Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love, Fire and Misty: Ratmansky at the Met

Misty Copeland in Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. (Photo: Andrea Mohin)

Misty Copeland, the most popular ballerina in the land right now, and one of only a handful to have become a household name even among non-balletomanes, reprised her lead role in Firebird at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York last week. True to her billing, she burned up the stage. Dressed in a cherry bomb red unitard and a plumed headdress of different coloured feathers, Copeland attacked Alexei Ratmansky’s incisive choreography with an incendiary technique that propelled the dancer forward through a series of searing shapes that electrified the imagination. Partnered by the wonderfully assured and attentive Marcelo Gomes, Copeland’s explosive performance flew upwards on air-borne jumps and galvanic leaps that seemed as supernatural as the magical bird at the heart of this most vivid retelling of the Russian fairy tale. Her percussive pointe work pecked and pawed and her expressive porte de bras fluttered and unfurled in an amazing display of bodily acting that brought the mythical creature to life.

A remake of the original 1910 Michel Fokine ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky, Firebird was one of three ballets American Ballet Theatre presented as part of an all-Ratmansky repertory program during its May 17 to 23 spring season. Firebird shared billing with the world premiere of Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, inspired by the same-titled violin concerto by Leonard Bernstein, and a revival of Seven Sonatas, a 2009 non-narrative work set to a suite of keyboard pieces by Domenico Scarlatti. As this mini festival made clear, Ratmansky's eclecticism and ability to visualize music in refreshingly unorthodox ways makes him one of the greatest choreographers working in ballet today. Ratmansky was undoubtedly the star of this show but his prominent casting of Copeland in the final ballet of this exciting celebratory program saw him upstaged. But he already knew that would happen.

The Russian-born dance artist was among the first to champion Copeland, an African-American ballerina whose muscularly curvaceous body seemed an impediment to career advancement until Ratmansky plucked her from virtual obscurity to dance the world premiere of Firebird in 2012. That was all the push she needed. Since then, as is now well known, Copeland has risen to the rank of principal ballerina, the first African-American female to achieve such a status in the 75-year history of ABT, one of the world’s leading classical dance companies. Her appointment came a year ago, in June, and she is today a pop culture figure. The Misty Copeland Barbie Doll, released on May 2 and depicting the dancer in her Firebird role, is only the latest manifestation of her celebrity. Copeland’s popularity with audiences is such that her May 18 matinee performance had been sold out weeks in advance and largely because Ratmansky had again given her top-billing in one of his ballets. As soon as Copeland winged her way to centre stage the 3,800 seat theatre erupted in cheers. Cries of “Go Misty!” collided with Stravinsky’s vigorous poly-rhythmic score, masterfully conducted by music director Ormsby Wilkins, adding to the palpable atmosphere of excitement.

Misty Copeland and Marcelo Gomes in Firebird. (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

Post-performance, legions of little girls and their cellphone camera-ready mothers crowded the stage door in hopes of that Copeland would autograph their programs. Ratmansky stumbled unawares into the adoring crowd while exiting the theatre, but no one paid him heed. If the fans knew who he was they didn’t let on. They were saving their enthusiasm for the ballerina who had made his ballet come alive. It was a moment fascinating to witness. Previously, the choreographer ruled. But now, and thanks largely to Copeland, the ballerina is back to being at the centre of her art form. It’s a new turning point, and about time.

For decades now the choreographer, usually male, has ruled supreme. And not without merit. The aforementioned Fokine together with Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine, Russian choreographers who left their mark on 20th century ballet, were innovators whose undisputed talents early on usurped the supremacy of dancers as ballet's main attraction. The cult of the choreographer has tended to diminish dancers in status and size, making them subservient to the act of creation. But that too is changing. Ratmansky, for one, is reinvigorating classical dance by making it a celebration of robust physicality, the ballet dancer's stock-in-trade. Watching his ballets, the impression is of a choreographer locked in step with the artists in his midst. Ratmansky does not dominate his dancers, squeezing them, à la Balanchine, into geometric shapes and impersonal symmetries. Rather, he encourages them to rip loose and expand themselves physically by giving them highly aerobic, multi-directional passages of pure dancing. Dancers given the chance to perform his speedy ballets say the steps are difficult, taxing even. The work represents non-stop movement, and is exhaustingly exhaustive. And yet the push required to get through a Ratmansky ballet restores the dancer to the status of virtuoso. The feeling is of a partnership, creator and interpreter together revelling in unabashed displays of ambition.

The American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

As the title suggests, Serenade After Plato's Symposium evokes the legendary dinner party attended by the philosopher Socrates, the comic playwright Aristophanes, the legal expert Pausanias, the physician Eryximachus, the aristocrat Phaedrus, and the tragic poet Agathon, among other high-ranking Athenian men. The discussion concerns the different faces of love, from the erotic to the esoteric. The Symposium translates as a drinking party, and, fuelled by alcohol, the conversation meanders from sex to ethics and a vision of the higher good. The text is talkative in the extreme, cerebral as opposed to physical, making it particularly fascinating subject matter for a dance.

Ratmansky makes Plato's dialectic visible through complex passages of movement in which a surfeit of flashy footwork including jumping entrechats, cabrioles, split leaps and gargouillades represents the rhetorical flourishes of the individual speakers. The guests in Plato's text frequently interrupt each other and in his ballet Ratmansky replicates the feeling of a spirited discussion through an exchange of energies embodied by the work's core group of seven maverick dancers: Jeffrey Cirio, Marcelo Gomes, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, Danil Simkin and James Whiteside. More specific are scenes lifted directly from Plato, such as when a deliberately stumbling dancer evokes the drunken Alcibiades who crashes in on the late night dinner party, disrupting Socrates's speech about love as a form of beauty. The latter is represented by a solitary female figure, the only woman to appear in this male-dominated work, and at the recent May 18 performance she was danced by the elegant soloist Devon Teuscher. Polymorphic love, in all its homosexual, heterosexual and chaste varieties, is the ballet’s central theme and accordingly Ratmansky takes a hard and soft approach, alternating competitive displays of extroverted dancing with tender and introspective solos which feminize the overall look of macho athleticism. Jérôme Kaplan's bold striped costumes fitted with skirts make visible the work's underlying androgyny.

The American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

While loyal to Plato, Ratmansky came to The Symposium through Bernstein whose original 1954 score for violin, harp, string orchestra and percussion is a lyrical meditation on Socratic discourse. The choreographer discovered the five-part composition around a year ago when ABT first commissioned him to create a new ballet. As recommended by Canadian-American violinist Benjamin Bowman, the soloist who made the score sing when he played it live for the dancers in New York, Ratmansky chose the Isaac Stern version recording -- conducted by Bernstein and released on the Capitol label in 1956 -- as his source of musical inspiration. Stern’s expressively rhythmic interpretation motivated Ratmansky to create a ballet that similarly gallops forward at increased speeds. Bowman followed suit, delivering a performance of the violin concerto that honoured the Stern version by being fast and furious. The dancers valiantly kept pace, their lightning speed movement meshing indelibly with the music.

Another solo musician who stood out at the mixed program was pianist Barbara Bilach, performing on stage alongside the dancers for Seven Sonatas. Her mellifluous playing of the Scarlatti score would have satisfied the composer who once said his goal in creating music was to make it dance. With such lyrical material in hand all Ratmansky had to do was add bodies to amplify the dramatic progression. But the art of choreography is never that simple. Rather, the ballet's many symmetries and geometric configurations, not to mention its expressiveporte de bras and the playfully naturalistic dancing style of the six dancers, evenly split along gender lines, underscored just how much careful planning went into making it. With this work, Ratmansky set out to examine counterpoint and harmony in time and space. What he ended up with is something quite beautiful and touching: a portrait of dance relationships. Three couples dance Seven Sonatas and on this occasion they were Veronica Part with Blaine Hoven, Sarah Lane with Herman Cornejo and Hee Seo with Joseph Gorak. All wore white (Holly Hynes designed the flowing costumes) and as they moved seamlessly from group dances to trios and a series of duets, the constant shifts in focus blurred their steps, allowing for an undercurrent of emotion to seep through the abstract structure of the choreography. The effect was dreamlike. A ballet that read like a poem. 

  Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.  

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