Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes perform Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9.
By Meredith Benjamin
Fans of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) relish opportunities to see the company perform in the (relatively) intimate setting of City Center during its annual fall season. Here, ABT presents a variety of repertory not seen during their classics-heavy season at the Metropolitan Opera House (think Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty). This short season—only five days this year—also affords the opportunity to see some of the up-and-coming dancers in the company. As ABT normally relies heavily on international stars and guest artists the rest of the year, the fall season provides a rare opportunity to see dancers from the ranks shine in soloist and principal roles.
The evening began with Alexei Ratmansky’s highly anticipated Symphony #9, set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Ratmansky is one of the most sought-after choreographers in ballet at the moment, and ABT was lucky enough to snag him as their artist-in-residence. Symphony #9 is the first piece of a three-part work, all to music by Shostakovich, which will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House during the company’s spring season.
The curtain rose on Sascha Radetsky, surrounded by four men. Radetsky was alternately playful and aggressive, and showed off his speed and precision in a series of duets with fellow soloist Stella Abrera. The ballet offered us hints of drama or narrative without ever giving us a story, a Ratmansky hallmark. Veronika Part, as one-half of the lead couple with Roberto Bolle, was gloriously lush and dramatic. Yet a note of ambiguous paranoia characterized the couple’s time onstage, as they often looked around, on the watch for an unseen someone or something.
The choreography, like Shostakovich’s score, had a modernist feel with its numerous moving parts working together and then coming apart and mechanical elements contrasting with more lyrical passages. Geometric prints on the costumes added to this modernist aesthetic. The piece was most successful in its unexpected breaks with traditional balletic shapes and conventions. Traditionally, women of the corps de ballet often serve as stage dressing, in lines on the side, as the principals dance. Ratmansky played with that concept by having his line of women sit, their knees pulled into their chest and their heads down. Later, when the entire corps de ballet lined up in neat rows and turned their heads in a single direction, one expected a grand finale in unison. Instead, every other dancer made his or her way down to the floor, in a series of jerky, disconnected movements.
In keeping with the unconventional groupings that characterized the ballet, soloist Jared Matthews had no partner, and danced both alone and as a mysterious interloper to the others. His was the final triumphant moment: as the music ended, he was caught in mid-air as the lights went out, one arm reaching upwards.
The Moor’s Pavane
The program notes for The Moor’s Pavane, subtitled “Variations on a Theme of Othello,” somewhat confusingly inform us that “this dance is not intended as a choreographic version of Shakespeare’s play,” but rather “the four characters play the tragedy of Everyman.” (Let’s hope that killing your wife because you mistakenly believe she cheated on you is not in fact the tragedy of Everyman.) The ballet was choreographed by modern dance master José Limon, and had its premiere in 1949. As in much of the modern choreography of that era, virtuosity and technical feats are shunned in favor of a focus on interiority, portrayed through stylized and dramatic gestures.
The four dancers, dressed in robes, began facing each other in a diamond formation, arms raised in a baroque style. This ballet requires someone with the charisma of Marcelo Gomes for the role of the Moor, who, regal in burgundy, imbued the slightest movements with a sense of gravity and drama. Cory Stearns and Part, as His Friend and His Friend’s Wife, respectively, were appropriately devious as they perpetrated their deception, finding a sense of weight and grounded-ness in their movements. Julie Kent, as the white-clad Moor’s Wife, falls prey to their scheme and is murdered by her husband: we see only grand arm gestures behind Stearns’ outstretched robe, and then, her dead body. Unfortunately, the intensity of the interior drama was somewhat lost in the upper reaches of theCityCentertheatre.
In the Upper Room
Set to Philip Glass’s propulsive score, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room is the sort of ballet that I bring people to in order to show them just how exciting contemporary ballet can be. The pre-show announcements that there would be a number of replacements in this final ballet were met with disappointed sighs, but the company proved up to the challenge of the last minute scramble.
The ballet begins as two women, Simone Messmer and Luciana Paris, emerge from smoke, clad in black-and-white striped, loose-fitting shirts and sneakers. Messmer in particular absolutely inhabited her role as one of these two “stompers” who begin and end the piece. She nailed the integral contrasts of the ballet’s style: intensity and carelessness, jaunty confidence and reckless abandon. Sklyar Brandt and Nicole Graniero, as the pair of girls in red pointe shoes (sometimes called “bombers”), also stood out for their energy and precision.
Nothing about this ballet is conventional. There are two groups of dancers: those in sneakers, and those in typical ballet footwear, and their roles and groupings shift throughout. Jogging, kicking, and the tossing of dancers from one partner to another are mixed in with leaping, pirouetting, and classical arabesques. The through line is the incredible intensity and endurance the dancers display as they are propelled forward to the climax of Glass’s score, in which a chorus of voices adds drama to the final movement.
The final image of this ballet complemented that of Ratmansky’s: whereas that ballet concluded with a singular upward motion, here Messmer and Paris finish the exhausting dance by seeming to draw in the energy of the entire piece as they pull their fists into their bodies. This gesture is a final sign of triumph in an exhilarating journey.