“Do you feel you’ve changed as an artist?” Peter Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet asked the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky at a pre-performance talk here in Seattle recently. The two men had been discussing Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the country in which Ratmansky spent his early years, and where his parents still live. Ratmansky hesitated, then responded, “I’m definitely changed as a person.” Earlier he had said that he had never considered himself a political artist. Asked what that phrase, political artist, meant to him, he demurred. “I’m not sure yet.”
The conversation was part of the buildup toward the opening night of the company’s fiftieth-anniversary season, which included a new work by Ratmansky, his first choreography since the beginning of the war. That eighteen-minute work, “Wartime Elegy,” is set to a combination of music by Ukraine’s most prominent contemporary composer, Valentin Silvestrov, and Ukrainian folk music. Its imagery alternates between projections of sketches by the Ukrainian painter Matvei Vaisberg and the folk art of Maria Prymachenko. (The projections are by Wendall K. Harrington.)
The ballet is a tribute to a country Ratmansky left in the nineties to seek opportunities abroad. His career has taken him far from home, first to Canada, then to Denmark, then Russia, where he was the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004-2008. And eventually to the US, where he has been artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre since 2009. Because of his restless life, he asserted at the pre-performance talk, “before now, I had never felt that Ukrainian,” by which he meant, he explained, that he had felt like a citizen of the world, free to move about, following his curiosities and impulses. The war has altered his place in the world.
What images does being Ukrainian evoke in him? The new ballet, “Wartime Elegy,” is the work of an artist in grappling with unfamiliar emotions as well as with two almost impossible subjects: the trauma and loss of war—not abstract war, but real war, right now—and national identity. It is a big task for an artist better known for his embrace of ambiguity, for his playful imagination, his sense of irony, and most of all, his love of the language of ballet.
The strain caused by the desire to express something essential and profound while preserving his artistic temperament is evident in the ballet’s structure, which alternates between images of collapsing bodies tended to by angelic protectors and dancers in folk-inspired dress cavorting in gleeful displays of tongue-in-cheek bravura. Silvestrov’s vaporous, minimalist pieces for piano and strings (two sections from the composer’s “Four Postludes”) bookend irrepressible passages for Ukrainian fiddle and orchestra culled from an old recording in Ratmansky’s collection. Sketches of broken statuary—a fallen warrior and Nike, fragmented but still advancing—give way to brightly-colored flowers and naïf folk patterns. Darkness and light.
The effect is both moving and exhilarating, but also ambiguous and unfinished. The war isn’t over and no-one knows how it will end. And, as Ratmansky knows well, the image of Ukraine as a land of cheerful villagers wearing flowered wreaths and dancing to happy, infectious tunes, is as unreal as almost every other depiction of national identity. (How do you encompass the multiplicities of a nation?) But how these villagers dance! As soon as the excellent cast of eight swings into action, leaping, running, doing line dances, turning and flipping in the air, literally shaking a leg or pairing up for jaunty couples dances, the joyfulness, energy, and sheer dance impulse of the choreography sweeps you up. The corps dancer Kuu Sakuragi, who whips off ballet tricks as if they were nothing, is especially exciting here. You can sense Ratmansky’s own pulse quickening, his sense of fun taking over.
This sparkling interlude is framed by the feeling of brokenness and sadness of the opening and closing sections. Silvestrov’s music, composed of slow, deconstructed chords for the piano set over luminous clouds of strings, is diaphanous and touching, but lacks energy or impulse. It leaves the dancers adrift. Figures in black move in tidal patterns around the stage, following, consoling, and lifting each other up. Images of collapse return again and again; bodies fall in slow motion, only to be helped up by their fellow dancers. In a haunting recurring image, three women kneel with their heads down, while three men stand behind them, leaning forward in deeply tilted arabesques, like celestial protectors. Often, there is an odd-man-out—a dancer who arrives after the others, only to be absorbed into the group. But the dancers also pull away from each other; there is a feeling of strain, of chaos, and of loss. The first projected image eerily evokes the bound hands of Ukrainian civilians found in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine during the war.
In the final section, there is a note of hope, suggested by the projected image of Nike, goddess of victory. But the sketch is of a figure in fragments, full of scars; the price for victory is high. The dancers kneel and reach and, in the ballet’s last moment, a woman stands in arabesque looking toward the wings. The ending is unsatisfying, both too neat and too ambiguous. The suffering is too fresh, the future too uncertain. War itself is too dirty and painful to depict through dance. It’s clear that Ratmansky is still processing, struggling to make sense of what is happening.
“Wartime Elegy” was the middle work in an evening that opened with a revival of George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” a virtuosic, mind-bogglingly fast ballet from 1956, and closed with the company favorite “Carmina Burana,” choreographed in 1993 by one of the company’s longtime co-directors, Kent Stowell. In an affable curtain speech, Boal also took the opportunity to announce three promotions to principal status, for Jonathan Batista, James Kirby Rogers, and Cecilia Illiesiu; and the creation of an important position, of associate artistic director, for Kiyon Ross. Before now, Ross, who is African American, has been a dancer, choreographer, and teacher at the company, and more recently, director of company operations. It was a happy occasion.
That sense of good things happening was further heightened by an exciting performance of “Allegro Brillante,” led by Angelica Generosa and the just-promoted Jonathan Batista, further elevated by a robust, dynamic performance by the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra. What a sound! I had forgotten what a pulse-quickening piece Tchaikovsky’s unfinished third piano concerto can be. That electricity was reflected back by the sharp, clean, buoyant dancing of the cast. New York City Ballet take heed! This ballet is too often performed as a kind of exaltation of the lead ballerina, who dazzles with the precision of her pointes, the contrasts between expansive and staccato movement, fast and slow, luxuriating and piquant. Generosa did not stint on those qualities, but the surprise was to see that she was equaled by the musicality and presence, and clean footwork, of her partner. She had to share the limelight. The ensemble of eight, too, was focused and alive, providing an important counterbalance to the soloists. Mid-performance, I suddenly realized I hadn’t been so stirred by a performance of “Allegro” in a long while.
About “Carmina Burana,” what to say? This crowd-pleasing, over-long, hyper athletic ballet, set to Carl Orff’s neo-medieval cantata of the same name, deploys its large cast, onstage chorus, and hulking set (a giant wheel, representing the wheel of time) to rile up the audience. Sinners—a woman in red!—mix with monks and beggars. Villagers coexist with dancers in nude body stockings, the better to represent our naked humanity. Partners grapple acrobatically. In a courtly interlude, the elegant Lucien Postlewaite, who joined PNB’s corps in 2004, made a strong impression, dancing with a mix of sincerity and grace, radiating an easy charm.
Postlewaite is an exemplar of a quality possessed by the whole company, a kind of honesty that makes the choreography all the more clear and legible and engaging. It invites the audience in, whether the mood is elegiac, or ecstatic.