Ratmansky redux (“Firebird” again). Plus late breaking NEWS FLASH!!!

[ED NOTE: This just in from American Ballet Theatre press office: Ratmansky to choreograph full evening of Shostakovich symphonic ballets. First up: October 18 for City Center season; next spring, the whole shabang. Yay!]

So now I’ve seen the other two casts: Isabella Boylston as Firebird, Alexandre Hammoudi as Ivan, Kristi Boone as Maiden, Cory Stearns as Kaschei; and Natalia Osipova for, alas, an injured Misty Copeland as Firebird, Herman Cornejo as Ivan, Maria Riccetto as Maiden, Roman Zhurbin as Kaschei. (For the first cast, here is my Financial Times review, and here my expanded version in form of Foot post.)

 The beginning now makes sense to me. What confronts Ivan at the start is not the prospect of love–that ambushes him later–but a future hidden behind a huge wall a la Kafka. He will step inside this forbidding building or he won’t. Ivan runs his hands along its stained granite surface, scans right and left to see how far it extends (farther than the eye can see and the Met can stretch), peeks inside its open door, does an antsy dance, crosses himself, and enters.

As the music lulls, another doorway appears opposite the one Ivan has walked through; in this other doorway a shadow Ivan is crossing himself. There is nothing but voluminous darkness in the box of space between the door and its double. The world that will soon fill that space–a forest of industrial trees with fingers flaming massive cigarette ember blooms–springs from Ivan’s imagination. 

 What the Boylston cast made clear was how internal this ballet is–possibly Ratmansky’s most internal. When I interviewed the choreographer in January for a Financial Times piece, he described one scene taking place in “an inner landscape, deep down in your unconscious”; with this cast, the whole dance does. 

 What was hilarious suddenly becomes only witty–and in place of the comedy is that deep-down dream world where the fabric of motivation grows thick. In her extended pas de deux with lovely Alexandre Hammoudi–in Fancy Free, he would be the dreamy sailor– Boylston rode the tide of a feeling all the way in until its opposite gathered force as undertow and pulled her out again. I realized the pas de deux presented in microcosm the whole ballet: the comfort of instinct in struggle with the terrifying imperative to explore new emotional terrain, the one rising out of the other. The pas de deux puts the characters and us into a surreal state of uncertainty. 

 It is a sign of the ballet’s strength that it can sustain different moods. When Simone Messmer was the Maiden–and she owns this role–the center of gravity shifted to comedy. Osipova was uncanny at conveying the alienness of the bird, but as with other roles she leaves parts blank–often when the steps do not require extreme exertion or virtuosity. So she ceded the terms to Messmer. Comedy makes an about-face on our expectations of how the story will go, it does not burrow inward. It paints the struggle in bold colors. 

 When the Firebird is the stronger character, the ballet becomes otherworldly and more somber. With Boylston there was never a break in the momentum. She made the part larger, with seemingly more dancing, and even the flock seemed to respond more to the loop-to-loops in the flute solo than the other casts had. Ivan (Hammoudi) was necessarily softer, more confused; Kaschei (Cory Stearns) more libidinal. 

 In the third cast, no one was quite up to the level of Herman Cornejo, an impulsive, headstrong, passionate Ivan. In the fullness of his opening solo, Cornejo not only introduced us to his character but also to the dangerous terrain that will test Ivan. From the start, we know where we are. 

 In that opening pas de deux, the firebird ends up begging Ivan for her liberation, salaaming to the floor, with tail feathers waggling pleadingly. She is not a joiner but a mastermind–the good version of Kaschei–and she needs the distance of a bird’s eye view. In the dream inside a dream menage a quatre near the ballet’s end, she tries to distract Kaschei long enough for Ivan to win the Maiden over. The Maiden’s struggle to break from the pack and dare to love distinguishes her from the creature who first won Ivan’s attentions–the wild creature who needs independence, not love. 

 As my brilliant friend, playwright Andy Podell, pointed out, the pull of the pack is strong in Firebird. (Here is Andy on Vishneva in Fokine’s Scheherazade; here on Ashton’s Sylvia). Ratmansky gives the pleasure of union its due. As with Mark Morris’s L’Allegro and Ashton’s The Dream, the lovers lie down together: so nice, so direct, so immediately identifiable. Still, love does not triumph easily over group and habit. Ratmansky’s happy ending entertains some skepticism about the ritual happy ending sounded triumphally in the Stravinsky. The maidens take after, as they did more dowdily before, the masked Ginger Rogerses whom Astaire wanders among to find the true Ginger in Shall We Dance. In this Firebird, the happy ending follows the sad one, which abides as ironic residue.

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  1. Marina says

    Funny, I thought he was stepping OUT from the prison of humdrum life into the world of the imagination. Love the flexibility of interpretation.

  2. says

    dear Marina,
    hello! so nice to hear from you!
    Oh, I realize I meant to say the future was what was behind this wall, not the wall itself. I am an idiot. I have revised to reflect your astute observation.
    Yes, I agree, he *has* left the humdrum and the safe, and this space is fertile if also risky. Maybe my Kafka association is off. It just looked like such a “Judgement” wall to me: dead, gray, bureaucratic. But it doesn’t imprison Ivan, exactly, it just encloses, like any complete act of imagination, until he can garner the strength (with the Firebird’s help) to have it burst into life, his new life.
    Yes, the flexibility of interpretation is fantastic! I’ve been mulling over in my head (lazily, I admit) whether that’s generally a sign of a work’s strength: whether powerful pieces of music yield to many versions, etc. What do you think?
    Thank you so much for your thoughts,
    [ed. note: Marina Harss is a regular contributor to the dance section of The New Yorker and writes dance criticism for Dance Tabs, the Faster Times, and The Nation. Enjoy her splendid essay on Ratmansky’s “Firebird” for Dance Tabs:
    http://www.dancetabs.com/2012/06/american-ballet-theatre-firebird-thirteen-diversions-apollo-new-york/ ]

  3. Baron Zlatkovski says

    It probably comes as no surprise that I think the idea of doing ballets to two or three Shostakovich symphonies is atrocious. Only Leonid Massine had the sense of symphonic scale in his choreography and the humanist view necessary. Symphonies are inherently self-contained, not accompaniments to action. Better to use the existing music of Shostakovich that is meant for action, or to commission new scores. Dancers continue to think that affiliating themselves to a great piece of music somehow makes them equal to it. Hah!

  4. says

    Surprise me, Baron Z, surprise me!
    I agree that symphonic ballets are risky and rarely ventured–your anti-Christ, Balanchine, stayed away, as does the musical Mark Morris. But from a cursory listen, Shostakovich symphonies 9 and 1 don’t seem sloshy and/or grandiose. Even in terms of Shostakovich, they are crisp–jaunty, plucky, and only occasionally glowering. And the chamber piece, for the third in the trilogy, may be more saturnal, but because a chamber piece it never gets too inflated.
    Have you seen Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” for the New York City Ballet? Granted, that was a concerto, but it really works for ballet. It’s a fantastic dance, if you ever want to venture out of your Transylvanian hideout and give a ballet a try.

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