At City Ballet, Alexei Ratmansky Can Let His Imagination Run Wild

When it was announced in December that the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky would be parting ways from American Ballet Theater as its artist in residence after 13 years, my first reaction was regret followed swiftly by hope. Would New York City Ballet, where his choreographic imagination has the fortitude and space to run breathtakingly free, lure him across the Lincoln Center plaza?

How often does a year start out with good news? On Thursday, it was announced that Ratmansky, one of ballet’s greatest choreographers, would join City Ballet as its artist in residence in August. Ratmansky, as he said to The New York Times, “wanted a change.”

Throughout his tenure at Ballet Theater, he made dances for other companies, including City Ballet, where his imaginative works had a way of enhancing the dancers — bringing out qualities you didn’t know they had — just as they gave his choreography a crystalline boldness. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

What sprang to my mind was a podcast conversation between Ratmansky and City Ballet’s associate artistic director, Wendy Whelan — a former principal who danced leading roles in four of Ratmansky’s works, and magnificently at that — in advance of Ratmansky’s ballet “Voices” in January 2020. Set to a score by the experimental composer Peter Ablinger, featuring recorded speech, “Voices,” full of texture and vivacity, was not the kind of dance he was making at Ballet Theater — or anywhere.

As Ratmansky told Whelan, he knew it would be a challenge and that “City Ballet would be a good place to challenge myself, because of the support of the dancers and the atmosphere in the studio and their readiness to jump into anything.”

Other parts of that conversation jumped out, too: his love of dancing works by George Balanchine, City Ballet’s founding choreographer; the imagination and individuality of the City Ballet dancers — “they are themselves,” he said, “and they will shape your steps according to their own ideas”; and his own palpable excitement at such a bold choreographic undertaking. “The new feeling for me,” he said, is that “I don’t have a sense of how it’s going to work, and I’m grateful to the dancers.”

Ratmansky, in a 2019 photo. In a conversation with Wendy Whelan, he said of City Ballet’s dancers, “they are themselves, and they will shape your steps according to their own ideas.”Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Really, the courtship between Ratmansky and City Ballet — a new New York City Ballet under the leadership of its artistic director, Jonathan Stafford, and Whelan — was in plain sight. In the podcast, Whelan, with her easygoing grace, spoke about the mutual respect between Ratmansky and the dancers in the studio, calling it a “fueling of both sides.” Ballet Theater was lucky to have Ratmansky for 13 years, but his real home always seemed to be with City Ballet. It’s in the dancing.

The six ballets he has created for the company are like dances unfurled from dreams, each with an ease born from daring, starting with the first, “Russian Seasons” (2006), a fresh, rich merging of idioms: classical, folk, pedestrian. There was also mystery, humor and musicality — a complete point of view present from the start. But each of Ratmansky’s works for City Ballet is so full, so abundant that it’s hard to believe there have only been six.

“Concerto DSCH” is as galvanizing and mysterious a dance as there ever was. Ratmansky’s inventiveness soars in the whimsical, enchanting “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement”; the painterly, emotional “Pictures at an Exhibition”; and the dark, enigmatic “Odessa,” set in the Ukrainian city after the Russian Revolution — a ballet that deserves a second life with careful coaching and a new cast. “Voices” is back for the winter season and not to be missed.

The artist in residence position pairs him with dancers hungry for a purpose beyond the already vital one that they have: keeping the repertory of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins alive. City Ballet is rare in that it has such a powerful foundation. At a time when many major ballet companies feel rudderless — programming meandering contemporary works, badly choreographed classics or new, mediocre story ballets in the hopes of boosting ticket sales — the appointment of Ratmansky has a big-picture resonance.

As City Ballet ushers in a new generation of dancers — unaffected, quick, musical, game — Ratmansky won’t be yet another choreographer circulating in and out. He will play a part in nurturing their artistry, in giving them a reason to keep pursuing their dancing dreams. And he will give marvelous veterans like Sara Mearns and Megan Fairchild a reason to stick around, a bright light for a company that has had its share of rocky moments recently — the resignation of its former director Peter Martins among accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse; a photo-sharing scandal among principal men; and a generational shift caused, in part, by the pandemic.

From left, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Georgina Pazcoguin, Christopher Grant and Megan Fairchild in “Russian Seasons,” the first ballet Ratmansky made for the company.Credit…Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

For dancers, the residual tension must be exhausting. And for a critic, so is the idea of sitting through any of Martins’s ballets. Here is another hope: That City Ballet will replace his version of “Swan Lake” with Ratmansky’s. It glows, it’s urgent and its pathos and fantasy doesn’t feel so removed from the present moment.

Throughout his ballets, his references might not be direct, but his work is in conversation with modern times, for better and worse. (A former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Ratmansky grew up in Ukraine, where he still has family. He has vowed not to return to Russia while President Vladimir V. Putin is in power.) He isn’t just another choreographer bouncing from one company to the next; he’s engaged with the larger world.

At the same time, he hasn’t exhausted the possibilities of classical vocabulary; like Balanchine, he instills steps with a crisp and sweeping musicality. And at City Ballet, he will be part of an artistic team that includes Stafford and Whelan, along with Justin Peck, the company’s resident choreographer and artistic adviser. Just as Ratmansky was ready for a change, City Ballet is in the middle of its own.

Who loses here? Ballet Theater. Even with a new full-length ballet by Christopher Wheeldon, the company’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House, the last programmed by its outgoing artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, seems like a rehash of the past: “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake.” (And no Ratmansky.) Under its new artistic leader, Susan Jaffe, the company may blossom while preserving its roots, but for now, its repertory confines Ballet Theater to another time.

That is not to say that City Ballet hasn’t had misfires in its recent commissions. But with Ratmansky’s new position, suddenly, the ballet world — or one part of it — doesn’t feel so stuck. Beyond his choreographic output, Ratmansky, who will create at least one ballet a year as well as rehearsing his existing repertory, could become a stabilizing force. He knows what he wants and he pushes to get it, but he also has an indelible rapport with dancers. You get the feeling they’re willing to fight for each other.

What happens when a dancer goes to the limits for such a choreographer? In a behind-the-scenes video about Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH,” the principal Sara Mearns describes a lift in which she is held above her partner with one leg extended to the side. “He said, ‘You need to look up to the sky like it’s the heavens, and then I want you to actually close your eyes,’” she says. “So I do, and it’s amazing and so magical.”

He didn’t just guide her body, he led her spirit. These are the moments when ballet becomes more than ballet. Dancers shape the music, the air and, as Ratmansky said, the steps to reveal — I like to think — something about themselves. With Ratmansky at City Ballet, the future seems bright, effervescent. It’s like what Balanchine used to say to his dancers: There is only now. I love the idea of now.

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