green, and so on. The men’s pants and shirts look like rainbow-colored peasant garb; the women are in long-skirted, soft-flowing gowns, with Russian round pill boxes on their heads — until the choreography grows more antic. The subjects seem to range from brightness to sadness to death, capped by a solemn wedding scene where Rebecca Krohn, in white with a wreath of white flowers on her head, is a less-than-joyful bride. Taylor Stanley changes from an ebullient man dressed in orange into a subdued bridegroom dressed in white—shades of the Bronislava Nijinsky Les Noces.

Sara Mearnes in the New York Ballet production of "Russian Seasons." Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Sara Mearnes in the New York Ballet production of “Russian Seasons.” Photo: Paul Kolnik.

The piece is a marvelous roundelay that includes group dances, solos, and trios,  the movement punctuated by jutting hips, unison segments, deep backbends and falls to the floor taken at fast-moving or sometimes adagio tempos. Every now and then a man puts one hand to the back of his head or kicks out, folk-dance style. The music is punctuated by single hand claps by the dancers, followed by double claps. Clearly, Ratmansky knows his way around classical ballet steps and phrasing, but he also knows how to vary the effect with borrowings from vernacular dance.

Namouna, A Grand Divertissement is loosely—very loosely—based on a 19th century story ballet by Lucien Petipa (the brother of Marius), set to a lively score by Edouard Lalo. There is certainly lots of story here, Ratmansky contents himself with an eccentric, side-ways, humorous take on the original. The result is a fascinating, confusing, but ultimately enticing ballet that keeps a viewer riveted, trying to figure out what might possibly be coming next. Ratmansky is adroit at maneuvering groups around the stage. I loved the unison line of 16 women dancers who weave onto the stage at the beginning, as if the Swan Lake crowd had been captured and catapulted in time to the Art Deco period. They are  initially dressed in flowing, golden dresses, but re-appear in short, transparent tutus, as if the dancers are about to bathe in the ocean. Costume designers Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov supply head-gear as well, at first putting little cloches on the women’s heads, then supplying helmet-type bathing caps. Male lead Tyler Angle is dressed in a sailor suit for the hour-long journey, while Daniel Ulbricht might be a brown-clad gnome, accompanied by a pair of wood sprites. Ashley Bouder appears as a seductress, smoking a cigarette which she ultimately shares with the hero. (When was the last time we were given a ballerina on pointe exhaling smoke on stage?) The starry cast included Sara Mearns in an up-tempo passage and Sterling Hyltin as the girl who gets her man.

So, not so bad an evening. It was a privilege to witness the artistry: two works by one of the most-in-demand choreographers of our time received powerhouse performances from some of the most highly praised dancers in the New York City Ballet who are backed by the more than proficient members of the corps.

Note: Ratmansky’s newest work for NYCB premiered on May 4th; his most recent full-length story ballet, Whipped Cream, created for the American Ballet Theatre, will have its first East Coast performances later this month at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Jeffrey Cirio, former principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, will be dancing the lead at several performances. (Check the ABT web-site for dates and casting).

Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).

Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.

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