Curators at Work

By Siegel, Marcia B. | The Hudson Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Curators at Work


Siegel, Marcia B., The Hudson Review


CHOREOGRAPHERS, DANCERS, AND ARTISTIC DIRECTORS regard the historic repertory with wariness if not distaste. Yesterday's creative achievements may be celebrated and mythologized, their glamorous credentials invoked to boost a dance company's marketing profile. But unlike classical music or opera, the dance field grants its past only a small slice of the active repertory. Ballet companies stake their reputations on a few periodically renovated nineteenth-century staples and skim over their twentieth-century holdings. Modern dance companies, usually powered by the work and continuing productivity of a single choreographer, have attics full of disused material. Often it seems the only reason to undertake a revival is to compensate for a scarcity of new creations. In a single week of New York performances in June, you could see several important dance companies mining their heritage in different ways.

New York City Ballet was in the midst of its "Architecture of Dance" festival of new music and ballets, some with designs by architect Santiago Calatrava, but the commissioned works seemed less impressive than the still-potent contributions of George Balanchine, who died twenty-seven years ago. I'd seen one of the new offerings, Alexei Ratmansky's Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, in May, and sampled one of the others, Mauro Bigonzetti's Luce Nascosta, during my June visit to New York. Bigonzetti's ballet, to a score by Bruno Moretti, was long, plotless, and contemporary in a now familiar mode. The dancers present themselves as models of sexuality and physical expertise without much choreographic structure to define them any further. Over it all Calatrava hung a large, amber-lit disc that slowly emitted satellites of diminishing size, then sucked them back in again.

Ratmansky's ballet was also long, and many critics complained about that, but I found it fascinating every minute . Living outside of New York, I haven't had nearly enough exposure to this highly gifted choreographer's work; everything of his I've seen signals an artist of imagination, humanity, and classical rigor. One thing that distinguishes Ratmansky is his respect for tradition. He annexes old ballet plots and music, as well as the populist devices of the Soviet style he must have grown up with in the Bolshoi Ballet school. Namouna uses an Edouard Lalo score for a forgotten French ballet but veers away from the original story of pirates and slaves, dueling rivals, exotic hideaways and narrow escapes. Instead, Ratmansky makes a grand and witty ail-dance exposition of one of ballet's master plots, the hero searching for his ideal woman. On my one viewing, I had some confusion about the characters. All the women, soloists and corps, are dressed alike and wear identical black hair with bangs. No way for this infrequent visitor to tell them apart. But gradually the theme emerges, as the corps of sixteen women and eight men keep reappearing in different costumes, along with the four principal female dancers. You realize all of them, including the "hero" (Robert Fairchild dressed in a sailor suit) and the "villain" (Daniel Ulbricht with his roughneck companions), aren't really characters but ideas. Ratmansky shows us how theatrical dance has recast and reconfigured this romantic journey in a dozen ways. The identical costumes and recurring mass movement patterns substitute a sense of timelessness for a more conventional focus on encounters between individuals. In one scene, Fairchild threads his way through the ensemble like Prince Siegfried looking for the Swan Queen, and I flashed to Fred Astaire at the end of Shall We Dance, in search of the real Ginger Rogers as he partners a line of chorus girls in Ginger Rogers masks. The Namouna girl who emerges is Wendy Whelan, and after a pas de deux and a slew of ballet-finale conventions, she and Fairchild fall into an embrace and a Hollywood kiss as the curtain comes down.

After a couple of years as a resident choreographer at NYCB, Ratmansky has moved to American Ballet Theatre in the same role. …

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