Morris and Ratmansky
As some readers of this space may already know, my two favorite choreographers in the entire world are Mark Morris and Alexei Ratmansky. So it was wonderful to see both of them on the same program, as part of American Ballet Theatre's brief but intense fall season at City Center.
I have followed Mark Morris's own modern dance company religiously since 1990, but the piece on this past weekend's program--Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes--was made for ABT in 1988, so I had never seen it before. It is a treat that bears frequent rewatching, because the delicacy of the mesh between music and dance gesture (Morris's specialty, this time built on the piano etudes of Virgil Thomson) emerges only gradually over repeated encounters, and also depends in part on the rhythmic skill of the particular cast. It is Morris's most Balanchinian ballet, I think, employing many abstract patterns and a lot of couple dancing, frequently placing ballerinas on a tilt, and exhibiting great respect for existing ballet traditions--almost too much respect, I sometimes felt, in comparison to Morris's more adventurous later works in the genre, like Sandpaper Ballet and Beaux (both made for San Francisco Ballet). But this is merely an observation, not a complaint, for the charm and loveliness of the dance give it a kind of permanent freshness. Drink To Me reminded me in this regard of Shostakovich's First Quartet--a tentative and endearing venture into a new form by an artist who would ultimately develop complete mastery of that form, displaying youthful ardor, careful restraint, and the early signs of the distinctive artistic personality that would soon emerge full-blown.
Shostakovich may have been on my mind because Ratmansky's new piece--a world premiere, part of a trilogy that he plans to complete by ABT's next season--was set to Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. Ratmansky and Shostakovich go way back, and their collaborations are always successful. I think Symphony #9 might be their best yet. It is a complete thrill from beginning to end, and so complicated that even after two viewings I could barely grasp its full dimensions. Like the music, the dance ranges from cocky glee to moody anxiety, with room in its vast expanse for the collective celebration of joint purpose, paired intensities of sexual attraction, and even solo contemplations of individual moods. Some gestures are outright comic, others quietly moving. The relationship of the corps dancing to the duets and solos is nothing short of brilliant: they are equally necessary and equally worth watching (which is hard for an audience member to do when they are all going at once). The complexity of Ratmansky's weave--darkening as the dance progresses, acquiring an element of the fearful and the grotesque even as it continues to simulate and at times achieve cheer and enthusiasm--is perfectly suited to Shostakovich's tone; it explained the symphony to me in a way I have never understood it before. For this alone I would be grateful, but to have Ratmansky's terrific choreography as well (always true dance, never mere pose or show-trick, as ballet so often is) gave me that marvelous feeling of liftoff that only the very best dance works can supply.