At the start of the Ratmansky/Welch double bill at Staatsballett Berlin last week, Linda and I did our maths while enjoying a drink at the Schiller Theatre: together, we have now seen 22 Ratmansky works, having travelled over 9,000 miles (excluding the miles on the way back!) for them. Namouna, a Grand Divertissement, originally made for New York City Ballet, is our 23rd Ratmansky ballet. And how we delight in growing our collection every ballet season. These are works that, regrettably, are simply not being performed by UK companies (I wonder if Ratmansky will get another chance with The Royal Ballet soon?). A real shame for us fans.
Luckily, companies like the Mariinsky continue to bring Ratmansky ballets to these shores, so thanks to them we have seen Middle Duet, Anna Karenina, Le Corsaire and the brilliant 2002 Cinderella (which was first performed in Edinburgh, is now getting its London debut, a must). The Bolshoi’s “Ballet Live” seasons have also given us the opportunity to catch Lost Illusions and The Bright Stream at cinemas, while the National Ballet of Canada last toured to London with the choreographer’s impactful take on Romeo and Juliet.
A few of his pieces, however, demand travelling for. Such is the case with Namouna, a “bonkers ballet”, or as I have said before (referring to Ratmansky’s equally brilliant The Little Humpbacked Horse), a “screwball comedy ballet”. Imagine a sea world inhabited by Ondine and her nymph companions, subtract the tragedy, substitute a goofy-yet-adorable sailor (perhaps fresh out of Robbins’s Fancy Free?) for Palemon, and you are getting close to the heart of Namouna.
Using some of the characters of the original 1882 ballet by Lucien Petipa (Marius’s brother) and a very catchy, tuneful score by Edouard Lalo (the very same composer of Suite en Blanc), but stripping the dance off a plot, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement does what every so–called divertissement should do: it amuses, whereas most do not (I’m thinking of the tired White Cat and Red Riding Hood numbers in Sleeping Beauty).
The main character linking this series of strange encounters is the goofy/adorable sailor (here danced by Rainer Krenstetter), who could be Ulysses or Hylas encountering sirens and temptresses. These glamorous pin-ups range from Louise Brooks to Esther Williams (I like to think Ratmansky watches the same vintage movies as I do), and they dazzle our hero with their cymbals, cigarettes, lullabies, ondulating arms, and their headgear (right out of Ziegfeld’s Follies). And let us not forget Ratmansky’s graceful choreography, his trademark toe-breaking, nail-splitting, jumps en pointe and finally, *that* stolen kiss for the lead siren (Iana Salenko).
Again, as with other Ratmansky ballets, there is so much in terms of characterization and detail, that one viewing is definitely not enough. But with the work being an acquisition from NYCB, ‘how does Berlin Staatsballett?’ tackle it, I hear you ask. The company sails (ha!) through the technical challenges and we were particularly impressed with Ulian Topor, who bounced with energy and humour in the original role created for Daniel – the jump – Ulbricht.
The casting of Iana Salenko was equally inspired, not only because of her lyrical and technical qualities, but because she truly looks like a vintage beauty from the twenties. Elsewhere, some of the spunk and speed, so characteristic of NYCB’s dancers, as you can see here in this extract with Sara Mearns, might occasionally have been lost in translation. But it could well be that Namouna will settle into the company, and that Berlin Staatsballet will, in time embrace the work as if it were its own, perhaps like the Bolshoi has done with Russian Seasons. And, Tamara Rojo, in case you ever read this, a tip: Namouna would also look wonderful on English National Ballet.
In sharp contrast to Namouna’s many moments of pure quirk and joy was the programme opener, Stanton Welch’s Clear, a solemn and rigorous academic piece originally made on ABT to pay homage to 9/11 (the connection becoming clearer as the work moves towards the central melancholy pas de deux). There are no difficulties in translating the work here: the seven male dancers and lead ballerina Elisa Carrillo Cabrera are compelling. They dance to two different Bach concertos (never my favorite composer for ballet, but admirably used here) with crystal clarity. In addition to Mikhail Kaniskin and Marian Walter (razor-sharp in delivering a series of male fouettés, no less!), the work offers the company’s departing AD Vladimir Malakhov the opportunity to show that he’s still got a gorgeous line. A programme well worth watching more than once. And worth traveling many miles for.