Our dance calendar would not be the same without an annual trip to New York to check in on the latest work by ABTâ€™s artist-in-residence, Mr. Alexei Ratmansky. His endearing ballets haveÂ a 19th century flavour, and are typically crafted using traditional ballet vocabulary, but they mix this traditional choreography with highly individual details, soÂ Ratmanskyâ€™s balletsÂ also seem completely fresh, thanks to a pool of rich cultural references and idiosyncratic touches, aka #Ratmanskyness.
And so to the Met this summer in time to catch the final two Ratmanskys of the season: Whipped Cream, a new full-length story ballet, and Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, part of the Tchaikovsky Spectacular mixed bill, which also contained extracts of other Ratmansky worksÂ (Auroraâ€™s Wedding or the Nutcracker pas de deux, depending on the evening) presented alongside Balanchineâ€™s Mozartiana and Marcelo Gomesâ€™s AfterEffect.
Letâ€™s start with Whipped Cream. This is a grand-scale, blow-the-budget production (made on aÂ $3 million budget, wow!) and the productÂ is impressive indeed. The idea to collaborate with pop surreal artist Mark RydenÂ was a stroke of genius, resulting in aÂ look that is â€œso metaâ€. Ballet, like Ryden’s own art, has that quality of looking cute and frivolous on the surface, while being capable of revealingÂ deeper ideas and symbologyÂ once you engage with its themes.
Here, it’sÂ almost as if we have a ballet of ballets. Many reviews have noted the similarities with The Nutcracker, andÂ nods to other classics such as La BayadÃ¨re (a scene featuring a corps de ballet of whipped cream â€“ delicious! – reminiscent of the shades scene) and perhapsÂ Giselle (in the veils worn by the whipped creams and in some of the choreographic patterns). AsÂ in CoppÃ©lia, there is also that contrast between comedy and dark mystery: the light, colourful world of Princess Praline, inhabited by characters like the Chocolate Chip man, bouncy Cupcake Children and a Worm Candy Man who serpentines across the stage, in contrast to the grim and mysterious hospital room where an army of syringe-wielding nurses await, their fierceness reminding me of the Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle.
The plot centersÂ around a boy who eats too much whipped cream in a confectioner’s shop. Lying in hospital, he is treated by a melancholic doctor (Alexei Agoudine wearing a giant doctor’s head with impressive skill) and later hallucinates about a candy kingdom where the beautiful Princess Praline and herÂ assortment of colourful companions live happily. The score, by Richard Strauss, was originally composed for a ballet called SchlagobersÂ (i.e. whipped cream) which was never a critical success and had been largely forgotten. In Ratmansky’s hands, this “Rosenkavalier-icious” pieceÂ becomes fast and vibrant choreography: the Boy is givenÂ the virtuoso solos, with Daniil Simkin thrilling in technique and hilarious in the theatrics. Princess Praline (Sarah Lane, delightful) makes her triumphant entrance to rescue the boy atop a signature Ryden Snow YakÂ in a breathtakingÂ coup-de-thÃ©Ã¢tre, whileÂ Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera) and Prince Coffee (Marcelo Gomes) fill Strauss’s dreamlike and lushÂ passages with aÂ lyrical courtship pas de deux.
Another night, a different Ratmansky piece, albeit with almost the same cast. Souvenir dâ€™un Lieu Cher is a short and sweet work made on Dutch National Ballet (and itâ€™s interesting to note that while ABT was preparing to premiere it, DNB themselves had just acquired Ratmanskyâ€™s Shostakovich Trilogy). It is set to a haunting orchestration – by the superb Glazunov (who composedÂ the masterpiece that is Raymonda)Â -Â of Tchaikovskyâ€™s piece of the same name.
The score has an earworm-like quality, in particular the Scherzo section where we see a dance off between Marcelo Gomes and Alban Lendorf (think Les LutinsÂ minus whimsy), and the choreographic responseÂ seems to have two distinct sections, a split which isÂ perhaps a bit problematic: the first one, full of feeling, made me think about Tudorâ€™s Lilac Garden, where Stella Abreraâ€™s character is now attached to Gomes, but clearly has a history with Lendorfâ€™s character, who in turn dances passionately with Sarah Lane, a tour-de-force preambleÂ where none of the dancers leave the stage. In the second section, which leads to a big finale, the dancers respond to the score with fast footwork, they are now full of energy. It is almost the reverse of Russian Seasons: the emotional punch happens early in the ballet, and the innocent playfulness closes it. CouldÂ the title refer to our own souvenirsÂ of childhood and to a desire to go back to leisurely, uncomplicatedÂ times?
In addition to discovering Souvenir dâ€™un Lieu Cher, the Tchaikovsky Spectacular programme offered us the opportunity to see the one and only David Hallberg returning to the stage. Balanchineâ€™s Mozartiana, by Hallbergâ€™s admission one of his favorite pieces,Â is a pure dance work that suits hisÂ danseur noble frame, and he looked super stylish alongside a glamorous Christine Shevchenko, crystal clear in techniqueÂ and newly promoted to the rank of principal dancer. Another programmeÂ highlight was Marcelo Gomesâ€™sÂ AfterEffect,Â which is set to the evocative pieceÂ Souvenir de Florence.Â Despite being centered on three symbolic characters â€“ The Man (Cory Stearns), His LossÂ (Cassandra Trenary) and His Hope (Jeffrey Cirio) â€“ Marcelo shows great skill and musicality in deploying large male and female sectionsÂ of theÂ corps de ballet. How fabulous to see this wonderfulÂ dancer move to a different phase of his career by creating work on his younger colleagues. I remember reading an interview a while ago where Gomes expressed a desire to one day choreograph a new full-length story ballet and, with Ratmansky leading by example at ABT, the stage seems to be truly set.Â We can only hope for more.