A Bit of This, a Bit of That

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The New York Sun

Alexei Ratmansky, the 37-year-old artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, has breathed new life into that beleaguered institution since taking the reins in 2004. When the company performed here in 2000, it hardly seemed to resemble itself. Last year, however, the company returned to New York triumphant.

Mr. Ratmansky’s career would have been impossible in Soviet times. He graduated from the Bolshoi school and then had extensive performing experience in the West. While still a young dancer, he began to choreograph for Western and Russian companies.

Mr. Ratmansky’s return to Russia to run the Bolshoi is a function of the efforts made by the Yeltsin and Putin regimes to reach out to Russian artists who have achieved success in the West. So far, it has not proved a snare; unlike during Stalin’s earlier campaign to repatriate celebrated Russian emigres, today’s artists are not persecuted upon their return. (Although any mandate to tame a 250-member ballet company could be considered its own form of punishment.)

I admire what Mr. Ratmansky has done for the Bolshoi, but as a choreographer his identity remains for me blurry. This was demonstrated anew Thursday night, when his new ballet, “Russian Seasons,” was presented at New York City Ballet, as part of the Diamond Project. Mr. Ratmansky has seen and studied so much that his choreographic vocabulary still seems like an equivocation, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

The music for “Russian Seasons” is a suite of songs by Leonid Desyatnikov inspired by folk material. Mr. Desyatnikov, like Mr. Ratmansky, symbolizes the more positive aspects of today’s Russia: Long known to the avantgarde, he didn’t enjoy mainstream acceptance until the post-Soviet era.

“Russian Seasons” looks like it evolved from a line of dances originating with Bronislava Nijinska’s landmark 1923 ballet “Les Noces.” “Les Noces” is a tremendously powerful reworking of a peasant wedding into a massive, visceral abstraction. Jerome Robbins made his own version of “Les Noces” in 1965 for American Ballet Theatre, which was certainly influenced by Nijinska’s work. This seemed like the point of departure for Robbins’s 1969 “Dances at a Gathering,” to which Mr. Ratmansky also seemed to pay tribute on Thursday night.

“Russian Seasons” is danced by six women and six men. It perpetuates Nijinska’s percussive pointe work and use of tableau, as well as Mr. Robbins’s more light-hearted evocation of village fellowship. “Russian Seasons” also echoes the work of Central and Northern European choreographers like Mats Ek and Jiri Kylian, whose vocabulary is permeated with folk influences.

Mr. Ratmansky turns the internal action of “Russian Seasons” into a play by framing it (in the manner of William Forsythe) with incidents in which the dancers’ theatrical personas resort to dancers being themselves. At one point, Abi Stafford dropped out of what’s she was doing and started to massages her calf, then abruptly claimed a curtain call for herself. The other women on stage promptly followed suit.

It was apparent last year when the Bolshoi brought Mr. Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream,” to New York that he can tell a story, and this is indeed a rare gift among contemporary choreographers. The most interesting thing about “Russian Seasons” was the series of recurring appearances of Wendy Whelan, which approach a narrative throughline about a village eccentric, out of step with the ensemble.

Jenifer Ringer’s role seemed like a secondary reinforcement of Ms. Whelan’s role. Dancing with a group of youths, she is thrown from boy to boy, or climbs steps improvised by their outstretched hands. An impressionable type, she swoons forward, and they catch her. We see her having some sort of vision, as men surround her on their knees with arms outstretched while she sits looking into the audience.

At the end of “Russian Seasons,” Ms. Whelan returns, more disoriented than ever, and now wearing a peasant wedding gown and a floral chaplet. Now she seems like an abandoned bride, or a seduced maiden.

Mr. Ratmansky has given Ms. Whelan’s role (and all of “Russian Seasons”) a postmodern framing with references to many respective epochs. She could be Karamzin’s “Poor Liza,” considered the forerunner of Romanticism in Russian literature, or, for that matter, she could be Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn,” Ms. Whelan palpates the ground, recognizing it as consecrated earth. Albert Evans, meanwhile, provides solace to her. She embraces him, he lifts her almost in cruciform position, and they walk off.

Like all the Diamond Project premieres, “Russian Seasons” benefited from deluxe accoutrements, including mezzo-soprano Susana Poretsky singing in the pit, and costumes by Galina Solovyeva that parallel Mr. Ratmansky’s eclecticism, a postmodern melange of peasant and Place Vendome.

Until June 25 (Lincoln Center, 212-870-5570).

The New York Sun

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