Top Marks: The School of American Ballet’s All-Balanchine Program Stuns

Alexander Ratmansky offers masterful Shostakovich at ABT

David Hallberg in Ratmansky’s 'Chamber Symphony.' (Photo by Marty Sohl)

David Hallberg in Ratmansky’s ‘Chamber Symphony.’ (Photo by Marty Sohl)

Why, when writing about a week that included the long-awaited Ratmansky/Shostakovich trilogy at ABT and a new ballet by Justin Peck at City Ballet, begin with the annual School of American Ballet workshop performance? Because in the long run, the health of the school and its relationship to its parent company are of greater importance than any individual ballet, however good (or disappointing). And because this year’s workshop was so heartening, so satisfying.

To begin with, the entire program was Balanchine, whose work, despite the relentless proliferation of inferior ballets within the repertory, remains the bedrock of New York City Ballet and its chief raison d’être: if the school fails here, there’s no hope for the future. (Sometimes the powers that be at S.A.B. forget that—there was a year without any Balanchine at all.) In the past, there have been workshops dominated by a young dancer everyone was already talking about—Darci Kistler, for instance; within a year, Balanchine had her dancing leading roles in the company. Then there have been workshops that lacked even a consistently high level of achievement, as if the ballet gods were sitting back, taking a well-earned break. What made this year so happy was the overall level of excellence, and one’s sense that every one of the kids up there was excited and raring to go—some of the seniors directly into the company, others dispersed around the country, but all of them secure in the knowledge that they were accomplished dancers, ready to dance, their technique solidly in place.

The first ballet was Balanchine’s great Divertimento No. 15, to Mozart, from 1956. Everything is exposed classicism, elegant, demanding—it has to look smooth and fluent and joyous, and it’s hard. It also has a central ballerina role that demands extraordinary allegro technique. The girl who performed it, Daniela Aldrich, carried it easily before her, stitching the floor so swiftly and precisely that she gave the impression of having more time than she needed. The girls who performed the four other Variations were also steady, polished and agreeable—not a clinker among them. (This, take it from me, is rare in performances of Divertimento.) The three boys not only handled their jobs proficiently but demonstrated an effortless style. And the eight girls in the corps—clearly the cream of this year’s crop—had the Balanchine spirit, the Mozart spirit. What more could you ask?

The credit for all this goes, of course, to the school itself, but more particularly to Suki Schorer, its senior teacher (she’s been a member of the faculty since 1972), whose 47 stagings for the workshop include four earlier Divertimentos. She brings a refinement to the dancers, an esprit, that was a hallmark of her own dancing back in the day. It’s easy to compare her stagings favorably with a lot of what we see at the company, so we have to bear in mind that the workshops have far more time to rehearse than the company does. Even so, it’s hard not to speculate on what City Ballet’s Balanchine would have been if Schorer had been a leading ballet mistress there through the last decades.

Tombeau de Couperin, which Balanchine created for the 1975 Ravel Festival, is like no other of his works: 16 corps dancers, no principals. It, too, is a joyous work, a young work, and like Jerome Robbins’s Interplay, it only really looks right when danced by kids, or the next best thing. Were all 16 of the workshop kids finished dancers? Hardly—some of the boys looked so young you were startled to see them partnering girls. But all of them had the bounce, the ease, that Tombeau demands. This was a moving performance of a work that can sometimes seem dry.

Finally, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, a wild romp that Balanchine created for a 1975 Paris Opéra production of Gounod’s Faust. Twenty-four (tall) girls fling themselves across the stage, purple tulle skirts billowing, hair streaming. Is it elevated? Is it elegant? Is it essential? No, no and no. But it can be fun, and Susan Pilarre, another senior teacher and stager, brought out the best of it—or the worst, depending on how you look at it. Her girls held nothing back—a restrained Walpugisnacht would be a contradiction in terms. The ballerina role was for Farrell, and Isabelle LaFreniere is no Farrell. But then no else is either. She danced strongly and confidently; she pulled it off. The crucial thing is that in this ballet, as in the other two, the students were dancing the right way, with the right spirit. The School of American Ballet is doing its job.

Alexander Ratmansky has seven times choreographed to the music of Shostakovich. New York’s first real view of him came in 2005 with the Bolshoi production of the composer’s The Bright Stream, a ballet Stalin had shut down after the premiere of its original version in 1935. It was a revelation—who expected that a Soviet story about a collective farm, some touring ballet dancers and a cast of assorted workers (plus a bicycle and a dog) could be so charming and so deft? Since then, Ratmansky has worked tirelessly around the world, restaging classics and creating new work for just about any company that has invited him, but especially for City Ballet and ABT, whose artist in residence he became several years ago. He has used the music of other Russians—Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky (his Nutcracker for ABT)—but he returns almost obsessively to Shostakovich, with whom he obviously has a close personal affinity. Now he has presented a bill of three strongly emotional works to the music of this composer—a daring idea, and one that clearly has special meaning for him: this is no programming gimmick.

The first piece, Symphony No. 9, was shown last October at the City Center. Now, with the same cast but on the larger Met stage and with costumes changed significantly for the better, it has a grander, less intimate effect. Although it shares a near-oppressive darkness with the other two, it contains a beautiful lyric duet for Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes, some breathtaking moves for Craig Salstein and Simone Messmer, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics for Herman Cornejo. (Well, if you have a Cornejo, you flaunt him.) This is the most conventionally constructed ballet of the three, propelling you forward, its excitements somehow at home with its forebodings.

Chamber Symphony, set to an orchestral arrangement of String Quartet No. 8, is the most anguished of the three ballets, its protagonist—David Hallberg, bare-chested under a black velvet suit—representing the suffering artist, the suffering Shostakovich, but one hopes not the suffering Ratmansky (who, as it happens, gives every sign of being remarkably composed, sensible, practical—not unlike Balanchine). Hallberg weaves through a corps of 12 aggressive dancers while engaging in fraught encounters with three muses (the composer had three wives). Ratmansky always gets the best out of his dancers, and Isabella Boylston, Paloma Herrera and Julie Kent make the most of roles that are not strikingly individual. There’s an impressive, ominous backdrop (by George Tsypin) of severe large-scale drawings of gray masks, and the lighting, by Jennifer Tipton, deepens the general atmosphere of threat. Suffering artists are not my thing, and there’s a touch of oy-veyness about this piece that at times comes close to the edge, but Ratmansky is so sure-handed (sure-footed?), so fluent, so inventive and so sincere that it convinces.

The final piece—Piano Concerto No. 1—is the most edgy and quirky, at times light-hearted, yet always with the tragic Russian sense of danger looming. Think of those two superb Russian ballerinas Diana Vishneva and Natalia Osipova—both in brightest red unitards—huddling together, as if against a storm. The backdrop, again by Tsypin, scatters Soviet detritus across the sky: red planes, red stars, red hammers. Ratmansky has left Russia behind—quitting his job as head of the Bolshoi, moving to New York—but it’s always with him. It will be fascinating to see how American he becomes. Certainly he admires our dancers, and not just the Russians among them: the entire company responds to his gifts. He makes ABT look like the company it should always look like.

The big question is whether these three ballets should necessarily be performed together. Do they detract from each other? To my mind, although they have a very strong impact shoulder to shoulder, they ultimately would benefit from being seen separately. There’s just too much going on—by the third ballet you’re exhausted, and your attention wanders. So how would they fare embedded in mixed bills? Certainly, last season, Symphony No. 9 stood potently on its own.

(Next week: Justin Peck and New York City Ballet.)

editorial@observer.com