New York City Ballet: New Ratmansky

The New York City Ballet Here/Now Festival continues, and on Saturday, May 6, I got to see program five, which includes the newest from Alexei Ratmansky, Odessa. Herein, some notes about all five ballets that are part of the program.

Jeu de Cartes—For a ballet that's supposed to be light, the choreography is heavy, it feels—in many sections—grounded. This Peter Martins ballet, which is set to Igor Stravinsky's eponymous composition, is meant to be an abstract representation of a card game. Megan Fairchild is the Queen of Hearts, and she's joined along the way by Harrison Ball, Joseph Gordon, and Aaron Sanz as the Kings of Spades, Diamonds, and Clubs (respectively). The estimable ensemble are also dressed as the various suits.

For all that frivolity, it's just an uninteresting ballet. It's not bad or off-putting, but it's also not engaging, despite, on Saturday, a talented cast. Gordon was fine if a little one-dimensional; Sanz was appropriately playful; and Ball danced with a vivacity I wasn't expecting. Fairchild was lovely, though the costuming, especially the way the light hit off her black tights, blunted some of the sharpness and grace of her execution of the steps. That said, Fairchild showed off one of the few interesting things about the ballet: when turning, her non-turning foot was flexed. That added interest to the turn, though that's not enough make Jeu de Cartes, which I'd seen before, a must-see.

After the Rain (pas de deux)—I don't think I've ever watched Christopher Wheeldon's masterpiece without crying. (See previous reviews.) Again, along with the Arvo Part music ("Spiegel im Spiegel"), I was struck by the romanticism of this ballet, the idea that after the rain—all the chaos and tumult—there is peace and hope and a way forward. I'll be honest with you, dear readers. When I read, a few weeks ago, the casting for this, I was unsure of what to expect. Maria Kowroski is a great dancer, though I never saw her as a particularly emotional dancer (like, say, Sara Mearns), and Ask ls Cour has never struck me as especially engaging.

I was totally wrong. As Kowroski noted on Instagram, the two dancers were part of the original cast of the full ballet (they danced and helped create the prologue, the rain), so they were returning to the material, and getting to explore a new part of it. They were terrific, making the roles their own. They seemed particularly connected to each other, which made the piece resonant more. There were subtleties they added to the piece, moments of connection, that heightened the emotion, making it unforgettable.

For Clara—Principal dancer Lauren Lovette's choreographic debut, set to Robert Schumann's "Introduction and Concert - Allegro, Op. 134," is lovely. Just as I thought the first time I saw this, it shows Lovette's promise as a choreographer, and makes me excited for her next ballet, which will debut during NYCB's 2017-2018 season. The featured cast was the same as in October, with the exception of Andrew Veyette, who danced Zachary Catazaro's track.

ten in seven—This work by Peter Walker, a corps de ballet member, is modern and jazzy, and reminiscent of other works. Derivative has a negative connotation, but these combinations are derived from what's come before, which is good; one would hope that an artist would be inspired by what's already been created. For example, the third movement, "Divertissement du Blues" is like the "Statics" movement in NY Export: Opus Jazz, and the fifth movement, "Le son de deux," is like Opus Jazz's  "Passage for Two" movement (or like the "Byplay" movement in Interplay). Certainly, the jazz score and the dancers being off pointe (they wear flat ballet slippers) certainly prompts such comparisons to Opus Jazz, but the dancing does, too. Switching mediums, ten in seven's sixth movement, "Rapide Furieux," which features Spartak Hoxha doing an impassioned solo, reminds me of the memorable A Chorus Line number, "The Music and the Mirror." I mean this all as a compliment. It's a fun ballet (featuring a commissioned score by Thomas Kikta), and it is always good to these dancers, like Ashly Isaacs and Sean Suozzi, two terrific soloists, showing off a different side of their dancing. (By the way, without looking at my notes, I drew many of the same comparisons this time as I did the first time I saw ten in seven.)

Odessa—This is the fifth ballet Alexei Ratmansky has created for New York City Ballet. It's set to Leonid Desyatnikov's "Sketches to Sunset," which, as noted in the program notes, "is a collection of incidental music from the 1990 Russian film Sunset, based on Isaac Babel's tales of Jewish gangsters in Odessa after the Russian Revolution." I mention all these details because the notes were necessary for me. Even with them, though, I'm not sure I understood the story Ratmansky was trying to tell, though I liked the telling.

To put it in musical theatre parlance, I'd say the book needs work. The relationships among the three featured couples—Sterling Hyltin and Joaquin de Luz; Unity Phelan and Amar Ramasar; and Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley—are not clearly defined or fully resolved. For example, the first highlighted interaction between Peck and Stanley is aggressive and violent. I was genuinely uncomfortable. Later, though, Peck dances a happy, Tschai Pas–like solo, and when she dances with Taylor a few moments later, there's neither a struggle nor an acknowledgment of reconciliation. Hyltin and de Luz dance a somewhat dreamlike section, with some of the moments seeming like a bad dream (there are a lot of obstacles in their way). Phelan (who was dancing in place of the recuperating Sara Mearns) and Ramasar have the most abstract pas de deux, and I can't quite make out what it's meant to suggest.

Traces of Russian heritage—the culture, the look, the movements—abound, appropriately, which is a little different from the classic NYCB repertoire. Also impressive is the way Ratmansky pushes these dancers. I'm thinking in particular of some of the sustained lifts (notably with Hyltin and de Luz), causing us all to marvel at the dancers' strength and beauty. Odessa boasts beautiful dancing, I just don't know what it means. (I'll be seeing this again in the fall, and I'm hoping that, on a second viewing, the story will reveal itself.)