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Fighting on a New Front

I woke up this morning to the tragic news of Aleksei Navalny’s death in a Russian prison, and the first thing I thought of was the ballet premiere from the night before. That’s new. The New York City Ballet stage is not where one goes for current events, but Alexei Ratmansky’s latest work for the troupe directly addresses the fallout from the war in Ukraine, and movingly so. For this piece, “Solitude,” Ratmansky took inspiration from a newspaper photograph. In July of 2022, a 13-year-old boy was killed by a missile strike in Kharkiv while waiting at a bus stop. His father sat with his body for hours afterward, holding his hand. Ratmansky has turned this haunting, still image of paternal vigil into a vivid and impressionistic portrait of grief. 

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Solitude” by Alexei Ratmansky

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 15, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Joseph Gordon with Indiana Woodward, KJ Takahashi, Sara Mearns, and Chun Wai Chan in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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The curtain rises in silence on an exact recreation of the photo, with Joseph Gordon kneeling by the supine School of American Ballet student Theo Rochios. They do not move from this pose for almost the first half of the ballet. The set is murky, with some rocky clumps lining the back of the stage. (Moritz Junge did the scenery and costumes, which included danceable civilian wear as well as black velvet leotards and dyed gauzy skirts.) The Third Movement Funeral March from Mahler’s 1st Symphony begins—a cruelly perfect accompaniment. This music riffs on the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” in a plodding, minor mode. It was painful to imagine the father’s wishful denial in the “dormez-vous?” echoes.  

While Gordon sat in stupefaction with the boy’s hand in his own, Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan led the excellent supporting cast of thirteen in a swirl of uneasy activity all around them. Chan pulled Nadon into him in attitude sissonne, but she arched back in resistance with retracted arms. This unsettling motif was taken up by the full group, as was a chilling trope in which two men hopped on one leg and held their knees, evoking amputees. Interestingly, Tiler Peck also used a knee clasp in her new ballet this season; there must be something in the air. But in Peck’s piece the move looked like the drawing back of an arrow, and it prefigured larkish bursts. What a difference context and execution make. In contrast, the steps in “Solitude” projected stuntedness and regression, the vocabulary featured fractured lines and backwards traveling lifts. One of the most striking passages in this movement involved the men disjointedly lowering the women to the floor in canon on the diagonal, as if they were collapsible push puppets. 

Slowly, the cast began to interact with Gordon and Rochios. Ashley Hod hugged Gordon, who still sat numbly, while Nadon and Sara Mearns ushered the boy away. Rochios was tossed twice by the men and eventually ferried offstage. Was he journeying to the great beyond, or did the group represent the fateful forces that had separated him from his father in the first place? The cast unspooled until Gordon was left alone. At last, he rose. His first steps were tilted and flattened, like his new reality. He repeated a leaning, écarté degagé with pancaked palms. Much of the positioning throughout “Solitude” was open like this—for Gordon and the group. It was as if they had nothing left to hide or protect; this kind of loss leaves one splayed and defenseless. At first, Gordon could hardly muster the energy to dance. The moment that really got me was a painstaking, molasses-like preparation for a single tour. One could extrapolate that just waking up in the morning would be a struggle for this poor man.  

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

But this long, astonishing solo shifted gears again and again. Listlessness made way for passionate flurries, as if Gordon suddenly couldn’t bear to be still.  Other dancers made brief appearances, including Rochios, who materialized in a spotlight in the corner only to disappear when Gordon ran towards him (the dramatic lighting was designed by Mark Stanley). This segment peaked with Gordon performing a series of five coupés jetés into double swivel tuns that finished with him lying on his belly, pumping his arms with his hands tightly fisted. This was such an unusual posture, especially for ballet, and it summed up his futile rage and sorrow so well.  

The entire group gathered towards the end of “Solitude” to the spiritual conclusion of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Rochios solemnly joined Gordon in the same tilted degagé step from the top of his solo. Structurally, this last part reminded me of the Catacombs movement of Ratmanksy’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” In that dance, from a decade ago, Tyler Angle was shadowed by Gordon as they were manipulated by a kaleidoscopic group. But Catacombs stayed on one somber level where “Solitude” ended with an explosion: the full cast erupted from a cluster as the lights flashed and the music crested. The group zigged and leapt offstage like stags. Their abrupt dispersal revealed Gordon and Rochios, frozen again in the opening pose. Thus, the entire ballet became a glimpse into the father’s internal turmoil as he sat like a statue for hours on end. It was devastating, though cathartically beautiful.  

“Solitude” was a marvel of construction, like a perfect short story. Every aspect—the music, the set, the steps, the costumes—was integral to the narrative. But though Ratmansky’s point was clearly made, he left things open to interpretation. What did the sudden flare symbolize? Another bomb shelling? A rapturous summons for the boy’s soul? A flashing of the boy’s entire life before the father’s eyes? No matter how you read the piece, it was emotionally intense. Walloping, really. I have boys just a little smaller than Rochios; let’s just say it struck a chord.  

Davide Riccardo, Sara Mearns, and Chun Wai Chan in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

In the program, Ratmansky dedicated the ballet “To the children of Ukraine, victims of the war.” He did a stupendous job of making this cause visceral without preaching. Even the yellow roses with blue ribbons during the bows were a subtle statement. Ratmansky has been outspoken about his support for the Ukraine ever since the Russian invasion began, but he must have sensed that everyone here has stopped listening. He told Marina Harss in the New York Times: “Death is all around, and here I am, walking around safe. It’s a strange feeling.” I wondered if the ballet’s title referred to the choreographer as well as the father in the photograph. We live in a turbulent time, and we are plagued by media oversaturation. People have become inured to even the most harrowing wartime images and stories. But in “Solitude,” Ratmansky harnesses the power of music and movement to show instead of tell us about the war’s civilian casualties, and it is unbelievably effective. Ratmansky’s idea to bring one tragic snapshot to wordless, three-dimensional life was positively inspired.                      

The dancers also looked inspired. Gordon was wonderful throughout. Indiana Woodward made you watch her in each emphatic entrance. And Nadon and Mearns reached new heights together. Ratmansky used them as sister fates, prefiguring a dream pairing for “Concerto Barocco,” “Kammermusik,” and just about everything else. Mearns hit one glorious arabesque that seemed to stop time. This was Ratmansky’s seventh ballet for the company, but his first as the official artist in residence. He manages to elicit new colors from the dancers while adding new categories to the repertory. It’s all very exciting. 

School of American Ballet student Theo Rochios and Joseph Gordon in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Solitude.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Though the timely “Solitude” is a repertory outlier, it fit in very well between Jerome Robbins’s “Opus 19/The Dreamer” and Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements.” “Opus” is another ballet about what transpires in one person’s mind, and Taylor Stanley was a wonderful, individualistic Dreamer. They perform this role differently than anyone I’ve ever seen, taking certain steps much bigger than is standard. They also flirt with the dream being a nightmare more than most interpreters. And Stanley looks wonderful with Unity Phelan, their partner here. They are both so pliant, the many dipping penché attitudes they did opposite each other were beautifully symmetrical. 

“Symphony in Three” is Balanchine’s magnificent war ballet, though he made it thirty years after the fighting ended. His tactics were rather the opposite of Ratmansky’s in every way. Balanchine abstracted imagery from both theaters of World War II instead of zeroing in on one specific tale, making it more of a representation of the machinery of war. Unfortunately, it was not operating like a well-oiled machine last night. It was a little scattered and a lot underpowered, though there were bright spots. Three dancers made great debuts in lead roles: Isabella Lafreniere, Jules Mabie, and David Gabriel. I loved Lafreniere’s coy phrasing on her big battement to lunge exit step. And Adrian Danchig-Waring held down this Black & White just as he did “The Four Temperaments” last week. He danced boldly and clearly, leading the way for his younger castmates by example. Incidentally, like “Solitude,” this ballet finishes with a burst of energy and then a frozen tableau as the curtain falls. The pose was good, the finale step needed more spark. Next time, everyone onstage needs to kick as wildly as Gilbert Bolden III did on the sidelines.            

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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