The original two-act Namounawas created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1882 by Lucien Petipa, a major ex-dancer, the great Marius Petipa’s older brother, and a competent choreographer. One of the work’s major plot ideas was that a beautiful elusive slave on a pirate ship anchored in Corfu manages to get enough money to buy the ship, free all the captives at an island slave market, and marry her love—mixups and scoundrelly interference notwithstanding. The music, originally in 23 sections, was commissioned from Edward Lalo. As I understand it, Ratmansky found 16 musical selections from Namouna on a CD made by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and used them in the same order, plus additional music from the composer’s orchestral suites. One of the selections from Namouna is the “Pas des Cymbales,” and at some inexplicable point, the 16 members of the female corps march in carrying pairs of smallish cymbals and stand clashing them together while the hero (Robert Fairchild) does some dazzling dancing.

These women open the ballet by running around the stage in a long line and into a formation. Like the swans from Swan Lake’s second act, they run with their heads up and their arms thrown slightly back. But they’re wearing long, pleated, high-waisted yellow dresses and black wigs cut in a Louise Brooks bob (costumes by Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov). And right off the bat, Ratmansky cracks a joke that raises memories of Balanchine’s Serenade and Robbins’s “Mistake Waltz” from The Concert, along with Red-army conformity, today’s high-school cliques, and heaven knows how many ballet rehearsals. One woman stands up when the others are kneeling; with a concerted gesture, they evict her (a few seconds later, she’s back in step).

Fairchild makes his entrance in pursuit of three women he can’t keep up with. Like Suozzi in Millepied’s ballet, he spends a lot of time looking on in bafflement. He wears what looks like a little boy’s sailor suit (short pants). The women are garbed in cleverly cut modernist tutus (a short, stiff, translucent skirt, slit in front) and close-fitting white wigs that look like both 1920s bathing caps and the headgear that Aurora and her Prince used to wear in Soviet-era productions of Sleeping Beauty to denote 18th-century attire. These mysterious ladies are the ballet’s female stars: Mearns (in navy blue), Jenifer Ringer (in powder blue), and Wendy Whelan (in white), and right away, each gets a turn to show off, backed by four-at-a-time yellow-garbed corps members. (Ratmansky doesn’t use a Calatrava set piece, just creates his own architecture, abetted by Stanley’s lighting.)

Get wired: Benjamin Millepied’s "Why am I not where you are," with Santiago Calatrava’s set.
Paul Kolnik
Get wired: Benjamin Millepied’s "Why am I not where you are," with Santiago Calatrava’s set.

Details

New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza at 63rd Street
212-721-6500
Through June 27

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There are three other important dancers. Daniel Ulbricht enters with a cadre of eight men. They’re in blue and he’s wearing a copper-colored outfit, but they all have headgear that’s part aviator helmet, part pirate do-rag. This gang is convivial, and it includes two first-class little women. Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford execute a clever tongue-in-cheek trio with the ebullient, high-jumping Ulbricht. He lifts them and turns them one by one in such close quarters and in such rapid succession that you fear he’ll make a mistake, but no, he exits triumphantly toting both of them.

This is a ballet in which the ends of numbers draw applause, and performers take bows. The applause is well-deserved. Ratmansky makes beautiful, fluent, intricate steps for his dancers. The trio is followed by a tricky solo for R. Fairchild, whose expansive upper body eloquently conveys ardor and abandon, while his feet manage no end of smart stuff. Later, M. Fairchild and Stafford perform a frighteningly fast side-by-side duet, embroidering the floor with the tips of their toes.

What else? Lots. Women reclining on the floor like denizens of a harem. Ringer doing her “Valse de la Cigarette” (joined by other female addicts), getting sick, and being lugged in by the guys and deposited onstage (she’s OK, but not the one our hero wants). Namouna is so long, and there’s so much fascinating dancing, that you need to see it more than once to take everything in. Fairchild searches among a group of identical beauties. At some point, he’s rocked by a cluster of women and wakes up puzzled. Ulbricht bounds through the air, beating his legs together like a reincarnation of Sleeping Beauty’s Bluebird. The women in yellow return, re-costumed in white wigs and propeller-blade tutus like those of the stars. The eight corps men skip and prance and display manly camaraderie. It’s a good thing the danceable music changes mood and tempo every few minutes. Whelan and Fairchild perform a fine grand pas de deux, complete with her making running dives into his arms, after which he and Ulbricht chase each other around for a while without apparent animosity. Then all bow to the happy couple and leave them alone onstage to kiss while the curtain falls.

Take your grandmother, take your five-year-old to this delicious, maddening slumgullion of a ballet, the playground of a very, very gifted choreographer. Just tell them not to ask you what it means. Or maybe ask them to tell you.

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