New York City Ballet’s 2017 Spring Gala is a testament to the acumen of the company’s supporters. Beautifully dressed people are provided with champagne in advance of the performance and dinner after it, but no speeches this time, no films, and no intermissions. And after those assembled have watched Peter Martins’ Jeu de Cartes, the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, and Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, you might expect them to shift in their seats occasionally, rattle a program, maybe cough discreetly during the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Odessa. Not them! Not me either. We watched this fascinating, mysterious ballet in rapt silence, without stirring. (It is a tribute to the choreography that, afterward, I can hardly make sense of the notes I took without taking my eyes off the stage.)
This isn’t the first time that Ratmansky’s devotion to neo-classical ballet’s insistence on structural traditions has cloaked elements of narrative. In Odessa, he seems to be telling no story, but fragments of drama surface the way bright bits of carrot and celery float to the surface of a savory soup. You, the soup-eater, don’t pause to wonder about the history of that carrot slice, do you?
I’m aware that this analogy may be about to break down, but I watched the ballet without perusing the program in advance—only afterward following a few leads. Odessa is set to the incidental music that Leonid Desyatnikov wrote to accompany the 1990 Russian film Zakat (or Sunset), which has a considerable history. Isaac Babel wrote his Odessa Tales in the 1920s, and shortly afterward based a play, Sunset, on elements of those stories. Warning to self: do not get sidetracked for over an hour watching Babel’s characters appear online in the 1926 film Bennie the Howl (aka Benya Krik), for which he wrote the screenplay.
The point is that Desatynikov’s film music, published as Sketches to Sunset, captures moods and incidents in Babel’s vision of Moldavanka, a high-crime, low-income part of Odessa that had also, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, included the city’s Jewish quarter. The score fosters changes of mood and atmosphere. Often the rhythm is that of a tango—sly and sneaky; sometimes a piano gets sentimental; a violin acquires a gypsy wail; what sounds like a klezmer band intrudes (I listened to a version of the music played by only five musicians, and the flute and clarinet, rubbing against each other, evoked that aspect of a Jewish festivity).
In Ratmansky’s skilled hands, and those of costume designer Keso Dekker and lighting designer Mark Stanley, the criminals and heroes of Babel’s stories become handsome, glamorous dancers, cooperating on the panoply of wonderfully organized choreography, but yet, but yet. . . . I’ll bet Ratmansky told them a few stories to inspire them to perform the way they do.
The six men of the ensemble wear black pants and slightly smudgy black-striped, open-necked jackets; the three principal men (Joaquin De Luz, Amar Ramasar, and Taylor Stanley) are similarly garbed, The six ensemble women’s short, black dresses with subtly rosy accents glow strangely, like velvet, while the three principal women (Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, and Tiler Peck) show their legs beneath slightly varying patterned frocks.
As in gangland, there are almost always watchers. Sometimes, they just stand and stare; at other times, they dance their dances at the back, or offer commentary, or intrude on the uneasy relationships that develop. One or two men may start dancing and gradually absorb new recruits into the posse. As always, the steps that Ratmansky creates are full of little surprises—a twist here, an unexpected angle there, a rhythmic displacement. The danced phrases make these superb performers look not only adroit, but smart. They’re also as neatly organized as they’d be in a 19th-century classic; unison becomes unanimity. When they slip into what looks like a seconds-long game of ‘London Bridge,” there are no dissenters.
However, incidents boil up. De Luz kisses Hyltin’s hand, but she seems frightened of him, makes “stay away” gestures, and runs from him. In one encounter, she slaps him. But later, in a tender, apparently happy scene, the six ensemble men carry her and mold her into a relationship with De Luz, sometimes manipulating him as well. It’s as if she has dreamed herself into becoming an airborne lover, courtesy of these highly visible and involved handlers (unlike, say, bunraku puppeteers who strive to be invisible). We never learn why she rebuffs or accepts De Luz; she just does and we believe it.
Stanley is a tough guy, grabbing what he wants, and Peck is no match for him, despite her remarkable multiple turns. She struggles while he carries her off. She is also the center of a group of men who wind around her—caging her briefly, but not really seeing her. Mearns and Ramasar have another kind of relationship. The music softens for them. Much of the time, her focus is down, as if she were seeking something she lost. Toward the end, he’s kneeling, clasping her legs while she leans away from him.
This is a world of organized restlessness and disturbing, if brief, images: people laid out prone on the floor; people crossing the stage in a constricted strut, their heads turned to stare our way. . . The cast performs Odessa marvelously. De Luz and Hyltin are especially arresting together—both in their dancing and in the nuances they bring to it. I need to see this ballet again, the sooner the better.
The gala evening was studded with fine performing, with some of the dancers new (or new to New Yorkers) in their roles. Joseph Gordon and Aaron Sanz joined Harrison Ball as, respectively the Kings of Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades in Jeu de Cartes to Stravinsky’s jazz-tinged score. Or maybe they were Jacks. Pert Megan Fairchild, the promiscuous Queen in all three “deals,” gave them equal time. Maybe in a few more performances, the excellent Gordon will let the wit of the music and the tricky vigor of the choreography amuse him more.
Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour performed Wheeldon’s After the Rain duet with the dreaminesss conveyed by Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (beautifully rendered by violinst Arturo Delmoni and pianist Nancy McDill). La Cour is a particularly sensitive partner, conveying a tenderness that softens the curious manipulations in which he must engage the slender, almost naked Kowroski.
Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux presents a very different picture of what a man and a woman can mean to each other. Balanchine choreographed it in 1960, not long after a lost version of music the composer wrote to accompany Marius Petipa’s Act III duet turned up, stuck between the pages of a manuscript (I have finally disciplined myself not to imagine the “Black Swan” pas de deux as I watch it). Balanchine’s little ballet is about five time faster than Petipa’s with maybe ten times as many steps to the minute. Despite Veyette’s skills at being courtly when not leaping and spinning, it’s clearly his job to keep up with Bouder and be where she wishes him to be when she decides to hurl herself into the air or needs to be cranked into a turn. The ballerina doesn’t wear a tutu in this pas de deux, just a no-nonsense, light-weight little dress by Karinska; Bouder doesn’t need ruffles to frame her or detract from the fact that she can step onto one pointe and consider, for a second or two, what she wants to do next.
The gala occurred amid the ten NYCB programs billed as Here/Now. The slash between the two words is misleading, since the implied choice between them doesn’t exist. All that’s happening on that Lincoln Center stage is doing so here and now, boldly and excitingly, whether a ballet on display was made yesterday or decades ago.