The NYCB Spring Gala: Modern Stories

The New York City Ballet spent its winter season tackling Big Story Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, A Midsummer Night's Dream. So when I entered the David H. Koch theater last night (right before Sarah Jessica Parker, no less!) for the company's spring gala, I was anticipating--OK, eagerly anticipating--a return to balletic abstraction, to sleek unitards and challenging music and movement for movement's sake. I love the sweep and drama and romance of the full-length classics  dearly, but watching a season full of those ballets, especially from a company known for its austerity, felt like eating too much sugary cake. I wanted a palate-cleansing program.

And I got one. But in came, suprisingly, in the form of two more stories--relatively abstract stories, to be sure, but stories nonetheless.

First up was Benjamin Millepied's premiere, Why am I not where you are, set to a comissioned score by Milepied's fellow Frenchman Thierry Escaich. The plot centers on a boy (Sean Suozzi, vibrantly athletic) initially dressed all in white. He's preoccupied with a girl (Kathryn Morgan, quietly tragic, substituting for the injured Janie Taylor) who belongs to a community of people dressed in vivid colors. The girl can't see him, however, until he dons a colorful vest. (The couple's brief pas de deux when she is still blind to him, yet somehow aware of his presence, is one of the most memorable moments in the ballet. It evoked La Sonnambula, but had an additional urgency: She fully awake, not sleepwalking, and is actively, frantically searching for him.) Yet the vest is not enough for the two sinister leaders of the Color Clan (Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar), who seduce Suozzi into adding more and more colorful layers. Finally, when the boy's transformation is complete, the Clan tears the colors from his beloved girl's clothing, making her invisible to the now-colorful boy--an inversion of the opening.

Was it a successful piece? Not really. The best part, actually, was architect Santiago Calatrava's fantastic set: a huge, spoked sunburst of an arch that rippled and waved and glowed in Mark Stanley's lighting. But while I love the way Millepied works with groups--he has a geometric mind--none of his dance phrases stuck in my brain the way they usually do. I'm interested to see if he continues to pursue the idea of the modern story ballet, but this particular story seemed a bit too literal, too bang-you-over-the-head (beginning with the title). And I'm not a fan of any ballet that involves putting on or taking off costumes onstage; whenever that's happening, all the audience can think about is whether the dancers will be able to yank things into place in time. (I wasn't big on the costumes themselves, either--why did the boys look like court jesters, and the girls, with their multicolored tulle skirts, seem straight out of La Valse?)

Alexei Ratmansky's premiere, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, on the other hand? Amazing, period. (I almost typed "end of story"--but that would be a bit misleading, no?) The plot, very loosely based on the original libretto for Edouard Lalo's 19th-century score, is going to sound totally ridiculous written out, and frankly looks a bit ridiculous onstage. But I think that's the point. Namouna feels like a ballet in the tradition of Le Corsaire: a comic work energized by the very craziness and implausibilty of its story.

Here's my attempt at plot summary: A young hero (Robert Fairchild, dashing and sweet) is searching for Namouna, who I think in the ballet's original libretto was a slave girl, but in Ratmansky's version seems to be more of a water nymph. There are three women (Jenifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, and Wendy Whelan) who might be Namouna, and the hero's job, in a bizarro Mamma Mia! kind of way, is to determine which one actually is. (Spoiler alert: It's Wendy!) Rounding out the cast are a puckish trio (Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford--whom I've never liked more than I did in this piece), eight supporting couples, and a large corps of women.

What did that look like onstage? It looked, by some choreographic miracle, logical. Like Millepied, Ratmansky is also a whiz with large groups, but he tends to use simple canon and gentle repetition rather than the complicated, swirling patterns that characterize Millepied's dances. Ratmansky's clean forms calmed everything down a bit--they gave a visual order to the ballet's chaotic world.

And I love that Ratmansky isn't afraid to be funny. There's a moment in Namouna when Robbie Fairchild dances a solo surrounded by the entire corps of women, who clap together small cymbals and bounce on their heels in time with the music--the overall effect being that it looks like the girls are saying, "Dance, Robbie, dance!" Jenifer Ringer also has a fantastic solo with, of all things, a cigarette. (I found out later that in the original ballet, this part of the score was intended for a dance in which Namouna rolls a cigarette for a lover. I think.) Who knew that Ringer, always so elegant and poised and regal, was such a comedienne? By the end of the solo, Ratmansky has her strutting flat-footed around the stage, waving smoke out of her face. The audience went wild for her.

I left the theater feeling good about the future of the story ballet. And feeling curious, too, about what Ratmansky's ABT Nutcracker will look like. If he's this good at bringing out the comedic sides of professional dancers, just imagine what he'll be able do with children!