Asleep (isn’t always) Beauteous

By Leigh Witchel

Alexei Ratmansky’s new work for New York City Ballet’s spring gala, “Odessa,” is at once tongue-in-cheek and tone deaf, and you could spend an uncomfortable amount of time trying to decide which. For his fifth ballet for the company, Ratmansky turned to the composer of his first, breakout work, Leonid Desyatnikov. The score, “Sketches to Sunset” is from a 1990 Russian film based on tales of Jewish gangsters after the Russian Revolution.

The ballet might as well be about the Odessa restaurant in Brighton Beach. You can hear the klezmer in the music, but the work really hinges on the dramatic, emotional tugs of war that three couples experience.

Ratmansky’s familiar emotional shorthand showed up quickly. Sterling Hyltin wouldn’t take Joaquin De Luz’s hand, but then she did – and yet she didn’t seem to make a fuss taking his hand later when she went into arabesque. For Ratmansky, sometimes dance and drama are compartmentalized.

The corps men brought Hyltin to De Luz; she danced with him while six couples in dark clothing provided a ghostly echo behind. The corps couples danced a big, schmaltzy waltz. It was clear in the score and Ratmansky’s movements that all the feelings in “Odessa” were ironic and exaggerated. When Gonzalo Garcia came shuffling out, the score aped bad popular songs and the corps men slid and jogged on pizzicato notes. After a solo for Sara Mearns, they cakewalked and if you didn’t get that it was a joke, you would have by then.

During their duet, Taylor Stanley grabbed and yanked Tiler Peck in an Apache dance, and she flopped around like a rag doll. De Luz ran out and despondently fell to the ground. Hyltin reentered, and he tried to kiss her hand. They danced, finally she rested her head on his shoulder, but exited off almost collapsed on him and unable to support herself.

Mearns danced a faux tango with Amar Ramasar and out rocketed De Luz. Hyltin crossed, he grabbed her, the other men supported and drifted her aloft as De Luz worshipped her, barely able to touch. Now buffeted and tossed by the men, he was pushed away, and as the rest of the men left, Hyltin slapped him across the face, decking him.

Mearns and Ramasar lay on the floor as the others posed at the final moments. When they got up, Ramasar cradled her check as she drifted to distant church bells and a klezmer theme. The corps formed a fence in front as the lead women were lifted high at the final pose.

“Odessa” is ironic, but the jokes didn’t land and the timing was worse. Ratmansky most likely choreographed this prior to his current fracas, but still, for the past few weeks he’s had to field blowback from off-the-cuff comments about women in choreography. Now he’s debuting a ballet where the humor is based on abusive relationships. Ha . . . ha?

For more than a decade, Ratmansky has been a success by wearing his heart on his sleeve, while keeping his head in the sand about history and real life outside of the Russia of his imagination. One of his earliest works, “The Bright Stream,” is a sweet, delightful masterpiece – one that dances on top of the massive, intentional starvation on collective farms in Russia that was the reality.

That wasn’t isolated. It’s a pattern. Ratmansky’s made little gaffes in many of his ballets: blonde wigs on every woman, no matter their race, in both “The Firebird” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” an embarrassing ending in his new “The Fairy’s Kiss” where all the women in his life pay homage at the end to the male artist-hero.

Everyone who has ever met Ratmansky, including me, likes him. At American Ballet Theatre, he’s also said to drive diversity in casting, not hamper it. But the humanity he has on a micro level is being tarnished by his innocence-ignorance of the world in macro. If the conversation right now is about being woke, Alexei Ratmansky is wandering around half-asleep.

Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin De Luz in “Odessa.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

The rest of the gala was short and sweet – three ballets before the premiere and out the door or off to dinner without even an intermission. Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour got their chance to perform the pas from “After the Rain” at Lincoln Center. Kowroski and la Cour were fluid, but the cloying sweetness of the music and the choreography were noticeable. Now that Wendy Whelan isn’t doing it, you can see how much Whelan’s astringent focus kept the piece from becoming sentimental.

“Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” is meant to be a showoff piece – but that’s relative. It’s easy for Ashley Bouder to go off the deep end, but she kept an aggressive performance in bounds. She was wildly on her leg, so rock solid that she turned moments – a pirouette ending in fourth position on pointe, a passé shortly after held in retiré – not usually places to show off – into points where she nailed a balance – but didn’t hammer it. It was restrained – for her.

To open, Martins’ “Jeu de Cartes” featured a new group of male leads, two of the company’s latest soloists and a rising corps member – and a very different interpretation.

From the audience, Harrison Ball looked similar to Nikolaj Hübbe in the same role, but he also has a similar high-octane romantic quality in his presence: forceful and emphatic even in a swoon. Ball and Aaron Sanz completely reinterpreted a motif that Peter Martins used often, particularly for his son Nilas, a jazzy shimmy en face using the arms that was a fake-out move.

New York City Ballet in “Jeu de Cartes.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

Ball pushed that hard, as if challenging you to figure out where he was headed. Sanz took the arms farther and more made them snakelike. He exaggerated the thrust of the pelvis and escalated his timing and grin into a comic joke, part mugging, part subversion.

In this card game the opening soloist, Joseph Gordon, was poker-faced. He could do the turns and jumps but tended to go blank and his phrases sometimes looked as if they petered out rather than completed. Springy and insouciant, Megan Fairchild got to play the calm voice of experience.  In the back the large corps did Stravinsky ballet outtakes.

“Jeu” has been around since 1992, and originally was a showcase for Darci Kistler and Damian Woetzel. Packing the choreography with more and more complex phrasing for the two young virtuosos, it seemed that Martins was playing stump the dancers. A revival in ‘96 carried another prodigy, Miranda Weese, to her promotion to principal. In ‘02, “Jeu” was redesigned with a fuller, more theatrical production by Ian Falconer.

“Jeu” was mostly a showpiece for the main couple, well-crafted, but emotionally sterile. Sanz and Ball took straightforward House of Balanchine choreography and hammed it up. It worked – and that says a lot about the company, the dancers and the repertory now. The danger lies in bleeding that solution over into Balanchine – where it is the wrong one.

This was a gala, where flash ruled the day, and everyone was focused on the tricks, even when there wasn’t a trick. Ball finished a pirouette, coming to a stop in a high retiré and then landing in fourth position like an exclamation point. “It’s like a drag show,” someone behind me whispered. It was impressive, but as importantly, it’s going to keep Ball in the spotlight as he fights his way up the ladder. He’s being thrown one debut after another in the trial by fire Martins usually does before, rather than after, a promotion. Or is this actually – once again – before a promotion? If his knees or back don’t blow out, he could make principal.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Jeu de Cartes,” “After the Rain Pas de Deux,” “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,” “Odessa” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
May 4, 2017

Cover: Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley in “Odessa.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet‘s spring season runs through May 28.

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