Why This New Ballet is Bigger and More In-Your-Face Than Ever

Classic Arts Features   Why This New Ballet is Bigger and More In-Your-Face Than Ever As the spring Here/Now Festival continues, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky creates a new work for the company at New York City Ballet.
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Anthony Huxley, Brittany Pollack, and Gonzalo Garcia in Concerto DSCH Paul Kolnik

In some ways, it’s an unlikely pairing: a choreographer whose ballets, rich with human emotion, feel old-world; a company famous for its clean neoclassicism, its embrace of the new.

In other ways, Alexei Ratmansky and New York City Ballet are a natural fit. Like NYCB founder George Balanchine, Ratmansky has deep connections to Russian ballet traditions and Russian music, and gets a kick out of tailoring his work to distinctive dancers. You sense that the two choreographers would have enjoyed each other’s company.

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Alexei Ratmansky with NYCB dancers in rehearsal Erin Baiano

This spring—as part of the Here/Now Festival, celebrating work created for NYCB post-Balanchine—the Company will revisit all four works Ratmansky has made for it: the vivid, folk-tinged Russian Seasons (2006), the playful, poetic Concerto DSCH (2008), the witty, fanciful Namouna, A Grand Divertissement (2010), and the colorful, theatrical Pictures at an Exhibition (2014). A brand-new Ratmansky ballet will enter the company’s repertory at the Spring Gala on May 4.

Like Russian Seasons, the premiere features the music of Leonid Desyatnikov, a good friend and sometime collaborator of Ratmansky’s. This score—“Sketches to Sunset,” a collection of incidental music from the 1990 Russian film Sunset—“is not the obvious choice,” Ratmansky says. “Since it’s from a film, it’s less symphonic, more in-your-face. But I just love it. There’s a mix of tango and klezmer music, which sets a certain mood.”

While Ratmansky’s ballet is plotless, Sunset, based on Isaac Babel’s tales of Jewish gangsters in Odessa after the Russian Revolution, is anything but. “The story behind the music is very particular,” Ratmansky says. “It has strong characters, these criminal developments. You hear all of that.”

“Sketches to Sunset” also runs about 20 minutes. Ratmansky had to create a color-coded timetable to ensure his six principals and twelve supporting dancers all got adequate stage time. Why such a large group for such a short piece? “Mostly because I like too many people—I saw so many dancers I wanted to use!” he says, with a chuckle. “These dancers are a very special breed. They can do any tempo without losing the classical shape, and they have a spontaneous response to music. The music is their reason for dancing, which is of course Balanchine’s ideal. Every time I work with them, I find so much inspiration.”

Ratmansky’s ballets for NYCB show the tonal diversity of his choreographic voice. Taken together, they form a cabinet of beautiful curiosities, each one a singular object. “You know, it’s hard to describe why I choose certain music, certain casts,” Ratmansky says. “It’s more unconscious. I have a list of music, I cross things out, I add new things, I realize, “OK, that’s what I need to use now.” Really I just want my ballets to be different. I don’t want to produce the same thing all the time.”

Margaret Fuhrer is the author of American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History and the editor in chief of Dance Spirit magazine.

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