American Ballet Theatre has a lot to offer these days, and its one big, thrilling, ace in the hole is Alexei Ratmansky, its artist in residence. The choreographer—Russian-born and schooled, his skills expanded and fine-tuned in Denmark and Canada—treats the classical art form in an expansive way. He has a complete grounding in technique, of course, an appreciation of the theatrical toolbox, and the kind of curiosity an artist needs to break new ground. He does not reduce the classical palate in the name of self-serving innovation—he uses it all, thereby expanding it. Ratmansky does narrative, does abstraction, and philosophically and musically thematic works. He might be too classical for some. For me, he makes ballet vital and absolutely proves that it is a living art form, even for the 21st century.
The other thing he has done, and one of the reasons he has been such a boon for ABT, is he breathes life into a company that has always had dancer-talent to spare, but hasn’t effectively used them all. Because ABT is his home, Ratmansky knows these dancers and what they’re capable of. He casts them against type, so we see them anew, too. Perhaps he even changes their own sense of self. In any event, the dancers onstage are always engaged, in the moment, and the ballets crackle with immediacy and the surprise of everyone pushing into the risky territory of truly live—rather than the safety net of the rote—performance.
This was the case Friday evening when the company danced an all-Ratmansky program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ( the closing show of the ’15-’16 season for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center). In “Symphony #9,” to Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s Stella Abrera who shows us something else, something other than her adagio side, with saucy allegro phrases, little beats and jumps on point (there’s an ingenious pairing with Herman Cornejo, who is executing a remarkable string of etrechat six). Abrera and Craig Salstein are the lead couple of the first movement, a jaunty section of clever spatial devices, the dancers split by gender into interacting but separates “troupes.” “Symphony #9” (music from 1945) is one third of a Shostakovich trilogy, in which Ratmansky explores his own relationship, and the composer’s, to their shared homeland.
The slow second movement is led by Russian ballerina Veronika Part and soloist Alexandre Hammoudi. Here, there is sadness and love, each dancer representing and giving physicality to the “voices” of the opening clarinet and other woodwind instruments. Humans always need one another in Ratmansky’s ballets. At the section’s end, the couple lies down in jerky spurts, achieving a prone position that suggests perhaps they’ve died, making me think of the circumstances of the symphony, completed after the end of World War II’s devastation.
Those connections are suggested in the final section (three musical movements played without pause) as the ballet now has a beige backdrop by George Tsypin with archaic drawings, including uniformed men with banners and dirigibles. The dancing is once again bright, upward, and Cornejo takes the lead here, Ratmansky using his lead’s unique buoyancy. Conductor David LaMarche led the musicians in their own stellar performance. Keso Dekker’s darkly hued halter dresses for the women and sleeveless tops and slacks for the guys were simple yet elegant. (Photo above by Rosalie O’Connor, with a different cast.)
“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” is named after Leonard Bernstein’s five-part concerto (1954) used here as a score. This is a balletic discussion about among seven men (photo by Rosalie O’Connor) that will find additional resonance, I suppose, if you are well-versed in the source material—Plato’s “Symposium”—but which isn’t necessary to know for appreciation. Dancers Jeffrey Cirio, Marcelo Gomes, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, Daniil Simkin, and James Whiteside “banter” through gestures and steps, solos and groupings that telescope a broad range of feelings, from intimacy and companionship to painful solitude. Devon Teuscher materializes through a dramatically revealed opening in the backdrop and represents Diotima, a priestess who taught Socrates about the philosophy of love. Teuscher and Gomes embark on a duet of intense longing, and then she leaves. But the ballet ends with the men in a group, pointing urgently at Tuescher, who returns to the stage. She is Platonic ideal, or that which one aspires to.
Slower and more cerebral than “Symphony #9,” “Serenade” makes stunning soloists out of dancers more often relegated to the uniformity of group numbers. Tall and gracious, Royal (pictured above, photo by Rosalie O’Connor) has a luxurious smoothness and pliant body. Jeffrey Cirio showed off fleet timing and soaring leaps. Shayer entertains with an infectious wit (and smile) and bubbly personality. There aren’t enough solo parts for all of ABT’s high-caliber dancers Ratmansky puts them on the playing field, even if he can’t single-handedly level it. Brad Fields has created an understated but brilliant lighting design, helped by Jerome Kaplan’s white square scrim, positioned overhead. Kaplan’s costumes are problematic, though, with loose fabric scraps that interfere with the dancers’ steps, dangerously so.
The evening closed with Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” a magical, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately triumphant version of the Stravinsky ballet from 1910. Because I’m running long here, I’ll link here to my Los Angeles Times review of its premiere in Orange County in 2012. We saw a different cast on Friday. Among the leads, Cassandra Trenary was new to me, a standout soloist with big acting chops. She played up all the hilarious notes Ratmansky has given to the ragtag enchanted Maidens. Roman Zhurbin reprised the part of Kaschei and he continues to amaze with his reptilian version of evil. Isabella Boylston (above, O’Connor photo) was the night’s Firebird, and she brought strength and mystery to a part that feels stunted, never gathering enough steam; there are too many stops and starts, and ungainly positions. Perhaps someone will master it, but Ratmansky will tinker further.
In the meantime, bask in the unearthly imagery created by Wendall Harrington’s projections, Simon Pastukh’s unearthly trees and other scenery, and Galina Solovyeva’s fairy-tale costumes (glad the women’s wigs are back). It is an eye-popping sight.
The program repeats tonight (July 9) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (July 10) at 2 p.m. Click here for more information.