Jorma Elo’s new Slice to Sharp looks like a ballet he might have choreographed to throw a pursuing devil off his artistic track. It’s that fast, tricky, and convoluted. Few steps turn out predictably, and many are decorated with quirkily twisting or snaking arms. Craig Hall promenades Wendy Whelan in an arabesque; she helps by bracing one hand on his head. Joaquin de Luz knots his feet during an air turn and races off with Ana Sophia Scheller draped over him (think rape of the Sabine women). Sofiane Sylve sweeps one of her superb legs into the air; Amar Ramasar hinges backward so it won’t smack him in the face.
Selections from Vivaldi’s violin concertos, plus a piece by Heinrich von Biber, encourage the Finnish choreographer’s space-age baroque flourishes. Even in what promises to be a slowish duet for Maria Kowroski and Hall, the dense texture builds an illusion of speed. Ducking and dodging, the eight performers often seem to think better of what they’d planned. One person’s lifted leg creates a bridge someone else can peer under in the second before that leg descends. Edwaard Liang, marvelous in a solo, plays his body with the same supple but furious intricacy with which the violinist, Kurt Nikkanen, attacks the strings of his instrument.
The ballet’s only subject is exciting dancing, and as the peculiar title suggests, there’s hardly a soft moment. The performers look terrific, although it takes a while to identify them, given Holly Hynes’s uniform, snugly fitting blue-gray outfits and Mark Stanley’s dim lighting. Elo’s strength is also his liability: So much ingenious movement can eventually exhaust the viewer. “Slow down,” I want to say, “Let me see the dancers!”
Another NYCB Diamond Project premiere, Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons could hardly be more different. The choreographer makes ballet’s lexicon of spins and bounding steps look newly free and expressive, creating the image of a community in whose dances we see the seasons change—both in an illusory landscape and in the hearts of individuals. Galina Solovyeva’s costumes (simple dresses, pants, and shirts) in saturated primary colors hint at a country village in times past. Ratmansky incorporates folk-dance stamps and claps, chaining formations, and circles in imaginative ways. The four-section score by prominent contemporary composer Leonid Desyatnikov is built on Russian folk tunes, with festive or wailing fiddle solos (played by Arturo Delmoni) and occasional songs. Mezzo-soprano Susana Poretsky sings of such matters as a young girl forced to marry an old man, a happier betrothal, and the world beyond death.
Ratmansky alludes to the texts (not included in the program) subtly, but often quite literally. Whelan, plucking a few imaginary flowers, drooping among three rejoicing couples, inhabits a song that tells of men home from the war—all but one. It’s rare on a ballet stage alive with dancing to be made aware of mingling emotions—pity, joy, and embarrassment for that joy. Throughout, the ballet presents behavior not just through gestures, or moments in which dancers gather in corners to chat excitedly, but through rhythmic and spatial shifts. The music’s structures inform Ratmansky’s. For example, Albert Evans’s solo moments in the first section are propositions; the other celebrants “answer” him.
In this beautiful ballet, people don’t just enter and exit; they rush onstage looking for someone, they hurry off to join something they see in the distance. Abi Stafford doesn’t hold an arabesque on pointe for ages in order to amaze us; as soon as Sean Suozzi swoops her into the group, we know why she was waiting. I’ve seldom seen NYCB’s splendid dancers look so fully and unpretentiously alive at every moment.
Russian Seasons will be performed during the NYCB’s July season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.