Ratmansky Takes Manhattan
Ratmansky's first full-length ballet for ABT, On the Dnieper, is set to a score written by Prokofiev in 1931 for Serge Lifar, premier danseur and ballet master at the Paris Opera. Interestingly, he composed the music before he had a full scenario, which may account for its dramatic ambiguity. The music is beautiful--especially the string and woodwind prelude, reminiscent of The Prodigal Son--but lacks shape. The mood is unfailingly downbeat; it drifts from the dreamily melancholic to the ominous and then deepens into a dark, thickly orchestrated theme that returns at the end under very different circumstances. The setting reflects this murkiness; as the curtain rises it is already dusk, and half the ballet takes place under an inky black sky illuminated by an enormous moon. Moreover, the melodies and orchestration offer few clues to the characters' inner lives, except for a pretty flute melody for one of the protagonists that emphasizes the purity of her emotions and seems to foreshadow Prokofiev's Juliet. As Ratmansky admitted before the premiere, the music is a challenge: "I'm almost thinking I should have used another score, something easier to understand," he told me.
The story is deceptively simple. The central character, Sergei, is a soldier who returns to his village--on the River Dnieper, in Ukraine--and is pained to discover that he no longer loves his sweetheart, Natalia, and is instead drawn to the town beauty, Olga, who is engaged to another man. Natalia, who in the first cast was danced by the beautiful and deeply tragic Russian dancer Veronika Part, barely has time to rejoice at the return of her beloved Sergei--the music doesn't allow it. She is destined to be unhappy, though Ratmansky gives her some beautiful, delicate footwork and little swoons to illustrate her struggle. Olga, danced by Paloma Herrera, a bit of a powerhouse, has the sketchiest music and choreography; her part has few defining qualities, other than speed, skittishness (she tends to scamper around the other characters, except when she is in Sergei's arms) and a touch of flirtatiousness. The role of Sergei suits Gomes perfectly. Romantic, expansive, grounded and profoundly decent, he seems genuinely tormented by his predicament: "Why do I feel this way?" his body asks, as he leaps and falls and crouches and kneels on the ground. He is initially so deliriously happy to be home that he can't seem to stop turning and looking at everything; he whirls his arms and points at one thing and then another, then cups his hands as if to capture his world between them. But Sergei can't seem to fit back into the town's rhythms. He falls in and out of unison with the town boys, constantly distracted by Olga's presence. One can't help but think of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have become strangers to their families and can no longer remember who they were before they left.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the ballet was Olga's fiancé, danced on the first night by David Hallberg. If the other characters are one-dimensional, he is even more so, yet Ratmansky gives him two of the ballet's most vivid moments. The first is toward the beginning of the betrothal party: he tries to draw Olga into a dance. He circles around her and touches her shoulders, but she moves away; then he tries to turn her toward him, but still she looks away. So he reaches his arm longingly across the front of her body and takes her hand and pulls her into a pas de deux, trying to compel her to dance with him through the sheer ardor of his love; she relents, but there is no joy in her. The spectacle of this forced duet, a foreshadowing of Juliet's with Paris in Prokofiev's 1935 ballet, is appalling. Then, at the end of the party, the fiancé stands alone in the center of the stage and explodes with frustration: he turns on his own axis and jumps with one long leg out to the side, then does a series of small leaps in a circle, jumps from side to side and hops backward, kicking one leg forward over and over. He swings his arms uncontrollably. He stares at the ground, then at the audience. The stage fills with his disappointment. "Why is this happening to me?" he is saying, and we feel it in our bones.
Ratmansky clearly saw a wildness in Hallberg--usually a gentle, noble dancer--that he wanted to set free, and did. Even if he had succeeded only in this--and On the Dnieper has much more to offer--it would have been enough to justify his new position at ABT. It is a company with fabulous dancers but without a unified artistic vision. Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director, knows this, and recognizes the enormous possibilities that come with Ratmansky's presence. "I hope he can be a beacon to help me spur and focus creativity within the ranks of ABT dancers," he told me. Ratmansky's contract is for five years, with the understanding that he will make one work for ABT each year, while at the same time pursuing his busy freelance career. Let's hope he's not too busy. His next ballet for the company (scheduled to premiere October 7) will be set to Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas, and given the musical selection, it will probably have no plot. He is also scheduled to make a new ballet for the New York City Ballet in the spring. He will spend more or less twenty weeks a year with ABT's dancers, dreaming up projects, perhaps staging some of his previous ballets (including, let's hope, The Bright Stream or Flames of Paris), maybe teaching company class from time to time. At least for now, ballet lovers can sleep a little bit more soundly.