New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

April 29, 2017 (afternoon)
Russian Seasons, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement
May 4, 2017 (Spring Gala)
Jeu de Cartes, After the Rain Pas de Deux, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Odessa (world premiere)

— by Jerry Hochman

I’ve had the pleasure, and occasionally the discomfort, of reviewing many ballets choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. At times his purpose, if there is one beyond simply presenting abstract responses to musical stimuli, takes many exposures to comprehend. At other times he appears intent on creating an historically accurate reproduction more suited for a museum than a contemporary audience. By far, however, I’ve found most of his ballets to be compelling, both as a consequence of the undeniable craftsmanship and intelligence behind them, but also because of the stories that he explicitly or implicitly tells that can make you think and leave you emotionally drained – at the same time.

These qualities came to the forefront again as I watched the world premiere of Ratmansky’s new ballet, Odessa, at NYCBs annual Spring Gala last Thursday, especially so soon after having seen the second of ten programs in the company’s Here/Now Festival, an all-Ratmansky evening consisting of two ballets: Russian Seasons and Namouna, A Grand Divertissement.

Odessa and Russian Seasons seem totally different from each other, but they have more in common, besides outstanding craftsmanship, than one can immediately discern. Neither ballet tells a story per se, but both speak to memories of a time and place, to a “folk” history of sorts, and to what it means to be human. Each is a remarkable piece of work.

Russian Seasons, which premiered in 2006, is a gem of a ballet. Without plagiarizing folk traditions, Ratmansky mines them, creating a new way of presenting and seeing them as he goes. In no way has he here copied any particular folk dance, nor has he adapted and repurposed them. The genius of Russian Seasons (and I don’t use that word lightly) is that it absorbs the essences of these folk dances without reducing them to quaint irrelevance or mimicking them, and that it never treats its characters as vessels either for steps or imposed emotions – these characters have human faces not just because they’re members of the species, but because of the soul that permeates the ballet’s every choreographic pore.

According to NYCB’s program notes, the accompanying composition by Leonid Desyatnikov, The Russian Seasons, follows the quarterly (seasonal) rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church, and uses melodies and texts adapted from traditional music from Russia’s Lake District (an area roughly bordering Russia’s boundary with Belarus). There is no indication whether Ratmansky has incorporated references in his ballet to folk dances from that area, but folk references they undoubtedly are.

The ballet, like the composition, is divided into twelve distinct segments (three each for the four seasons), each related to the others, but each also with its own personality. Knowing the Russian Orthodox seasonal rituals upon which the musical movements are based might be illuminating, but there does not seem to be anything particularly ritualistic on display – at least not in a way that is determinative. On the contrary, it’s those human qualities that perhaps underlie the rituals – love, desperation, suffering, celebration, joy – that are paramount.

It’s a beautiful ballet to watch. There is no set; the ballet is enlivened by the peasanty simple, solid color costumes (and occasional head coverings) by Galina Solovyeva that are clean and crisp looking but in no way ostentatious. And at times, many times, Ratmansky’s imaginative and inventive – yet still evocative – visual descriptions of human emotions can take one’s breath away.

The cast performed magnificently, but that word fails to convey the emotional energy that every member of the cast transmitted. The leads – Megan Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, and especially Sara Mearns (the latter two having spectacular solos), and Taylor Stanley, Amar Ramasar, and Zachary Catazaro (who is already having an exceptional season) never missed a beat – musical of course, but also of the emotional heart that Ratmansky imbues into each of his characters.

I’ve frequently written that with respect to his transmission of a sense of humanity in so many of his pieces beyond what might be necessary simply to make his characters real, Ratmansky shows an artistic kinship to Jerome Robbins, many of whose ballets also reflect that same sense. But with Russian Seasons Ratmansky also evokes the emotional sensibilities of Antony Tudor, especially in a piece such as Dark Elegies. Ratmansky does the same with Odessa, but differently.

From what little I knew in advance – that the score is another composition by Desyatnikov, that it includes a similar-sized cast, and, obviously, that it relates to another geographic area of what was part of, or under the influence of, Russia – I anticipated a Ratmansky “other dances”: an artistic elaboration similar to Russian Seasons, but applied to another segment of the country. Odessa is not at all that. But as it evolved, I saw a commonality beneath the surface.

There are two keys to understanding Ratmansky’s new ballet – both obvious, but in a not so obvious way: the piece’s title, and its accompanying music.  And a bit of background is essential.

Odessa is a port city on the edge of the Black Sea in Ukraine. For much of its fascinating history it was under Russia’s sphere of influence, and was the third or fourth largest city within the Russian Empire, with a wealthy mercantile-based economy (it was a gateway to Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire, and points east) and rich and varied educational and cultural traditions. With its sub-tropical climate, it also attracted a transient population looking for the type of nightlife that was not readily available in their home countries, leading to a reputation as a city of sin. And in that respect, Odessa was also infamous (and may still be, but in a slightly different way) for its organized crime, which apparently began early in the city’s history and continued into the Soviet era (and beyond), but flourished in the early 20th Century. One component of this organized crime was known as the Jewish Mafia.

Odessa’s population in the late 19th- early 20th Centuries was comprised of an almost equal percentage of ethnic Russians and Jews, and lesser amounts of Moldavians, Ukrainians, and other ethnic groups. While it appears from most of my reading that, subject to repeated pogroms, the Jewish population of Odessa in general flourished, in the early 20th century there was an inner-city area of poverty-stricken Jews (Moldavanka) from which the Jewish Mafia arose, and which dominated Odessa’s urban illegality – including smuggling, drugs, and prostitution. This gangster activity, not surprisingly, bled into the city’s low-brow entertainment subculture, including nightclubs owned or effectively controlled by them. Although the criminality continued, after the Bolshevik takeover of Odessa and the accompanying new orthodoxy Odessan life was not the same.

Odessa’s Jewish gangsters in or around the time of the Revolution and thereafter were the subject of a collection of stories by the Russian/Jewish writer Isaac Babel titled Odessa Tales. These stories were adapted into a play, Sunset, produced in Moscow in 1929 – but the authorities quickly dropped it. In 1990, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, a film was made based on the same set of stories, also titled Sunset, to which Desyatnikov created the incidental music, titled Sketches to Sunset. It is this music that Ratmansky has used for his ballet.

The program notes do not address it one way or the other, but I cannot see Odessa, the ballet, as merely some straightforward abstract ballet with emotional gloss, or a tale of unrequited and impossible love, although Joaquin De Luz’s unsuccessful efforts to woo and rescue Sterling Hyltin’s character certainly fits that desciption. Ratmansky is deeper, and more clever, than that. Considering Odessa independent from the city’s history and Babel’s stories would miss its depth, and ignore the fact that Ratmansky is the most cerebral of contemporary ballet choreographers.

Although there are no obvious ties in the ballet itself to anything Jewish in general or to Jewish gangsters in particular, the connection comes from Desyatnikov’s music, with its at times achingly archetypal Jewish melodies (instead of a fiddler on the roof, there’s a clarinetist in the nightclub cellar) mixed with Klezmer and with Mediterranean sounds appropriate for Odessa’s geographic location and cosmopolitan ambience.  And the characters in the ballet are, at the least, inspired by the characters in Babel’s stories. Ramasar and Stanley ae the nightclub-savvy sophisticated-looking soldiers/enforcers in a gangster nightclub army (and Stanley in particular could be a character out of Babel’s book). Tiler Peck, a cog in this underworld machine, is lost – caught in a never ending cycle of emptiness, reflected in turns (including choreographic combinations that I can’t recall seeing anywhere before) that take her nowhere. Mearns, in another remarkable performance (very similar, in a way, to her role in Russian Seasons), initially actively engaged in the enticement around her, soon sees the imminent loss of any ability to control her own destiny and, as the ballet ends, is trapped in a circular environment (in that it continues indefinitely) and from which there is no escape. Hyltin’s character is new to it all and enjoying the attention and superficial glamor of being this week’s “it” girl, oblivious to the danger she faces. De Luz, the broken and broken-hearted would-be lover and rescuer, is simply destroyed by what he knows and sees and cannot change. And as this story is presented, a doomed world is spinning out of control.

And the ballet is also connected to Ratmansky’s thinly disguised attacks on tyrannical artistic suppression: Odessa is on the same thematic plane as his Shostakovich Trilogy, with that set of dances on one end (the intent of which is crystal clear) and Pictures at an Exhibition on another, which I also saw, in part, as a commentary on artistic repression (of Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky…who, as it happens, grew up in Odessa).  Indeed, Babel himself was tortured, executed, and thrown into a communal grave during Stalin’s Great Purge: yet another artist, like Shostakovich, who suffered under Stalinist tyranny.

But Ratmansky is also skilled at giving specific subjects universal applicability (as does Desyatnikov – for example, his composition also includes notes of tango). The ballet speaks of an underbelly of urban life in general – the poisoning of individuals (particularly women) who become victims, knowing or not, of the criminal element that dictates to them, of men who get involved and try to (or dream of trying to) rescue them, and of a pervasive sense of decadence, decay, and despair – as if the Odessan civilization, at least this corner of it, is in the ‘sunset’ of its existence. The sense one gets though the ambiance Ratmansky creates is the same as one might see in evocations of Havana nightclubs as Castro closes in, Berlin nightclubs as the Weimar Republic disintegrates, the Atlantic City depicted in Boardwalk Empire, the Miami of Magic City, and even Vienna before the fall of the Hapsburg dynasty (the dynamite costumes by Keso Dekker include, as I see them, multicolored, liquidly mosaic dresses for the lead women evocative of Gustav Klimt, with something of a Byzantine twist).

The atmosphere in Odessa is in every way as pervasive, and as real and “human,” as that in Russian Seasons, just different. The dancing, while not “country folk,” might be seen as a sort of “urban folk” dancing, one fully recognizable as such, again like Russian Seasons, independent of the ballet’s specific location and the same no matter the specific urban decaying culture. And although the characters have a thematic purpose, the sense of hopelessness in Odessa is seen reflected in, and transmitted by, real human faces. (I kept seeing the faces of the women in Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas, another story reflecting a sot of cultural decay, as Odessa progressed.)

I watched Odessa with my mouth agape. The ballet has no false moments, no superfluous or pedestrian choreography, and no moment of anything less than extraordinary execution by all involved. It’s as emotionally devastating a ballet as Russian Seasons is emotionally uplifting. The next time it returns to NYCB’s repertory, next season, it should not be missed.

The less said about the balance of the Spring Gala the better – except Harrison Ball’s noteworthy role debut in Peter Martins’s Jeu de Cartes should not be overlooked.

The “all Ratmansky” program finished with Namouna, a very different piece from either Russian Seasons or Odessa – a combination reimagining, homage of sorts, and send-up of classical ballet in general and Petipa in particular. I didn’t like it at all the previous times I saw it. But, as is often the case with Ratmansky, give it time and it grows. Now, well, I’m beginning to accept its intentional lack of focus and silliness. I’ll discuss it further on another occasion, but the highlights of this performance include Tyler Angle doing anything at all, the “smoking” divertissement (led by Ashley Bouder, but including much of the corps, all having a blast), and Hyltin who, with Angle, delivers one of Ratmansky’s most unexpectedly beautiful of pas de deux, one that suddenly makes completely unreal characters appear … human.