Review: A Day of Ratmansky at American Ballet Theater
By Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, May 24, 2016
On May 21, I attended both the matinee and evening performances of American Ballet Theater (ABT). Six ballets were presented, all choreographed by Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, one of the most talented choreographers of our time.
This season marks the World Premiere of Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, which is also the name of the ballet’s music by Leonard Bernstein. The program says that it is a “conversation” about the nature of love. To my mind, it’s a forum to show off the talented men (and one woman) of ABT. Ratmansky has the most wonderful ability to create fluid patterns using groups of dancers. His choreography, in general, and this piece specifically, seems so natural; rising up organically and flowing from the music, the abstract movement feels inevitable—as if it couldn’t be any other way. At the same time, he finds new and unexpected moves and combinations that delight. Taking advantage of the technical proficiency and artistry of ABT’s dancers, Ratmansky created some impossibly quick steps and complex combinations, but the able dancers execute them without a problem. Shining above them all, in the performance that I saw, is Herman Cornejo. He almost seems relaxed while he accomplishes amazing feats. His strong, assured technique is astonishing and exciting. I lost count of the beats he performed in quick succession, each one clearly defined. Wow. His muscular, masculine presence fills the stage and his star power fills the theater. I can only imagine what an ardent and swoon-producing Romeo he will be later this season.
Most of Ratmansky’s ballets are for groups, but sometimes unique individuals can’t help but stand out—which was the case in Piano Concerto #1, with the firebrand, Daniil Simkin, and his diminutive partner, Maria Kochetkova, dazzling in her bright-red leotard. Under the collective title, Shostakovitch Triology, the program also included Symphony #9 and Chamber Symphony, all named for and choreographed to music by Dimitri Shostakovitch. (These ballets appeared separately a few years ago.) As pure dance, the three ballets are examples of how Ratmansky cleverly designs and moves groups to music, but seeing them all together emphasized some similarities. Although the backdrops by George Tsypin gave me a hint about the Soviet nature of this trilogy, I wouldn’t have understood the significance of Shostakovich’s music or what Ratmansky was trying to convey without having read the program. I want to mention Keso Dekker who designed the beautiful costumes. I was especially impressed by the exquisite velvet skirts that looked iridescent at times. (I’m not sure how I felt about the outfits that were grey on the front and red on the back.)
My favorite ballet of the day was Seven Sonatas danced to the music of Domenico Scarlatti (which was played by pianist Barbara Bilach onstage). A pretty ballet, its romantic tone and lyrical quality reminded me of Jerome Robbins’ Other Dances. Light and airy as the ballerinas’ pure white chiffon dresses, the lovely, crisply danced movement drew me in, making me feel that I was vicariously dancing, too. Beginning with three couples, the groupings change, but then work back to the original order of the three couples. Beautiful.
The Russian fairy tale, The Firebird, was also on the program. The music by Igor Stravinsky, written in 1910, still sounds so modern and dramatic. It isn’t unusual for old productions to get an update, but frankly this one didn’t add much if compared to any existing version. Ratmansky doesn’t seem to have a dance vocabulary for storytelling, so this was less successful in my mind than his more abstract ballets. Also, I have a personal pet peeve: I don’t want to read a synopsis, I want to see the story unfold. Even though I know the story, what I saw lacked coherence and I wasn’t caught up in any drama. The introduction of The Firebird seems muddled. What was going on in that pas de deux? Also, by adding a flock of firebirds, this Firebird loses her exoticism and singularity. Other choreographers have found gestures that tell a story and indicate a character’s state of mind or motivation (without being literal or using mime), but that was missing here. However, there was some fairy tale quality on view, mostly from the odd set. When the trees of the petrified forest (I think that’s what it was) open up and the princesses escape from its glittering, golden interiors, it was a magical moment.