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You Can’t Go Home Again

American Ballet Theatre’s fall season has been brief, too brief to form a sense of the new director Susan Jaffe’s tastes and intentions. That will come in time. This fall, we got a roundup of some of the company’s past repertory, from Balanchine’s 1941 “Ballet Imperial” to last year’s “Single Eye,” by the San Francisco-based Alonzo King. In the final program of the season, which ended on Oct. 29, the latter was paired with Alexei Ratmansky’s 2009 “On the Dnipro,” the first work for the company by its former choreographer in residence. Between the two, almost as a palate cleanser, came a short pas de deux by Gemma Bond, set to a rapturous aria from Gustave Charpentier’s opera “Louise.” I caught two performances, on Oct. 27 and at the Oct. 29 matinee.

Performance

American Ballet Theatre: “Single Eye” / “Depuis le Jour” / “On the Dnipro”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, October 27 and 29 (mat), 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Catherine Hurlin and Michael de la Nuez with dancers of American Ballet Theatre in “On the Dnipro” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

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Ratmansky moved on last spring and is now at New York City Ballet. It's interesting to see how his ballets are evolving now that he’s no longer there, and, more importantly, in the context of how the world has shifted around them. His “Piano Concerto No. 1,” from 2013, performed last week, felt diminished, untethered from its historical and cultural context.

“On the Dnipro,” in contrast, has gained in resonance. When Ratmansky made it, he had just finished a period as head of the Bolshoi. He was seen mainly as a Russian choreographer. But once in New York, he began to explore other aspects of his identity. In 2006, he made a ballet called “Russian Seasons” for New York City Ballet about which he said “the theme of the ballet is a question of whether I’m Russian at all…about trying to find an identity.” “On the Dnipro,” made three years later for ABT, is a Ukrainian story, set in a village on the banks of the Dnipro River, which traverses Ukraine. Kyiv, where Ratmansky grew up, also rises from the banks of the Dnipro. 

At the time, no one thought much of the ballet’s content, but now it feels like the opening of a new vein in the choreographer’s artistic imagination. Ratmansky went on to make several more ballets with Ukrainian themes. More recently, Russia’s invasion has placed his sense of allegiance and home in even greater relief; he has said that more than ever before, he feels Ukrainian. Thus, the story of a soldier returning to his village after the First World War, and finding himself changed, takes on a new resonance. 

The music, by Prokofiev, was composed in 1932 for Serge Lifar, also from Kyiv, and then director of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Its musical language lies somewhere between that of “Prodigal Son” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Despite its haunting melodies and interesting, dark harmonies, it is a problematic score, not always dance-friendly. For one, it is relentlessly heavy; even the more rhythmic, upbeat sections tend to be in minor keys, making it difficult to whip up high-spirited village dances. More challenging is the way each musical number resolves quietly, fading away, dampening the ballet’s momentum.

Cassandra Trenary and Jarod Curley in “On the Dnipro” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

Ratmansky has handled these problems as best he can, but still, the ballet has tended to lack the drive and inevitability of works like “Concerto DSCH” or “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.” Some things happen too quickly, others too slowly. In the story, a young soldier (Sergiy) returns home, only to find that he no longer loves his fiancée (Natalia) and is instead drawn to a happy-go-lucky girl in the village (Olga), who is, in turn, being forced to marry a man she does not love. It’s a situation straight out of Antony Tudor’s “Lilac Garden.” What adds to its poignancy is a deeper sense that Sergiy, the soldier, is simply not the same man he was before the war, and that this new love represents not just a change in affections, but the possibility of escape and happiness. For that happiness to be realized, two jilted lovers must suffer. Their suffering also matters. The situation is poignant in itself, and also resonates with what is happening today’s Ukraine, where families have been separated by war for too long.

One of the most interesting aspects of the ballet is the way it layers the characters’ and the towns’ stories one upon the other. As Sergiy ambivalently embraces his former girlfriend, we see two families agreeing to marry off their children, and the two young fiancés’ discomfort. Childhood friends—we have just seen them horsing around in an orchard—they now find themselves forced into marriage. At the wedding, the characters’ experiences overlap. We see the wedding party’s backs as they face the guests, who greet them and dance; meanwhile, Sergiy drinks and expresses his desperation in downstage, and Natalia suffers upstage. The scene is satisfyingly rich, complex.

Also striking is the way the characters depict their individual states of mind, in danced soliloquies. Sergiy’s feelings upon his return are expressed with a quiet sense of wonder, as he points out the places he remembers—“this place, and that place, and that place”—and digs his fingers into the earth. He forms a flower shape with his hands, a metaphor for the most intimate emotional memories. Later, he reunites with his friends, falling sideways into their arms, and they lift him up into the air, supporting him, re-absorbing him into the group. We see his mother’s desperate need to be reassured that he is really there, the way she can’t stop touching him, his legs, his heart, his face. In response, he digs his face into her skirt. 

Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns in “On the Dnipro” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

The most moving moment of all is a solo for Olga’s bridegroom. Abandoned at his own wedding, he erupts with rage and powerlessness: he turns, his leg shooting outward again and again, beats his feet together, stomps, pivots, spins, falls. As he repeats the same steps more and more frantically, he looks as if he might jump out of his own skin. The solo was created for David Hallberg; it allowed that Apollonian dancer to blaze in a way he had never before. Here, performed by James Whiteside (Oct. 27), and even more so by the young Michael de la Nuez (Oct. 29 matinee), the character’s mental breakdown became almost difficult to watch.

In fact, the Oct. 29 cast managed to make me forget my reservations about the ballet altogether. Jarod Curley (Sergiy), Cassandra Trenary (Natalia), and Michael De la Nuez (the bridegroom) were all new to their roles; Catherine Hurlin danced the role of Olga for the first time in 2019. Trenary imbued the unforgiving role of Natalia with greater nuance and strength; the moment in which she blesses the young couple and helps them escape from the village to its future was particularly powerful. Hurlin communicated Olga’s youth and her hunger for happiness with an affecting urgency. Olga isn’t a flirt—she’s just young, and wants to be happy. De la Nuez, an exciting young dancer in the company (still in the corps) blazed in the role of the bridegroom, as he had earlier in the evening in Alonzo king’s “Single Eye.” And Curley, stepping into the role of Sergiy, touchingly communicated the character’s ambivalence, the conflicted feelings of a man who no longer quite recognizes the person he was before, all while dancing with great classical purity. The ballet is sensitive to casting, and this was a moving performance.

Devon Teuscher in “Single Eye” by Alonzo King. Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

The opening work of the evening, “Single Eye,” is King’s first ballet for the company. The whole ballet has a shimmer to it. Its title is drawn from scripture: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6.22). The costumes, by Robert Rosenwasser, are in shades of ochre and gold, with a translucent sheen; textured, silken fabric forms a scrim, then a backdrop. Jason Moran’s score for piano, too, is like a landscape of glowing chords, and later a pattering of notes, like raindrops. Immersed in this radiant atmosphere, the dancers seem to swim and float like astral bodies. The air feels thick. They push, pull, twist, and bend deeply from their backs, or stretch out into space, like starfish. In a pas de deux early on, a woman pushes against her partner and hangs heavily against his back, and we feel the pressure of her body against his. In the solo that follows, a man moves deliberately, spinning and moving his arms as if in slow motion. On Oct. 27, the solo was danced by Calvin Royal III, with an almost sorrowful, meditative quality. On Oct. 29, it was Herman Cornejo, who highlighted crosscurrents of effort and repose hidden in the same steps. 

A woman wearing what look like fins at her hips, balances goddess-like in arabesque, and then pushes first one partner, and then another to the floor. Later, in a fast section accompanied by a heavy beat, dancers run out in quick succession, performing feats of balance and strength. De La Nuez does a series of pirouettes à la seconde that culminates with the free leg waving up and down (quite a feat). The ballet ends, rather abruptly, with a push-and-pull pas de deux set to sentimental music. Overall, the ballet has atmosphere to burn and an interesting movement quality, but lacks cohesion. Both casts performed well.

Katherine Williams and Jose Sebastian in “Depuis le Jour” by Gemma Bond. Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

Bond’s pas de deux “Depuis Le Jour”—highly romantic, full of yearning and lifts and deep backbends—is in a style we used to see a lot more of at ABT. It fits a certain idea of balletic love, swooning, gorgeous to look at. The aria to which it is set, sung by the soprano Maria Brea, describes the discovery of sensual love (“oh souvenir charmant du premier jour d’amour!”). The dancers, he shirtless and she in a beautiful floor-length ombré sheath, off pointe, lie next to each other before rising to fly across the stage into each other’s arms. Hee Seo and Joo Won Ahn projected just the right level of tasteful rapture; José Sebastian and Katherine Williams were more energetic but less ecstatic. It’s a pretty pas de deux, perfect for a gala program.  

The company is dancing well; it will be interesting to see them grow in whatever new repertory the company has in store. At the moment, it seems to be floating somewhere between its past and its future. Which way forward?

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of “The Boy from Kyiv,” about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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