Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Just Sit Right Back and You’ll See a Tale: Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna, a Grand Divertissement at the New York City Ballet


Even though the sailors in On the Town knew that the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, most sailors in dramatic literature from The Odyssey to "Gilligan’s Island" tend to get lost and end up with some sort of woman trouble on some island. It happens again in Alexei Ratmansky’s new work for the New York City Ballet, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, which is, let me tell you, one hoot of a ballet. Ratmansky did away with the story that composer Édouard Lalo used in his 1882 grand ballet with its pirates and slave girl set on the island of Corfu. I guess that’s a good thing as you’d probably need Johnny Depp to pull that off anyway.

Ratmansky did make something of a story, although he didn’t take it seriously. The island is still there, where a sailor (the excellent Robert Fairchild) searches for his love among three women. Minus two sailors, this is almost On the Town, which is almost Robbins’ Fancy Free. That the sailor finds his love (assumedly Namouna) at the end and is not totally distracted by the other two women makes him doubly smarter than that prince who gets into so much trouble at Swan Lake.

Let’s see, how many other ballets did this make me think of? A corps of golden gowned women wearing short, black, silent-filmish vamp wigs flows on and off the stage and they do a good deal of sinking down and rising up (Balanchine’s Serenade); fish dives (any grand ballet of your choice); one dancer stays up while the rest of the corps sinks down (Robbins’ The Concert); and that awful headgear of swimming caps or skull caps? (Balanchine’s Prodigal Son), and even a smoking siren. Aside from these droll references, there were comic moments rooted in the steps themselves or in the situations. For example, a humorous little trio featuring a delightful Daniel Ulbricht (who is something like Puck here ) with Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford in a tiny space where Ulbricht picks each girl up and moves them round and round over and over again and after all that circling, he walks off with them both. Sunny sailor boy goes off to smoke with the boys while the cigarette girl (Jenifer Ringer) does her dance with a few of her friends sharing and waving away the joys of smoking, and there’s more falling down again. (There is a LOT of falling down in Corfu.) In the original Namouna, the girl rolled a cigarette for her lover; here she just rolls. A dance can slip from lovely to loony with only a shift of a foot or an attitude of the arms or when a situation simply turns comical because we’re not sure where else to file it. We’re Lost. Wherever. But that’s okay.

For Namouna also had many lovely moments. At the very beginning, the waves of golden women flowing in and out of different formations (Swan Lake-like) compel your attention and wonder, and since we’re at the very beginning of the ballet, and the lush orchestral introduction (with its Wagnerian overtones that put the 19th century Parisians off back in 1882) have us sinking into mystery. Another time, the golden women surround the stage, their eyes magically gleaming. It was eerie, it was lovely. Well, those gleamings were hand cymbals, and the women clapped them together as Fairchild danced – marvelously – a magical/childlike/beautiful sequence. Even the cigarette dance, while brash, nevertheless had its lovely moments before the falling down started up.

After Jenifer Ringer smoked out, Sara Mearns reached out with elegantly gloved arms, flinging herself into superb jumps and turns. Then, at one point, Fairchild falls asleep and is rocked by several women, and he awakens (I’ll leave that reference for you to figure out). There’s also something like a water dance, with liquid moves, indeed as if swimming through water (ah, Balanchine’s playful Apollo). Speaking of Apollo, our searching sailor is looking for his muse among three women. Finally, Wendy Whelan and Fairchild approach each other but are each pulled back by three dancers (muses?) before they eventually touch hands. Their pas de deux is lovely and delicate, but also gasp-inducing as Fairchild lifts his water maiden/bird higher and higher and finally up so high that her toes touch the sky or is it the earth, because, dear readers, I’m not quite sure where in the universe we are at this point. Whelan’s hands flutter birdlike as she sinks into her sailor’s arms, and as the true lovers are united, the entire cast offers them a reverence before leaving them alone to kiss. Fade out.

Lalo’s music has much that is beautiful, and it calls to mind Debussy and Wagner as much as the Mediterranean. There was a lot to work with. But Ratmansky seems to have mostly heard the colors and moods as playfulness and steered into that, shorting emotionally strong moments. There was so much play and invention, and all of it marvelous, but Fairchild’s and Whelan’s duet, beautiful as it was, was pretty much an anti-climax. I’m glad they got together, but –oh, yeah, was that important? By the time we get to that final kiss, we’re exhausted. Fairchild is sweet in his innocent searching (a fairchild in short trousers), but I found myself thinking of Judy Garland parodying “searching, searching” in “A Star Is Born.” His wasn’t a whole character; it’s the dancer who appeals, not the sailor.

Ratmansky followed the changes in the music literally, ignoring everything but the superficial in its structure. Even though his invention of steps was boundless, the ballet felt empty at the end. Wonderful moments that could have opened up were quickly and nervously dismissed with a sudden joke as if to say, just kidding. In that way, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, is of its anxious, giggly times that can occasionally stop for a sincere moment and then nervously move on.

The orchestra, conducted by Fayçal Karoui, gave the ballet all the help it could; as did the gorgeous costumes (by Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov); as did the stunning lighting (by Mark Stanley). But you know what? The music really, really, sincerely was made for a real grand ballet, a La Bayadere or a Corsaire with several acts, big scenery, and a big payoff ending like a temple crashing down or digitally produced waves sweeping over the audience. Making a lot of entertaining steps is not making a ballet, although it can pass for one. Lalo had taken the music of his not very successful ballet (well, Debussy liked it) and created a few orchestral suites from them, and that’s the music Ratmansky used. The problem may simply be that you can take the music out of the ballet but you can’t take the ballet out of the music. Ratmansky’s stylistic references were not enough; they made for an Alice in Wonderland fantastic, episodic journey, both mad and mischievous, that couldn’t reach as high as Whelan’s toes. But it sure was fun to watch. And the dancing was fab.

George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 is located in a truly magical land, perhaps situated above the mystical mischief on Corfu. As soon as the curtain goes up, the simple placement of dancers, the lemon-colored costumes, the radiant light, and the blue background is enough to make the audience gasp before enjoying its well ordered universe of sunny classicism. I enjoyed the smooth, anchoring presence of Tyler Angle and Amar Ramasar and the ballet’s most beautiful echoing pas de deux, with two couples doing the swooning honors and the audience doing the sighing. Karoui conducted with a brisk verve but did not lose sight of the lyricism. There is some humor here, too, especially in the first and sixth variations, danced by Anna Sophia Scheller and Ashley Bouder. And that last vivacious section that sets everyone to skipping is set to an old folk song called “The Farmer’s Wife Has Lost Her Cat.” Now THAT’S a hoot.

Divertimento No. 15: Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Choreography by George Balanchine; costumes by Karinska; Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere May 31, 1956, American Shakespeare Theater, Stratford, CT.

Namouna, A Grand Divertissement: Music by Édouard Lalo, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky; Costumes by Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov; Lighting by Mark Stanley. Premiere: April 29, 2010 at The David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center.

The New York City Ballet spring season goes through June 27 and features seven new ballets and four commissioned scores in its “Architecture of Dance” theme at the Koch Theater. Namouna, A Grand Divertissement can be seen on May 12 at 7:30 p.m. along with Balanchine’s Duo Concertant and Concerto Barocco. Tickets are available at the theater’s box office and through the company’s Web site,

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 ( Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

(Caption: Sara Mearns and her wonderful white gloves in Namouna, A Grand Divertissement by Alexei Ratmansky for the New York City Ballet.)

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