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May 6, 2010

The Great Ratmansky

Every twenty years or so, I discover a choreographer who makes me feel that an entire dance form has been reinvigorated.  (Discover for myself, I mean:  all my "discoveries" are already known and treasured by many other people.)  In 1990, I found Mark Morris, who gave me new hope for the realm of modern dance.  And now Alexei Ratmansky has done the same thing for ballet.

I've only seen three Ratmansky ballets to date, and since two of them were set to music by Shostakovich (of whom I am a huge fan), it didn't seem a fair trial up to now.  But last night I saw his Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, the new ballet he has just created for the New York City Ballet, which uses as its score a nearly unknown nineteenth-century piece by the nearly unknown Edouard Lalo.  Ratmansky promises, in his program note, that the music will be "a gift for the audience," and he's right -- in part because of the excellent performance by the NYCB orchestra under Faycal Karoui.  But the music is only as compelling as it is because he makes so much of it with his brilliant, witty, imaginative dance.

If you are a ballet skeptic, as I am, you are likely to wonder at times how this antiquated, ritualistic, extremely artificial and often ridiculous art form has survived as long as it has.  Such thoughts, I'll admit, came flooding into my mind during the first half of last night's program, when the dancers performed Balanchine's delicate, lovely, but ultimately rather pointless Divertimento No. 15, set to the Mozart piece of the same name.  I know it's ballet sacrilege to criticize Balanchine, and I'm sure it was all very different when he was alive, but his evident passion for classical ballet is so overpowering that he sometimes seems to have difficulty speaking to those of us who prefer other, more lively, more human kinds of dance.

Ratmansky almost seems to be answering exactly those ballet-questioner's doubts in his Namouna, which reworks an old story-ballet to make it both less melodramatic and more modern, while at the same time preserving strong elements of character.  (Character is, I think, Ratmansky's strongest suit as a choreographer--and when you see how he uses it, you understand how integral it really is to good dance.)  The huge cast of this production includes some wonderful comic actors who are also great dancers, such as Daniel Ulbricht in a jester role and two matching girls, Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford, who help him in his jests.  But even the prince-and-princess roles (played last night by Robert Fairchild and Wendy Whelan) are done with wit, too, whether the characters are languidly smoking cigarettes, pointlessly pining for each other, or trying to make a good impression on the opposite sex by showing off their virtuosic leaps. 

What Ratmansky's choreography achieves is the very unusual combination of irony with tenderness.  He sees what can be silly about ballet, but he also knows how to make it come alive to the music, so that these artificial gestures seem, if not natural, at any rate meaningful.  And though he knows how to produce excellent comedy (I'm thinking in particular of a group scene involving Louise-Brooks-style dancers playing cymbals), he also understands how to get at the quieter, sadder emotions, as he does in the extremely moving sequence when the "hero" falls to the ground before a circle of shadowy women and they gently rock him in their arms.  Namouna has been described by other critics as a frothy thing, a light satire, but it is much more than that: it is a serious reinvestigation of an old form, a questioning of ballet that is also a tribute to ballet. 

Alexei Ratmansky is only in his early forties, which means he still has many brilliant works ahead of him--and he has recently moved from Russia to New York, where his work now appears regularly at both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  I understand now how Balanchine's fans of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s must have felt, turning out for each new piece as he made it for NYCB  and feeling grateful to be alive at the same time as a great choreographer.  I can't wait to see what Ratmansky does next.
May 6, 2010 8:18 AM | | Comments (1)


Glad to see this account. I just emailed a link to a friend who loves dance (including Mark Morris) but who, like Ms. Lesser, is something of a ballet doubter. As I said to her about Namouna, it's good theater, good music, and good dancing--for once it hardly seems to matter whether it's ballet or not. But I have other friends who are serious fans of ballet, and they too loved the work. It's good for Ratmansky, and good for NYCB and ABT, that he's able to speak to multiple audiences.

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