New York City Ballet
Sara Mearns and New York City Ballet dancers in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Ratmansky’s New Voice

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices” premieres at New York City Ballet

Performance
New York City Ballet: “Polyphonia” / “Bright” / “Opus 19/The Dreamer” / “Voices”
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, January 31, 2020
Words
Faye Arthurs

The New York City Ballet presented its first premiere of the year Thursday night: Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices.” This piece marked a welcome departure for Ratmansky. Erenow he has essentially worked in two modes: emotionally resonant, peasant-inflected abstraction or grand-scale historical reconstruction. “Voices” is neither, though it contains elements of both (like folksy accents for Megan Fairchild, and challenges of classical ballet technique—for almost everyone). Its closest antecedent, perhaps its inverse, is his “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium”—a set of solos for seven men which was choreographed for ABT in 2016. But that piece was more conventional, with steps that hewed closely to its Bernstein score.

The “Voices” score is comprised of selections from composer Peter Ablinger’s “Voices for Piano”—which is pretty much what it says it is: a series of recorded voices accompanied by piano. But the piano does not try to complement and support the voices as in most music, instead it loosely tries to mimic each voice’s pitch, timbre, and cadence. (Stephen Gosling played the piano live along to the taped voices in the performance.) The six recorded voices featured in the ballet all belong to feminist women. They ranged from the obscure (Bonnie Barnett—a jazz vocalist/LA radio host, and Gjendine Slålien—a Norwegian folk singer who influenced composer Edvard Grieg) to the famous (Nina Simone). The three others were Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, Japanese actress Setsuko Hara, and Canadian painter Agnes Martin. Their soundbites were all spoken, even the singers were not singing. These prose excerpts made for a jagged, unmelodic soundscape—a first for Ratmansky, who normally capitalizes on the passion inherent in the works of Dvořák or Desyatnikov.

The piece started with the curtain parting just a peek, to reveal Sara Mearns (as a pseudo Bonnie Barnett) standing still in a plain leotard. The curtain quickly lifted to expose floor spotlights at each vertically lined wing’s base, and a sound graph across the back scrim that tracked the waveform frequencies of the voices. The clever set and spare costumes (camisole leos for the women and tank biketards for the men, all in dark jewel tones) are by Keso Dekker. Soon Mearns was on the move, shredding through Ratmansky’s many difficult passages: whirling manèges, frozen arabesques, and odder bits like bourrées in second position coming straight downstage towards the audience. At the end, a chain of men linked together at the elbows appeared briefly to escort her offstage. But Roman Mejia lingered to execute a brilliant series of coupés jetés en tournant in silence. Then more men returned to drop off Megan Fairchild for her solo turn as Gjendine Slålien.

Megan Fairchild and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices.” Photograph Erin Baiano

Though the format was tightly set until a group finale—female solo to a voice and accompaniment, retrieval by a group of men, solo male bravura step in the quiet, and the return of the male escort service to deposit a new woman—there were interesting variations which hinted at the voice artists’ biographies. Fairchild, impersonating a beloved figure in Norway, was carefully carried away by the men, but Unity Phelan as Forough Farrokhzad was chased in by her entourage and exited hiding behind them—a symbol of her fraught divorce and artistic persecution?

Sometimes Ratmansky’s choreography responded to the rhythmic syntax of the words; sometimes it focused on the semantics. (Though I could only extrapolate this from the three excerpts in English, as I don’t speak Norwegian or Farsi or Japanese.) Georgina Pazcoguin—riveting as the avatar for Nina Simone’s husky utterances—literally acted out Simone’s words a few times in her solo. When Simone spoke “I ran away,” Pazcoguin ran offstage for a moment. When she repeated the phrase “it’s just a feeling” Pazcoguin threw her arms open and flung her head back each time. The group finale, which was danced to the Agnes Martin excerpt, also approximated imagery from her speech. When Martin said “it’s called a tree,” the entire cast—some hoisted aloft, some contorted on the ground—sculpted themselves into a beautiful arboreal simulacrum.

Lauren Lovette in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The oddball quality of the “Voices” score lent itself well to Ratmansky’s humorous side—and he can be funny. The ladies had some slapstick moments—as when Fairchild plopped to her rear with a smile and presentational arms. But the men were really the comic relief. Each time one of the guys performed his tricky solo step the audience chuckled and clapped. Ask la Cour’s turn was my favorite. He did a long diagonal of brisés volés, and it was amusing to see such a giant beanpole of a man executing a step normally reserved for tiny Bluebirds. Did I mention he did it travelling backwards instead of forwards? Hilarious. After the cacophonous intricacy of the women’s solos—all that layered interplay between the pointedly biographical and the purely auricular—the silent simplicity of the men’s tasks was downright hysterical.

The cast of ten was wonderful overall, with the five women particularly strong in their solos, I only wished for a little more differentiation between them. Much of the time the women operated on one powerhouse level. The universally staccato nature of human speech was perhaps at fault. Ratmansky’s response to the relentlessly pattering, clipped nature of the spoken word often involved spiky passés and attitudes, sissones, running and jumping and fiendish turns. Far be it from me to complain about strong women eating up the stage with impressive feats, but there was a bit of sameness to the proceedings. I found myself most drawn in by the two solos with the most character and differentiation: Fairchild’s bubbly account of Slålien and Lauren Lovette’s mysterious take on Setsuko Hara. Fairchild’s dance was full of folksy flourishes—claps and thigh slaps and little jig steps. Lovette’s solo was the calmest, most introspective of the lot. She responded to Hara’s breathiness and sighs with secretive delicacy.

Peter Walker and Mira Nadon in Justin Peck’s “Bright.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The program also featured two ballets on repeat from the fall season, but with debuts: Justin Peck’s “Bright” and Jerome Robbins’s “Opus 19/The Dreamer.” The young corps dancer Mira Nadon stepped into Sara Mearns’s role in “Bright,” partnered by Peter Walker debuting in the role originated by Russell Janzen. Though there is something puppyish about Nadon—right down to the messy strand of hair escaping from her bun—it is clear that she is destined to someday be best in show. And “Bright” proved itself to be versatile enough to handle the maturity of Mearns and Janzen as well as the raw eagerness of Nadon and Walker; where once it appeared as a meditation on grace, it now looked more like a glimpse of first love.

Unity Phelan stepped into the female lead in “Opus 19” for the first time, and she was gorgeous. Though this ballet mostly revolves around its male lead, the titular dreamer, lately I have been especially excited by the casting of its leading lady: with Phelan and Lovette. (Though I should mention that Gonzalo Garcia gave a lovely, emotionally invested performance on Thursday.) These two women are both uber-talented, and both successfully flung themselves into this wildling part. 

Unity Phelan and Gonzalo Garcia in Jerome Robbins’ “Opus 19:The Dreamer.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” from 2001, opened the program. I hadn’t seen it in a long while, and I was impressed with how well it has held up. The funhouse shadows in the opening Disorder section still looked cool, the romantic swooshing and waltzing in stark leotards still felt radical, and the central pas de deux still felt modern and eerie. It was well danced by the entire cast of eight, five of whom returned later for the Ratmansky premiere. Which brings me to my only real quibble about the evening: there was so much overlap in casting.

Silas Farley and Sara Mearns in in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

The bulk of “Voices” was its solos for five women, four of whom danced major roles earlier in the program. Perhaps Mearns’s entry in “Voices” would’ve seemed newer if we hadn’t already seen her solo in a similar purple leotard in “Polyphonia” (as different as those solos were). And Phelan’s clawing dance in “Voices” would’ve felt fresher too if she hadn’t just prowled through “Opus” directly preceding it. It’s not like there isn’t enough depth in the roster: big stars like Teresa Reichlen, Tiler Peck, and Ashley Bouder had the night off. And I do not mean to knock the recidivists! I’m always delighted to see Mearns, Fairchild, Phelan, and Lovette dance anything. All four are truly at the top of their game right now. But it was a disservice to the Ratmansky to have the majority of his premiere cast recycled.

Nonetheless, “Voices” was fresh enough, and it marks an exciting development in Ratmansky’s career. Though it did not move me like his “Russian Seasons” or “Concerto DSCH” (and I secretly covet that experience every time I see one of his ballets), I’m perfectly happy to watch him experiment too. And if he wants to play around with a half-mast Tanowitz curtain, I’m fine with that. After all, George Balanchine was the ultimate shapeshifter, making works as disparate as “Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir,” “Union Jack,” “Episodes,” “Apollo,” and “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” The vast range of his rep is one of the reasons the NYCB exists today. Jerome Robbins was no slouch at diversifying his oeuvre either: from “The Cage” to “Moves” to “Brandenburg.” It’s thrilling to see Ratmansky step outside of his wheelhouse, and it’s a privilege to bear witness to his artistic expansion.      

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