New York City Ballet Balanchine + Ratmansky I Review: Sweet Combinations
New York City Ballet Balanchine + Ratmansky I Review May 3, 2023 | David H. Koch Theater – New York, NY, USA
A reliquary artform, classical ballet is still supported today by the historic scaffolding of ballets like Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Swan Lake. Imbedded in its history, the full-length story ballets serve as derivations for a lot of the works we see today. So, to make an almost story, or even a non-story, out of a classic, and then serve it shaken up with a twist, is an enticing challenge.
Originally premiering as Lucien Petipa’s version in 1882, Namouna was a two act, three scene ballet from sections of Casanova’s Mémoires de Jacques Casanova, the two-act opera by Bizet. Program notes say that Édouard Lalo’s only ballet score was received with harsh criticism at the Paris Opera premiere.
Similar to other ballets that have been resurrected from poor premieres, like Swan Lake and Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, Lalo’s score received a resurgence, and very belated but deserved recognition, with a re-recording from David Robertson and now, with Alexei Ratmansky’s reimagination of the eccentric story.
Balanchine + Ratmansky I Review
New York City Ballet has been performing Ratmansky’s idiosyncratic version, titled Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, since 2010. Within 58 minutes, the ballet serves up all the bromide characteristics of classical ballets: large miming gestures, a couple in love, whimsical beings, an abundance of props. In a full-length ballet, these can bring weight to the work, not in a negative way, but in an extravagant, maximalist way.
Ratmansky’s features moody lighting by Mark Stanley, a plain backdrop, quirky costumes from Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov, and what had to be at least fifteen miniature symbols and fake cigarette props. It’s just enough eccentricity to be grand but sparse enough to be abstract.
As I watched the Wednesday night cast, I found myself eagerly searching for the story, which is perhaps part of the fun but also not something to be hung up on. The sections are more like episodes loosely strung together. A bunch of characters plopped together in the same weird world yet without clear backstories apart from their costumes.
And Happel and Khamdamov’s costumes are wonderful. Particularly for the point-shoe-wearing members who get draped in sunshine yellow, accordion dresses and wire stretched blue tutus complete with white wigs that look like swimming caps from afar. The result is pleasantly confusing.
Who are these beings? Are they human or are they oceanic sirens? In the end, it doesn’t matter because the dancing is marvelous.
Ratmansky’s Namouna is a lesson in canons and layers. A canon is a step or sequence of steps repeated by dancers in successive fashion, displaying a ripple effect as they move, often a count or two in the music behind each other. A simple technique that’s been done over and over again by many choreographers, however Ratmansky also instills layers by exploring the vertical as well as the horizontal space of the stage.
The dancers would often plop to the floor or sculpturally slink into a low art-deco pose. He makes a particularly stunning daisy chain canon involving dancers moving downstage and then crossing back upstage, braiding through the line. If it was on TikTok, it would belong with the hashtag #oddlysatisfying.
Leading the cast of thirty-one dancers, were Ashley Laracey, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Sara Mearns as the ocean sirens, Roman Mejia as the lover, and Olivia MacKinnon, Daniel Ulbricht, and Emma Von Enck as the guarding sprites – none of these character names are noted anywhere, yet these are what I’ve decided to call them.
Pazcoguin, a seasoned soloist set to retire from the company on May 7th, was as fiery and electric as ever. Her dancing has always been bold, but she took on a whole new level of confidence and freedom on Wednesday night. Her character leads the group of smoking sirens in a seductive, silly dance.
Throughout her solo, it was like she couldn’t get enough, going for drag after drag as she exploded across the stage. Even her bow was carefree, taking one last puff and then curtsying with her hands up as if to say, “so what?”
Mearns was expansive in her circus-like solo, switching directions on a dime meanwhile her arms and feet seemed to reach all the way to the wings with every new kick and stretch.
Laracey had both the elegance of a wise woman and the excited naivety of a teenager in love. Playing a lover opposite Mejia, the pair were sweet as pie but attacked their culminating pas de deux and daring lifts with precision.
MacKinnon, Von Enck, and Ulbricht were the troublemaking clowns of the piece. Between a tossing braid sequence (Ulbricht would pass the girls in short semi-circle movements over and over, resembling the process of making challah bread), the two girls chasing each other for a heated game of tag, and Ulbricht’s always impressive turns, the three were comical and technical.
It’s almost hard to imagine how Lalo’s score received criticism in its early days. At the start, the orchestra whispers out the lightest sound of horns, like the breaking of dawn until swelling for the anticipated curtain rise.
What follows is an intricate, bounding, and at times diaphanous score that perfectly cradles Ratmansky’s Namouna. What’s more, the dancers look like they are having fun with every braided canon, playful gesture, and sculptural shape Ratmansky gifts them.
Opening the Wednesday night show was the crisp and bright La Source (also a paired down version of a classical ballet, this time three acts reduced to twenty-eight minutes) choreographed by George Balanchine.
Pieced together over the years by the choreographer, for various reasons, the number is a bit out of order when comparing to a typical short ballet. It starts with a pas de deux and two variations for the main couple, danced confidently and nimbly by Erica Pereira and Anthony Huxley, and then moves into a group section for eight corps and a soloist before what feels like a mini finale in the middle, and then more solos for the lead couple before an actual finale.
Yet the order does nothing to detract from the delightfulness of the piece.
Full of delectable musical plinks from Léo Delibes’ scores (a combination of La Source and Sylvia) and footwork to match, the piece is pleasing in its symmetries and exploration of space.
Balanchine famously said,“there are no new steps, only new combinations”
and his theory is put on display in La Source: a promenade becomes a mixture of counter and clockwise motion or partnered piques across the stage includes a do-si-do. A particularly delicious section included the corps de ballet and soloist women bourréeing downstage with their backs to the audience, their arms swirling tenderly.
Huxley and Pereira make a wonderful pair, he with his beatific, handsome grin and cutting musicality and she with her dependable confidence and sparkling exactitude.
Pereira is someone I am always pleased to see. She has such a comfortable command of the stage, putting the audience at ease as she leads us through whatever ballet she happens to be dancing.
Selecting the right ballets for a double bill is a challenge.
First of all, the timing has to be right. In this instance, Namouna was nearly an hour and La Source clocked in at around thirty minutes – a nice length for a mid-week show although I had been to a lengthy show with four pieces and two intermissions the week prior.
Additionally, the two concepts need to balance each other, if they are too similar or too disparate, their side-by-side programming will be disconnected. Both Namouna and La Source are shortened versions of longer works and both accompanied by French composers. Choreographically however, they are very different but if you look closely, you’ll see canons and even the counter/clockwise promenade, although approached differently, in each ballet.
What solidified the connection though was the lightness in mood (sometimes we just want to smile when we go to the ballet) and ease of the dancers, for they all looked at home in both ballets.
Featured Photo for this Balanchine + Ratmansky I review of New York City Ballet‘s Roman Mejia and Ashley Laracey in Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Nadia Vostrikov is a former television actress and dancer for Boston Ballet II, Alberta Ballet, and numerous freelance dance companies. She currently works as a Digital Marketer in NYC. (Photo by: Katrina Cunningham)