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Juilliard Dance

Published: May 31, 2016
Category: review

ABT's Symposium Raises Ratmansky's Bar Even Higher

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK—The American Ballet Theatre, now at the Metropolitan Opera House to July 2, is devoting entire evenings to the choreography of Alexei Ratmansky, its artist-in-residence since 2009 and arguably the most revered ballet maker of the decade. With the premiere of his Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, set to and named after Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 violin concerto, Ratmansky’s achievements mount higher. The 30-minute work, seen May 18 and conducted by Charles Barker, is set in designer Jérôme Kaplan’s abstract landscape: white floor, black backdrop, and, high above the stage, a silver-edged rectangular screen on which the word “symposium” in Greek is projected. In Kaplan’s couture-toga costumes, each different from the other and made of light fabric that clings and drapes different aspects of the body, these seven Athenians appear as individuals but within a prescribed context. In a loose circle, they first appear as though in silent thought. With the violin solo (plaintively played by Benjamin Bowman), they commence Plato’s famous symposium about love, its nature, genesis, and purpose.


Photo by Marty Sohl.

Photo by Marty Sohl.


Ratmansky’s new ballet is full of swirling physicalized arguments, meted out through deceptively fast phrasing, and laden with his expansive command of ballet’s language. One classical pose, however, becomes central. It occurs at the ballet’s beginning when Herman Cornejo faces his upper body front, stretches his right leg like a compass marker across his body, and brings his right arm overhead. This is like saying in ballet class, “I begin.” In the course of Symposium, Cornejo, Thomas Forster, Joseph Gorak, Alexandre Hammoudi, Tyler Maloney, Aaron Scott, and Jose Sebastian each perform a solo (or point of view on love) that is different in length and dynamic qualities. Yet the majority of the dance is conversation. Cornejo is the energetic arbiter. He pops up into the air with an exclamatory declamation. Sebastian speaks softer and is more complex. His long limbs weave in and out of his central axis as though unraveling a thesis made of many parts. The men touch, lean, lift each other from seated into the air. In their collaborative action, they offer a vision of fraternal love, which includes disagreement and indifference as well as Bacchic play.


Hee Seo in Background. Photo by Marty Sohl.

Hee Seo in Background. Photo by Marty Sohl


The heart of the ballet occurs in the fourth movement, when a female dancer, Hee Seo, enters wearing an emerald green floor-length toga. She likely represents Diotima, the woman credited by Socrates with revealing the contents of the bygone symposium. The score turns more measured, and she and Forster embark on the only male-female pas de deux. It is marked by the repetition of an odd and memorable gesture at its beginning and toward the end: Like four stakes, their arms drive into the ground, making a double “X” shape. They may be binding themselves to each other or their downward motion could be referencing the grave to come. Either way, sexual love, Ratmansky intimates, is the most profound and vexing of all. Serenade ends with the men reconvening. Their jumps and turns culminate in a tableau where they all reach toward Seo, who reappears in sight but out of arms’ reach.


Stella Abrera and Christina Shevchenko in Seven Sonatas

Stella Abrera and Christina Shevchenko in Seven Sonatas. Photo by Marty Sohl


The other Ratmansky ballets on the program, Seven Sonatas (2009) and Firebird (2012), both restaged by ABT Ballet Mistress Nancy Raffa, have not lost their hold. One of the most satisfying aspects of the former, set to seven of Scarlatti’s keyboard studies, is the positioning of the grand piano upstage right. As Barbara Bilach touches the keys with deft delicacy, the sound travels into the house, losing impact and creating a distancing effect, as if becoming an aural memory. This gives the work a nostalgic hue. Like the sound of the music, the six dancers— three men, in bright white tights with collared shirts, three women, in pale cream dresses— move as if made out of air. Stella Abrera’s arms float as though singing the melody emerging from Bilach’s hands. Calvin Royal III covers vast terrain, appearing even more free when airborne. They collectively become a kind of high-floating cloud.

Ratmansky’s Firebird is quite the opposite. Galina Solovyeva’s bombastic costumes (with headdresses) and Simon Pastukh apocalyptic set design (scorched bleeding trees) enhance the dramatically overwrought tale of the evil sorcerer, Kaschei, who enslaves a group of maidens. More than a century ago, choreographer Mikhail Fokine insisted that Stravinsky’s music clearly identify Prince Ivan and the Firebird, who ultimately destroy Kaschei’s evil kingdom. In the first tableau, Ivan and the Firebird performed a pas de deux, now famous as the first supported duet in which the woman dancer is given as much agency as her male counterpart.

Among the ways in which Ratmansky departs from the original is by making that duet more of a collaboration than a battle of wills. He also enlarges the dancing roles of the maidens, who are no longer presented as ideal virgins, ripe for Prince Ivan’s love. Instead the 13 maidens look like 1950s prom girls dropped in a toxic vat (thus the green hair). Worse, they are uncivilized. They don’t know how to waltz or curtsy and they don’t know what to make of Ivan (Alexandre Hammoudi), when he sets his sights on one of them (Cassandra Trenary). Their mutual interest nonetheless established, the plot is set into motion: Kaschei (Roman Zhurbin) enters menacingly dressed like Elvis, a battle ensues, and then the Firebird (convincingly danced by Isabella Boylston) leaps into the fray to destroy him.

What saves Ratmansky’s version from devolving into a cartoon is Stravinsky’s music. When the maidens are freed, they find their mates (previously imprisoned in the trees), and then they all dance in perfect geometric unison to one of modern theatrical history’s grandest finales.


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