The New York City Ballet hasn’t collaborated extensively with an architect since the 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival, when Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed for George Balanchine something resembling a glass cathedral cum ice palace that, with modifications, would serve all the ballets. But this year, the company’s New Choreography and Music Festival is billed as “Architecture of Dance,” and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has designed settings for five of the seven choreographers who are contributing new ballets (four of them with commissioned scores). In the short film that preceded NYCB’s opening gala, Calatrava expressed his delight at working with dance, and, indeed, some of his buildings, with their intersecting, wing-like curves, look ready to lift off.
His fan-shaped set for Benjamin Millepied’s Why am I not where you are consists of two concentric white semi-circles set on edge—one tall and almost the width of the stage, the other the size of a very large curved doorway; the elastic cords that connect them like the teeth of a giant comb vibrate delicately with the motion of the dance and shimmer notably when Mark Stanley’s lighting turns them to copper.
The splendid commissioned score by the French composer and organist Thierry Escaich is aptly titled The Lost Dancer, and the mutter of low piano notes, soft drum beats, and high-pitched shimmer that begins it sets us up for mystery. Millepied is, I think, trying to tell a story without exactly telling a story. That is, he wants us to interpret the events and steps of his very intriguing ballet as we will. Which is fine, most of the time, but occasionally makes me want to say things like, “Wait, didn’t she just. . .?”
The scenario of Why am I not seems to hinge on the notion of who may be included in a powerful clique and who excluded from it. The excluded, without the uniform attire that denotes acceptability, become virtually invisible. In the beginning, Sean Suozzi is clearly the outsider; he may swoop around the stage performing expansive leaps and pas de chat in his opening solo, but he also lurks at the edges, and he’s unseen by a bevy of women in black net skirts with fuschia satin bodices, who waltz with men wearing green pants and somewhat bizarre jackets, irregularly patched in blue and purple (costumes by Marc Happel). Suozzi wears white, but although the woman he craves (Kathryn Morgan) doesn’t see him, she senses his presence and, eventually, ceases to back away from his touch. Gradually her metaphoric vision improves.
Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar are the devilish leaders of the sprightly pack, and bit by bit, as the ballet spins along, they contrive to slip articles of clothing on Suozzi until he’s dressed like the other men. Several times, the way the ensemble crowds around him, hoists him, manhandles him a bit, and points him (at last Mearns and Ramasar do) in conflicting directions recalls Balanchine’s Prodigal Son at the hands of the Siren’s thuggishly mischievous servants. I’m not sure why, or at what moment, the hero’s sweetheart becomes a pariah, but—this is admirably theatrical—people passing by swiftly strip off her overskirts and her bodice; you can barely see the changes amid the tumult, but suddenly she’s all in white. She rushes between two parallel lines of marching revelers, and no one sees her, not even her erstwhile lover. She’s alone onstage as the curtain comes down.
The performers are dynamite. Mearns plays the voluptuous bitch with élan, and she and dagger-sharp Ramasar make a power couple you’d rather not know. Suozzi has been catching my eye for some time, even before he was promoted to the rank of soloist; whether in a classical role or rumbling with the Jets and Sharks in Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story Suite, he has a gift for shaping a phrase and making the space around him alive. As for Morgan, she’s a buoyant delight, and her legs look as if they begin at the waist—not because they’re long but because of the expansive way she steps out with them.
Why I am not gives off whiffs of earlier Balanchine works—not just Prodigal Son, but the mad ballroom of La Valse and the seductively evil hosts of La Somnambula—as well as playing with such ballet tropes as the lone man seeking his beloved amid a flock of similarly clad beauties. Millepied has his own approach, however, to traditional steps and patterns, and it’s heartening to see a young choreographer working in his own, often striking ways with the classical vocabulary, instead of accessing modernity through a virtuosic wrangling of legs, arms, and torsos, as do some contemporary ballet choreographers.
The second new piece shown at the premiere also alludes to earlier works. And how!
Alexei Ratmansky’s extravagant new ballet Namouna, A Grand Divertissement has the air of a charmingly assembled crazy quilt—with patches cut from Petipa family remnants, Soviet ballet’s grab bag, and personal mementoes stitched brightly together. It says in a festive undertone, “Don’t think about plot. You want to see pirates? See pirates. You wonder how a ballerina in semi-disguise (a longer skirt in the same color) came to be addicted to cigarettes? Stop that!” After all, that’s what a grand divertissement of the late 19th century was all about; the tale is told, enjoy the party.
The original two-act Namouna was 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.)
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.