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Juilliard Dance

Published: October 24, 2017
Category: review

Ratmansky's Latest for ABT Pays Tribute to Home

By Rachel Straus

In Alexei Ratmansky’s Songs of Bukovina, seen in its premiere October 21 by the American Ballet Theater, the Russian choreographer creates an unsettled world, where freedom’s ecstasy is tendered but never fully awakened in the movements of ten dancers. This quality of being tantalizingly reigned-in is purposeful. It speaks to the place to which the work pays homage: Bukovina, a central European region now divided between the Ukraine and Romania, which was once part of the Austrian Empire, then Romania, then the Soviet Union.

Geographical strife is Bukovina’s historical legacy, and relates to the lives of Ratmansky and his collaborator composer Leonid Desyatnikov, the two of whom identify as Ukrainian-Russians. With Desyantnikov’s Bukovinian Songs, 24 Preludes for Piano, serving as its score and inspiration, the work marks Ratmansky’s seventh collaboration with  Desyatnikov since 2006. Their artistic pairing calls to mind such famed ones as Petipa and Tchaikovsky or Balanchine and Stravinsky.

For his new piece, about 23 minutes, Ratmansky has selected preludes that alternate between neo-romantic and a dissonance evocative of Bartok’s, played with verve on this occasion by Alexey Goribol, seated in the stage-right alcove.

Ratmansky’s central movement motif centers around a sorrowful yet defiant image: a bird with a broken wing, its head lifted proudly. It is created by the dancer’s legs and arms being bent in on themselves, like a swastika. Ratmansky first uses this motif at the end of the ballet’s first movement. There the four men lift their female partners. We see the women aloft, but they hardly soar. The image of imprisoning flight is repeated by the men in their ensemble section: they leap in a circle, like sharp-beaked hawks zeroing in on their prey. In the last moment of the ballet, lead dancers Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III perform the broken-bird lift again. Because their two previously performed duets evoked qualities of escape and furtive love, this last and highest partnered lift provides a conclusion that only offers a question mark. Will some force continually ensnare these beautiful people? Or, are they on their way to greater freedom?

As is the case with all of Ratmansky’s ballets, Bukovina’s Songs is harrowingly difficult to execute. The complex musical phrasing, multiple beats of the leg, and split-second lifts, let alone the sheer speed, can produce a nervous-making performance, not only for the dancers but also for the audience. Yet Ratmansky is not interested in perfection. Like the great ballet masters, he is impassioned by possibility: how far he can take his dancers?

As a result, there were some botched moments. The most noticeable one occurred in the final section, when Royal lifted Shevchenko above his head and she almost toppled. No matter, for other, striving moments by Royal were indelible. Unlike the beautiful and elegant Shevchenko, Royal doesn’t dance steps so much as embody the music, showing his soul’s torment with long arms open wide or ingesting the staccato jazzier inflections in his torso.

Individualized musicality is what made Other Dances (1976)—as performed by Gillian Murphy and Cory Stearns, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and set to etudes by Chopin—the revelation of the afternoon. It is a simple work: Two dancers, one pianist (Emily Wong, on stage with the dancers), and six songs, all connected through the most basic idea: interpretation of melodic phrasing. Unlike the Slavic sexy irony of the work’s original interpreter, Natalie Makarova, Murphy interprets the choreography and the unfolding music her way: through soft, luxuriant waves of energy. Her body’s pliability is such that it’s nigh impossible to know what she will do next. This is genius. Murphy also knows how to save a bad ending. When Stearns lifted her on his shoulder, but not quite, she adjusted her hip, whisked her blue skirt from his covered head, and flashed the audience a radiant smile. Dancing is about split-second decisions. Murphy is a master of them.

Also on the program were Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (1946) to Cesar Frank’s score (conducted by David LaMarche with pianist Barbara Bilach), and Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (2016) to Leonard Bernstein’s composition of the same name. Separated by a half century, both works will continue to be in the repertory programs of American Ballet Theater for decades to come.


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