A few years ago, the Bolshoi turned up in town with a program of four ballets, including the Stalin-approved (and ghastly) Spartacus, and something called The Bright Stream, which Stalin had banned in 1935, even punishing some of those responsible for it. Its entrancing Shostakovich score was buried in the Bolshoi archives until, in 2003, its then-artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, disinterred it and choreographed the comic masterpiece we now have, and which A.B.T. has taken into its repertory. Let’s stop and congratulate all concerned!
Nothing is harder to create than brilliant comic ballets, except maybe brilliant full-evening comic ballets. After Ashton—most obviously La Fille Mal Gardée—what is there? Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course; I’m hard put to think of another from this century. And certainly no other one that’s set on a Soviet collective farm. Well, we all know that life down on the farm was no fun in Russia during the 1930s, but life was no fun here in the U.S.A. during the ’30s, either, yet consider the great Hollywood romantic comedies of those years.
Here’s what happens: Two professional dancers are coming by train to entertain the workers during a harvest festival, and—wouldn’t you know it?—the ballerina turns out to be the old pal and one-time fellow-student of Zina, who’s now the collective’s amusements organizer. Zina’s married to the hunky Pyotr, who loves her, but one look at the ballerina and it’s Oh, you kid! Standard wifely jealousy is followed by the big dope’s standard comeuppance, with the ballerina and Zina plotting a midautumn night’s dream of confusion, cross-dressing, parodies of Les Sylphides and an unlikely sprawling cast including an ardent accordionist, a pert schoolgirl, a milkmaid, two old and very foolish dacha dwellers, a tractor driver, assorted fieldworkers and a big black dog on a bicycle. Needless to say, Pyotr learns his lesson.
It’s the same lesson naughty-boy Franz learns in Coppélia, it’s the lesson the young painter learns in Ashton’s ravishing The Two Pigeons, it’s the lesson the Count learns in Figaro—and in the way of those earlier masterpieces, once the guy shamefacedly comes to his senses, he’s forgiven in an instant and loving harmony is restored. Not only is there never a dull moment, but there’s never a clichéd step. Ratmansky is a master of both narrative and ensemble work. It’s all brisk, charming, lovable—just what the doctor ordered for the malaise of a collective farm or a jaded A.B.T. audience.
The wonderful first cast included Gillian Murphy as the ballerina, Paloma Herera as Zina, Marcelo Gomes as the errant Pyotr and the paragon David Hallberg as the visiting ballerino. Until you’ve seen Hallberg in full Sylphides drag, his bony knees poking through the tulle, you don’t know from drag. Standouts in this cast were Craig Salstein as the accordionist (it’s a role out of Massine, and he’s a Massine-type dancer. Time for A.B.T. to revive one of that neglected master’s comedies?); Misty Copeland as the milkmaid; and as the tractor driver, the flourishing Jared Matthews. (At one point, a bunch of men turn into a tractor, with Matthews atop them at the controls.)
The second cast was headed by Natalia Osipova, probably the most exciting ballerina in the world today (Alina Cojocaru is the loveliest). Osipova has a now-famous jump—thrilling in its drive, elevation and lightness. When she cannons across the stage, the audience gasps (I did too). And she’s got everything else as well, including a vivid star personality. (In the doll act of Coppélia, her wit, musicality, talent for comedy, attention to detail and subtle phrasing added up to as satisfying a Swanilda as I’ve ever seen, and that includes McBride, Kirkland and Makarova.) In The Bright Stream, her vis-à-vis ballerina (if you can call her that) was Xiomara Reyes. Murphy and Herera in the first cast, such totally different dancers, have equivalent stage presence: they’re well-matched. The second pairing made it all too painfully clear why Osipova plays the star ballerina from the big city while Reyes is an amusements director on an obscure collective farm. Come on, A.B.T., when are you going to acknowledge that at least four of your principal ladies just won’t do? Luckily, the two newest soloists, Simone Messmer and Isabella Boylston, together with Hee Seo, are very fine, in very different ways. Don’t keep them waiting in secondary roles too long.
All in all, this has been a good season for A.B.T., if you forget about Lady of the Camellias, Cinderella and the upcoming Swan Lake. Most important, with The Bright Stream A.B.T. has taken another step toward looking like a company rather than just a bunch of dancers. Ratmansky, who’s recently signed a new 10-year contract as Artist in Residence, is the best thing that’s happened to A.B.T. in decades. Please: Give him his head, give him everything he wants and needs and stand back. He’s not only the best ballet choreographer in the world, he’s a company man in every possible good way.
The Royal Danes, on their first visit to New York since 1988, managed to put their worst feet forward with their lugubrious first program. They brought their “modernized” new versions of two great Bournonville ballets—Napoli and A Folk Tale—to the Kennedy Center, but apparently the Koch stage isn’t large enough to accommodate them. Instead, they gave us an evening of such tedium and misjudgment that it’s hard to believe it was the brainchild of their new artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe, who was a much-loved star at City Ballet for 15 years—and presumably knows New York.
Flemming Flindt’s tawdry The Lesson was already junk when it was created in 1964. Mad ballet teacher strangles pretty girl student, and then—guess!—after he and his stern lady assistant tidy things up, the doorbell rings again and another young girl starts down the stairs. (At that rate, Denmark would have lost its entire crop of ballet girls in a matter of weeks.) The Lesson is based on an Ionesco play, but it looks more like a fourth-rate Hitchcock imitation . It’s creepy without being interesting, and it’s staggeringly passé, so why inflict it on New York?
Worse, because less well constructed and more boring, was Bournonville Variations (“Idea, arrangement, and staging” by Hübbe himself, with one of his leading dancers, Thomas Lund), no doubt meant to reassure us of the company’s dedication to the great Danish master. Twelve dancers, all guys, do a lot of Bournonville steps, as if in a totally disorganized classroom. Every once in a while the lighting changes dramatically, for no discernible reason. The pumped up Bournonville music is as vulgar as the lighting. To those of us who love Stanley Williams’s Bournonville Divertissements, for City Ballet, this was an insult.
Then—things kept getting worse—a piece by Jorma Elo, the dread Finn, called Lost on Slow (don’t ask me why), to bits of Vivaldi. Elo is no longer quite the flavor of the week the way he was a few years ago, but he still reigns in Boston, and his work is as ugly and pointless as ever. Is this the kind of contemporary dance Hübbe really believes can give the Danes a fresh direction that the world will welcome?
Well, he’s stuck. What the world wants from his company is Bournonville, wonderfully danced. What the Danes apparently want is Modern. The last item on the program was the famous Act III of Napoli (from their old production)—an enchanting nonstop burst of invention, charm and tenderness, all the things we honor in Bournonville, along with the elegance of his style. The dancers did what they could, but everything seemed conscientious rather than felt, as if they think Bournonville is no longer relevant. Like Mozart, or Molière? I remember, decades ago, coming out of a performance of the full-evening Napoli almost weeping with joy. This time I was yawning with apathy.
But then came redemption. Everything absent from Napoli was present in Bournonville’s most famous work, La Sylphide, one of the half-dozen 19th-century ballets that are staples not only in Denmark but around the world. For years now the performances we’ve been seeing have been studious, dutiful and uninspiring. The company—at last dancing as a company—made it a thing of glory. The principals, particularly the lovely, sprightly Susanne Grinder as the doomed Sylph, revealed polished Bournonville technique while showing themselves to be deep into the spirit of the work, each of them grasping the crucial importance of his or her characterization. This was superb ensemble performing, yet it retained the individuality with which Bournonville invested each of his very human characters in a specific, recognizable and believable world, one that happens to include, in this case, sylphs and witches. Here was the Bournonville charm and here was the underlying Bournonville seriousness. Of the dozens of performances of La Sylphide that I’ve seen over more than half a century, this one gave the sharpest sense of the story and moved me the most. Hübbe’s Danes reminded us that, incontrovertibly, La Sylphide is not just a classic but a great work of art.