Down by Alexei Ratmansky's Ballet River

An ingenious choreographer premieres a new ballet, courtesy of Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev's music is rife with weather changes. Storms simmer beneath airy melodies, occasionally braying into prominence. Tubas grumble while oboes remember folk songs. Flashes of indecision and sudden thoughts murmur within even the calmest musical assertions. A waltz is never just a ballroom swoon. Two of the ballets on ABT's splendid All-Prokofiev Celebration last week—George Balanchine's Prodigal Son (1929) and Alexei Ratmansky's premiere On the Dnieper—are set to music Prokofiev wrote for them, more or less (Ratmansky uses the score and scenario developed for Serge Lifar's 1932 Sur le Borysthène for the Paris Opera Ballet). James Kudelka's 1991 Désir (new to ABT) employs waltzes from the composer's ballet Cinderella and his opera War and Peace. In these narrative scores, passions waver, explode, and subside with particular suddenness.

In On the Dnieper, a soldier unexpectedly returns home on the day that a betrothal ceremony is taking place in his village and falls instantly in love with the bride-to-be, even though another girl has been waiting for him. In the end, this former sweetheart generously, sadly, relinquishes her claim on the soldier, urging the lovers to flee together while the brouhaha that they've caused is still erupting offstage. Ratmansky turns this simple story into poetry—a luminously tender, enigmatic folktale in which quiet nobility averts potential tragedy, and we never find out for sure how many hearts are broken.

His collaborators do him proud. Simon Pastukh's set consists of sections of dark gray picket fencing and flowering fruit trees—all of which can be moved by the dancers. Late in the 40-minute work, Brad Fields's lighting cools down, and a sky of stars and a huge moon appears. The dancers wear simple clothing hinting at peasant attire by Galina Solovyeva. Most daringly, the stage is covered with fallen blossoms, and, at the end, more fall from overhead, as if to remind us that one person's spring may be another's winter.

A work blossoms: Marcelo Gomes, center, in On the Dnieper
Rosalie O'Connor
A work blossoms: Marcelo Gomes, center, in On the Dnieper

Several aspects of Ratmansky's choreography enthrall me. He alters the pressure and tempos of ballet's classical vocabulary to affect mood and drama. Even tricky or unusual twists look organic, and, although the stage is almost always awash in dancing, the story keeps unfolding through it. The angry bridegroom (David Hallberg) dashes into a solo whose fast-footed veering vividly expresses his frustration. When Sergei, the soldier (Marcelo Gomes), is having an awkward reunion with Natalia (Veronika Part), the woman he's discovered he no longer loves, he politely dismisses her and leads eight men in a boisterous show of solidarity. "I gotta dance now" becomes "I have to say hello to my old friends."

Another of Ratmansky's great strengths is his welding of an ensemble into a community. The way onstage villagers watch the events of the day—the welcome-home warmth of the parents involved (Victor Barbee, Martine van Hamel, Georgina Parkinson, Roman Zhurbin), the ceremony, the secretly budding love affair—tells you much about this society's mores and feelings. When Olga (Paloma Herrera) dances her uplifting passion for Sergei and her confusion, we see only a slight change in her steps, but when the onlookers who've been sitting or kneeling rise to their feet, we suddenly understand the gravity of the situation.

Gomes, in his opening solo on a deserted stage, eloquently conveys in every leap, turn, and questing glance all the joys and doubts of a homecoming after difficult years away. Herrera has never looked so expansive. Every single dancer onstage illumines this beautiful ballet.

They also light up Kudelka's Désir, a series of rapturous duets. In the first (for Gillian Murphy and Blaine Hoven), the two opposing moods in one of the Cinderella waltzes elide the calms and turbulences of a partnership. In the more tempestuous interlude for Misty Copeland (wonderfully ebullient) and Carlos Lopez, all those in the cast of 12 leap through, the men flying the women through the air. One highlight is a wandering dance for the three secondary men and their partners—the men repeatedly walking away, then turning back, the women doing the same (he's just not that into you). The other highlight is a lyrical duet for Cory Stearns and Isabella Boylston in which she unfolds her legs as if they were chiffon scarves, and he marvels at her every move and what they can accomplish together.

On the night that this program premiered, Herman Cornejo replaced the injured Ethan Stiefel in Prodigal Son, with Michele Wiles as Balanchine's seductive Siren, instead of his appointed partner, Irina Dvorovenko. There were a couple of awkward moments, but Cornejo—as might be expected—is vibrant and impetuous in the title role, and Wiles as appropriately cold and inexorable as a boa constrictor winding around its prey. Balanchine was 25 when he choreographed this ballet for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. How much he already knew about a lot of things!

 
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