Ratmansky’s Imprint on ABT
New YorkMet Opera House
May 13 – July 6, 2019
ABT continues on its path to becoming Alexei Ratmansky’s company. His work this season at the Met Opera House comprises nearly half of the two months of programming. The one-act dances—Songs of Bukovina, On the Dnieper, and The Seasons—together form a repertory slate. Each is an example of how Ratmansky has deeply rooted himself in contemporary ballet forms. The first is graceful and plotless, the second a love novella, and the third an allegorical romp.
The Seasons, a premiere, takes many dynamic cues from the score by Alexander Glazunov. The dance, stuffed to the gills, demonstrates Ratmansky’s witty sense of humor seen more often in his commissions by New York City Ballet, where he began his American career after leading the Bolshoi for several years. He spotlights dancers’ characteristics that best reflect each season’s attributes; the long list of allegories includes hail, snowflakes, roses, a faun, cornflowers, a bacchante, and satyrs. The movements elicit the spirit of these allegories—the winter elements are crisp and quick, and the snowflakes bustle and swirl on stage like a blizzard, while summer’s are more languid and melting.
Each season is led by a featured pair or group. Corps member Aran Bell as Winter drew notice for his calm strength and lucid line, alongside Katherine Williams (Ice), Hee Seo (Frost), Luciana Paris (Snow), and Catherine Hurlin (Hail). Hurlin, promoted to soloist last year, is rapidly becoming a standout for her accomplished and daring technique. Ratmansky weaves complex group sections for 12 Snowflakes, plus two mischievous Gnomes tossing flames—red cloths. Sarah Lane (Rose) and Skylar Brandt (Swallow) dart and spin with James Whiteside (Zephyr) in Spring. Their bold costumes (by Robert Perdziola) clash; Whiteside in yellow and green, and the two women in blues and whites. Add in eight mauve Roses, and the result visually confuses.
The overall picture jars even more in Summer. Blaine Hoven (Faun) and his sidekick Satyrs (Tyler Maloney, Arron Scott) taunt Isabella Boylston in a lemon/lime tutu; the men wear beach-appropriate short pants. Six Cornflowers (in cornflower blue, what else), six Water Men (royal blue), and six Poppies (girls in poppy red with black legs) complete the pastiche. Autumn is led by Cassandra Trenary (Bacchante) and Calvin Royal III (Bacchus) in warm-to-blazing shades, with 16 Bacchantes and Fauns in chartreuse. Whiteside and Boylston unite for a key duet, mixing seasons, but visually cohering for once as their costumes match. Is it a quiet statement about global warming, with spring bleeding into summer?
Visual incoherence aside, Ratmansky continues to evolve ballet. In the Boylston/Whiteside duet, they often perform the same steps—either side-by-side or mirroring one another; the emphasis is less about framing the ballerina than presenting the two dancers equally. In Spring, Whiteside’s vocabulary includes deep lunges and big leaps, including an exiting head-first dive in which he vanishes, mid-air. In Summer, the women partner the girls; men enter and they cleave into girl/woman/man trios. Some of the choreography pushes the dancers past safe limits, as when the women developpé standing on a flat foot, sustained for many beats. Simple as that sounds, it is very difficult to maintain a solid balance unpartnered, with the leg held as high as possible. Boylston, who is a strong technician, unspools a rapid series of jumps and spins with legs aquiver, but with Boylston just a fraction off-balance, the passage begins to disintegrate.
The season’s other company premiere, Jane Eyre (choreographed by Cathy Marston) makes a thoughtful addition to the list of full-length story ballets, still heavy on the standard Romantic fare. This adaption brings to life—albeit in sketches—the complex, primarily female characters of Charlotte Brontë’s novel offering some juicy roles for women: the title role (Misty Copeland), mostly comported and serene; Young Jane (Skylar Brandt), bullied yet fiery; and the frenzied Bertha, Rochester’s wife (Luciana Paris). The men feature the suave, impetuous Edward Rochester (Cory Stearns) and a tense St. John Rivers (Blaine Hoven), plus a male corps of “D-Men,” a twist on the traditionally female group.
The vocabulary is fluid and more gestural than reliant upon classical steps. Movement defines the characters’ natures—Rochester extends a leg with a sharply pointed foot like an arrow to convey power and will, or touches his flat hand to his forehead to indicate the summoning of intent. Jane stretches an arm to its fullest length, as the head follows, to evoke yearning and ambition. Marston effectively utilizes canon passages for the 12 D-Men—each repeats a movement while following the same path, often a figure eight or loop. The men serve to impart an emotional thrust (slinking on like death personified when Jane’s boarding school friend dies) or a function (human candelabra).
The primary visual elements are painted, sienna-hued abstractions of a stark, hilly English countryside designed by Patrick Kinmonth. A set of scrims pulled across the stage by dancers elegantly connote scene changes. Kinmonth also contributed the period costumes of cotton frocks and waistcoats. (Notably Rochester’s long, flaring coat imparted his nobility and élan.) Blazing orange lighting (by Brad Fields) and smoke effectively conjure the two fires set by Bertha.
Marston’s contemporary ballet feels akin to that of Antony Tudor, who probed psychological states with his understated, refined vocabulary. Ratmansky, meanwhile, delves into classical ballet on numerous levels, from contemporary, athletically challenging works, to re-stagings of Petipa based on historical research. Ratmansky’s 2015 production of The Sleeping Beauty closes out the Met season; Petipa receives credit for the choreography, while Ratmansky is billed for “staging and additional choreography.” Even as he leads the company forward, he never fails to acknowledge his antecedents—important for ABT, a company with a rich history, yet in need of a contemporary visionary to move things forward.