When it was announced in December that choreographer Alexei Ratmansky would leave the American Ballet Theater as a guest artist after 13 years, my first reaction was regret, then hope. Can the New York City Ballet, where her choreographic imagination has the courage and space to run freely, lure her to Lincoln Center square?
How often does a year start with good news? On Thursday, it was announced that Ratmansky, one of the ballet’s greatest choreographers, will join the City Ballet as a residential artist in August. As Ratmansky told The New York Times, “he wanted a change.”
During her tenure at the Ballet Theatre, she danced for other companies, including the City Ballet; here, their creative work found a way to develop dancers – revealing qualities you didn’t know they had – just as they brought crystal-clear courage to their choreography. . It is a symbiotic relationship.
Reminded me of a podcast conversation with Ratmansky and City Ballet’s assistant artistic director Wendy Whelan – a former principal who has danced in lead roles in four of Ratmansky’s works and brilliantly at this – ahead of Ratmansky’s ballet “Voices” in January 2020. Composed by experimental composer Peter Ablinger, with recorded speech and full of texture and vibrancy, “Voices” was not the kind of dance he did at the Ballet Theater – or to anywhere.
As Ratmansky told Whelan, he knew it would be a challenge, and “City Ballet would be a good place to challenge myself because of the support of the dancers, the atmosphere in the studio, and their readiness to jump into anything.”
Other parts of this conversation also came to the fore: City Ballet’s founding choreographer, George Balanchine’s love for dance works; The imagination and individuality of the Urban Ballet dancers – “they are their own,” he said, and “they will shape your steps according to their own ideas”; and his own palpable excitement at such a daring choreographic undertaking. “New feeling for me,” he said, “I have no idea how it’s going to work and I’m grateful to the dancers.”
Indeed, the flirtation between Ratmansky and the City Ballet – a new The New York City Ballet, led by artistic director Jonathan Stafford and Whelan, was in sight. On the podcast, Whelan spoke with casual grace about the mutual respect between Ratmansky and the dancers in the studio, describing it as “fuel for both parties.” The Ballet Theater was lucky to have Ratmansky for 13 years, but his real home always seemed to be the City Ballet. in dance.
The six ballets he created for the company are like dances out of dreams, each with an ease born of courage; starting with the first “Russian Seasons” (2006), a fresh, rich fusion of idioms: classical, folk, pedestrian. . There was also mystery, humor and musicality – a complete perspective from the start. But each of Ratmansky’s works for the City Ballet is so full, so plentiful it’s hard to believe there are only six.
“Concerto DSCH” is an exciting and mysterious dance as always. Ratmansky’s creativity rises in the bizarre, fascinating “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”; pictorial, emotional “Pictures from an Exhibition”; and the dark, mysterious “Odessa” set in the Ukrainian city after the Russian Revolution – a ballet that deserves a second life with careful training and a new cast. “The Voices” are back for the winter season and are not to be missed.
The residency artist pairs him with dancers who are already hungry for a purpose beyond the vital: keeping Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’ repertoire alive. City Ballet is rare for having such a strong foundation. At a time when many big ballet companies are feeling unruly – programming convoluted contemporary works, poorly choreographed classics or new, mediocre story ballets in hopes of boosting ticket sales – Ratmansky’s appointment has big picture resonance.
While Urban Ballet brings a new generation of dancers, unaffected, fast, musical, playful, Ratmansky won’t be another choreographer circling yet. Dancing will play a role in nurturing their art by giving them a reason to pursue their dreams. And a reason to keep amazing veterans like Sara Mearns and Megan Fairchild around will shine a bright light for a company that has had its fair share of troubles lately – the resignation of former director Peter Martins amid accusations of sexual misconduct and physical and sexual harassment. verbal abuse; a photo-sharing scandal among major men; and a generational shift caused in part by the pandemic.
For the dancers, the residual tension must be exhausting. And for a critic, so is the idea of watching any of Martins’ ballets from start to finish. One more hope: That City Ballet will replace its version of “Swan Lake” with Ratmansky’s. It shines, it’s urgent and pathetic, and its fantasy isn’t that far from the present moment.
His references throughout his ballets may not be direct, but his work is in dialogue with modern times, for better or worse. (Ratmansky, a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, grew up in Ukraine, where his family still lives. President Vladimir V. Putin swore not to return to Russia while in power.) from company to company; he is busy with the bigger world.
At the same time, he did not exhaust the possibilities of the classical vocabulary; Like Balanchine, it infuses the steps with a clear and comprehensive musicality. And at City Ballet, he’ll be part of an arts team that includes Stafford and Whelan, along with the company’s resident choreographer and art consultant Justin Peck. Just as Ratmansky is ready for a change, the City Ballet is in its midst.
Who loses here? Ballet Theatre. Even with Christopher Wheeldon’s new feature ballet, the company’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House seems to be a reenactment of the past, the last ballet programmed by outgoing artistic director Kevin McKenzie: “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Swan Lake.” ” (Nor Ratmansky.) Under new artistic leader Susan Jaffe, the company can thrive by keeping its roots, but its repertoire confines Ballet Theater to another time for now.
That’s not to say that City Ballet’s latest commissions haven’t had a misfire. But with Ratmansky’s new position, all of a sudden the world of ballet – or part of it – doesn’t feel so stuck. Ratmansky, who will create at least one ballet a year and rehearse his current repertoire, can become a stabilizing force beyond his choreographic production. He knows what he wants and strives to get it, but he also has an indelible affinity with dancers. You get the feeling that they are willing to fight for each other.
What happens when a dancer pushes the limits for such a choreographer? In a behind-the-scenes video for Ratmansky’s “DSCH Concerto,” director Sara Mearns describes an elevator where her partner was held on with one leg extended to the side. “He said, ‘You have to look at the sky as if it were heaven and then I really want you to close your eyes,'” she says. “So do I, and it’s wonderful and very magical.”
He guided not only his body, but also his soul. These are the moments when ballet becomes more than ballet. The dancers shape the steps to bring out the music, the mood and, as Ratmansky says, something about themselves—I like to think. The future looks bright and enthusiastic with Ratmansky in City Ballet. As Balanchine tells her dancers: There is only now. I love the idea now.