City Ballet is doing everything it can to cope with its annual problem: how to stimulate box office in its traditionally weaker spring season. They’ve reduced the number of performance weeks from nine to eight. They’ve programmed seven-that’s right, seven-premieres of new works. They’ve planned four-that’s right, four-galas to celebrate the retirement of four principal dancers (of whom only one, Darci Kistler, will be seriously missed, and she’s waited too long to bow out). And they’ve come up with a concept called “Architecture of Dance,” which involves new stage designs for five of the new ballets by the famous architect Santiago Calatrava (he’s now at work on the new transit hub at the World Trade Center site). Finally, there are four newly commissioned scores.
At this point, we’ve seen three of the new ballets, and the results are mixed, though significantly better than they might have been considering the dismal results of the Diamond Project clusters of new work in previous years. The best news is that Alexei Ratmansky has once again come up with an original, enchanting and eccentric ballet-even the title is eccentric: Namouna, A Grand Divertissement.
The best news is that Alexei Ratmansky has once again come up with an original, enchanting and eccentric ballet.
Who is Namouna? She’s a slave girl in a long-extinct story ballet created by Marius Petipa’s older brother, Lucien, with a score by the leading French composer Edouard Lalo which was well worth exhuming because it’s so danceable-think Delibes without genius. And “Divertissement?” Because Ratmansky has shed the plot in favor of a plotless series of episodes-with suggestions of the story, or situation, or cast of characters, faintly showing through.
Our hero is a young sailor (we’re back in the 19th century); our heroine is Namouna herself-one of three young women he must choose among. And there’s a corps of 16 more young women, black-coiffed or bathing-capped, in long yellow dresses (later, they reappear in blue bathing costumes with white-foamed caps); a male corps of eight young men in some kind of sci-fi or underwater drag; and a trio of three frisky golden bees (Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild, Abi Stafford). We’re at the seaside.
The hero-a deeply appealing Robert Fairchild-is offered the creamy, sexy Sara Mearns; the provocative Jenifer Ringer (and her hilarious cigarette dance, an apparent reference back to the Petipa original); and the remote, elusive Wendy Whelan. It’s Apollo all over again, and of course Whelan wins out, she being the senior ballerina. All ends with a highly romantic pas de deux-lifts and more lifts-and a long kiss.
It’s nutty-like a third-string Le Corsaire (hardly first-string itself)-which is why Ratmansky de-literalized it. And it’s very long-almost an hour, which many found off-putting. But it’s a glory, due to the endless flow of invention that Ratmansky has poured into it. He puts steps together in entrancingly witty new ways; you can’t take your eyes off the stage for fear of missing some small but telling revelation. Not that the big picture is ignored: Ratmansky is as inventive with groups as with pas de trois, pas de deux and solos. Not every piece of his succeeds, but all in all, he’s the most interesting and pleasing choreographer of our day.
WAYNE MCGREGOR, THE resident choreographer at England’s Royal Ballet, is a very different animal. To begin with, while Ratmansky is deeply interested in ballet history and performance style, McGregor’s interests don’t seem to go back much further than William Forsythe. The endlessly propulsive movement, attempting to extend Balanchinean vocabulary not by evolving from it but by exaggerating and distorting it, is the goal in itself, rather than the relationships between dance and music or dancer and dancer. And yet McGregor has real virtues, the most important of which in his new Outlier is his success in understanding his 11 City Ballet dancers and making them look as good or even better than ever. (This is his first work for the company.)