Why program George Balanchine’s 1968 ballet “La Source” with Alexei Ratmansky’s 2010 “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement,” as New York City Ballet has done this season? The thing that binds the two ballets together is a similar spirit, born of their common origin: the Paris Opéra. Both are set to lustrous music composed by 19th century French composers (Léo Delibes and Édouard Lalo) for grandiose ballets filled with adventure and set in magical locales. Both Balanchine and Ratmansky have dispensed with their original plots, to differing degrees—Ratmansky keeps the whiff of a story and the notion of characters with specific traits, while Balanchine uses the music as the setting for a series of pure dances, like a delicious meal. In both, wit, lightness, and stylishness predominate.
“Namouna” is also quite long, while “La Source” is on the short side, which makes for a nicely-balanced program. It’s fair to ask whether “Namouna,” whose twelve sections add up to almost an hour, is perhaps a little too long. But the ballet is so full of ideas, with each section so different from the others, that it would be difficult to know what to cut. (Ratmansky has already shaved off a few minutes since the premiere.) Just when you think it may be about to outlast its welcome, another strange, funny, or beautiful thing happens. Here’s an example: After a rousing finale-like number, in which scores of dancers advance in rows and a soloist unleashes a volley of beaten jumps, one of the ballet’s most seductive sections begins. A group of women in yellow calf-length pleated dresses—the costumes, by Rustam Khamdamov, are weird and fabulous—lolls and stretches to the sound of a harp and tambourine, like sylphs at the sauna. When the hero of the ballet—a boyish figure in a sailor suit—turns up, they put a spell on him, and then rock him to sleep.
“Namouna” is filled with such odd and fantastical situations, strung together like the fragments of a story, without the connective tissue. The result is like flipping through a picture-book. Each “number” is set to music that sets a scene, either tongue in cheek, like the “cigarette dance,” with its slithery melody for the clarinet; or the fiery Spanish dance, for a female powerhouse who punches out a gauntlet of bravura steps: sauts de basque, turns in which, mid-turn, one leg traces an enormous arc in the air, more jumps, yet more turns. (The woman ends up, as one might expect, flat on the floor.) From the beginning, you have the feeling that you have been transported to a fantasy world, drawn in by an overture almost Wagnerian in its sweep, but without the heaviness.
The whole cast dances ferociously from start to finish; one of Ratmansky’s characteristics is how much he is able to pull out of dancers. And they seem galvanized by the effort. At the April 25 performance, it was heartening to see Unity Phelan (a début), a highly versatile dancer with beautiful lines who often comes across as bland, use her natural slinkiness to evoke the shy curiosity of an introvert, only to suddenly dive into a lunge, or swoop her arms through the air as if to ward off evil spirits. Daniel Ulbricht, Emma Von Enck, and Olivia MacKinnon were a lively and mischievous threesome, weaving in and out of each other with small, sprightly steps. (Both Von Enck and MacKinnon were débuts.) Mira Nadon, who was thrown on at the last minute to dance the cigarette solo—step, step, shake a leg, take a puff, hop on pointe, start over—has just the right glamor and comic timing. At times she even reminded me of the originator of the role, Jenifer Ringer. But Nadon’s wildness (she has a tendency to grab every new role by the horns) sometimes got in the way of the clarity of the steps. Emilie Gerrity seemed daunted by the bravura required for the Spanish dance. (She often seems to doubt herself, which is a shame.) And Taylor Stanley, while piquant, quick, and light-footed in the solos, had trouble with the big lifts in the final pas de deux.
“Namouna” came in the second half of the evening, after “La Source.” This suite to Délibes is seldom performed, and sometimes referred to as second-rate Balanchine, but it’s so playful, delicate, witty, and stylish that it’s hard to understand why. The music, too, is of a rare opulence, with delicious melodies and buoyant rhythms that beg to be danced to. The ballet begins with a waltz, danced here by Indiana Woodward (a début) and Joseph Gordon. The two walk together, until he, oh so lightly, lifts her up into the air and puts her down again, as if placing her on a little cloud. Both are in pink. Later, in their second pas de deux, he offers his hand and she barely touches it, or he walks around her, offering his left hand, and then his right, as she revolves in arabesque. In turns, he catches her only at the last minute. Everything glorifies the effortless self-sufficiency of the ballerina. (And no wonder, the part was created for Violette Verdy.) In one of her solos, she does gargouillades and then flips her wrists, as if to say, voilà! She can do it all, with a wink.
For once, Joseph Gordon, whose technique and charisma often seem subdued, is able to show what he can do, and with what style. The male role in “La Source” is one of Balanchine’s rare showcases of male technique. But it is virtuosity is combined with nonchalance, which suits Gordon perfectly. He performs composite steps that resolve into new steps, without a breath or pause. A series of emboités becomes a series of turns in arabesque, which then evolves into a set of cabrioles in each direction, and then into a circle of leaps. Not only does Gordon perform them impeccably, but he looks engaged, relaxed, and happy. I sometimes wonder if he would be happier in a more classically-inclined company.
The solos and pas de deux are interspersed with pretty dances for an ensemble of eight women and a female soloist, here Baily Jones. This soloist role is reminiscent of the one in “Scotch Symphony,” presentational and pert. Jones wasn’t having a particularly good night–her turns, especially, were off. And it’s true, these sections feel a bit like filler. But if they never outlast their welcome, it is because, like the rest of the ballet, they ooze charm and lightness. Violette Verdy said it best: “La Source is a moment of incredibly refined French dancing—ornamented, very detailed, with a lot of subtle nuances of charm.” And, like “Namouna,” it has the wonderful quality of not taking itself too seriously.