[photographs were only available for the opening night cast]

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

June 4, 6 afternoon and evening, and 8, 2018
Harlequinade (Ratmansky premiere)

Jerry Hochman

Last week, American Ballet Theatre presented a week of Natalia Makarova’s staging of La Bayadere. This week, the fourth of its eight week Met 2018 season, was devoted to premiere performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s recreation of Marius Petipa’s Harlequinade. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

It bothered me even before the curtain rose that so much time and effort and funds were spent on this production rather than on a much needed new and original evening-length ballet, or a reimagining of an existing one. Similarly concerning was that a new/old production of Harlequinade was considered necessary in the first place, in that George Balanchine’s version, also based on the Petipa original, is in New York City Ballet’s active repertoire (last presented in 2015), and Gelsey Kirkland Ballet presented a fine version, also based on Petipa, that same year. If you’re going to send in the clowns, I would have much preferred a long-overdue revival of Petruchka.

After the opening performance on Monday evening, my exasperation with yet another recreated museum piece, and one that’s more a jumble of costumes in search of a story than anything remotely memorable, boiled over. But for Gillian Murphy’s Pierrette, I found no redeeming value to it beyond being an exercise in historical reconstruction of a ballet involving annoyingly unappealing characters. Had I written my review then, I would have cautioned against wasting one’s time and money to see it, even if only for the admittedly wonderful costumes. It was a giant step back for an art form that needs to demonstrate forward-thinking: not necessarily that it’s “relevant” so much as that it continues to grow.

Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside, and members of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's staging of "Harlequinade" Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside,
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s staging of “Harlequinade”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

But seeing three more performances (two on Wednesday and one on Friday), and three more casts, made me reconsider my initial opinion. While there’s still no there there, I got beyond the unnecessarily confusing story, such as it is, and the too often mediocre choreography and music, and focused on the fun. And I found, on repeat viewings, that there’s more to this fluff than first meets the eye. This Harlequinade includes some nifty choreography, some intriguing music (both of which offset the deficiencies), and with the right cast providing endearing portrayals, can be charming, invigorating and unquestionably entertaining. It may not be highbrow (in fact, it’s decidedly not highbrow), but if you’re open to joyously brainless ballet that makes audiences smile, Harlequinade is worth seeing. Maybe you need to take a step or two back in order to take meaningful steps forward.

I’ll discuss the cast performances after first addressing the ballet. But at the outset I must recognize David Hallberg’s Pierrot, which alone was worth the price of admission. A danseur noble becomes a pierrot noble. Priceless.

As he did with his recent reconstruction of Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty, Ratmansky has gone back to the original. After apparent painstaking research, he and his able associates have reconstructed the 1900 premiere presentation with choreography in large part replicating Petipa’s original (supplemented by his own – unfortunately, not delineated), and with scenery and costumes by Robert Perdziola inspired by the original designs. The credits for design execution, research guidance, rehearsal assistance – and for financial support – run a full Playbill page.

The outcome, at least visually, is far less curious-looking than was his museum-quality The Sleeping Beauty. The costumes look gorgeous rather than ridiculous, and by and large the choreography for Harlequin, Columbine, and Pierrette, whether Petipa’s or Ratmansky’s, has moments of brilliance. The dances for the corps were relatively pedestrian and get by on spunk more than steps, but the significant (much of Act II) involvement of the thirty-three (four groups of eight, plus the Good Fairy’s gift-bearer) students from ABT’s affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, provided an impressive and spirited display of competence and stage savvy. They were all delightful.

Students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in Alexei Ratmansky's staging of "Harlequinade" Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School
in Alexei Ratmansky’s staging of “Harlequinade”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

The characters in Harlequinade are familiar Commedia dell’arte stock characters: Harlequin, a jester-like character with pizazz in his pants and mischief on his mind; Columbine, Harlequin’s love interest whose purpose is as much to get out from under her father’s thumb as it is to hook up with Harlequin; Pierrot, a sorrowful clown and Columbine’s father’s obedient servant; and Pierrette, Pierrot’s wife and Columbine’s BFF. The libretto, such as it is (and it’s attributed to Petipa), tells of Harlequin’s pursuit of Columbine, her father Cassandre’s attempts to prevent the two from seeing each other, and the escapades that lead to the lovers’ ultimate triumph. Along the way, Cassandre recruits Pierrot to keep his daughter locked up; and when that fails, hires some comedic villains to ensure the penniless Harlequin’s demise. Assisted by Pierrette, Harlequin foils Cassandre’s dastardly deed; and a Good Fairy (who may have been the Lilac Fairy in a prior incarnation) blesses the couple with sufficient funding to overcome Cassandre’s objection (reflecting this, the ballet’s original title was Les Millions d’Arléquin (“Harlequin’s millions”).

But Harlequinade isn’t Commedia dell’arte, nor is it an “updating” of it. It’s a Commedia dell’arte pastiche, grafted onto a Gay ‘90s (1890s) frame, in which couples costumed in elegant ‘90s attire watch, and participate in, the Act II celebration as “invited guests.” That, and the confusingly told story, is part of what makes Harlequinade as uncomfortably synthetic-looking as it is, for all its vaunted authenticity. But since the Gay ‘90s was the time period in which Les Millions d’Arléquin was created, this atmosphere is what, for Petipa and his audience, was contemporary (which, as I’ll address below, is reflected in parts of Riccardo Drigo’s score): an evening’s entertainment for the ’90s gentry, reflected on stage. Nevertheless, Ratmansky’s recreation still comes across as a commentary on a commentary on a commentary.

This was Petipa’s last noteworthy ballet, choreographed when he was 82, and as interesting as some of it undoubtable is it suffers from an overabundance of silliness rather than humor, and a dearth of originality. Add a dream scene, and you have Don Quixote (which Petipa created in 1869, revised in 1871, and which Maxim Gorky further revised in … 1900, with additional music provided by … Drigo): Columbine is Kitri; Harlequin is Basilio; Pierette is Kitri’s sidekick Mercedes; Cassandre, Columbine’s father, is Lorenzo, Kitri’s father; and Leandre, Columbine’s foppish wealthy suitor and her father’s chosen son in law, is Gamache, Kitri’s foppish wealthy suitor and her father’s chosen son in law.

Be that as it may, the story is so cardboard thin that the ballet as a whole seems an effort to make an end run around it. But cardboard stories and characters is what Commedia dell’arte is.  More problematic are curiosities that are, at best, perplexing. So much of what story there is, largely confined to Act I, is told in mime. It’s pervasive, and pervasively annoying. For example, the ballet opens with Cassandre describing to the audience, in mime, what the situation is and what he’s going to do. Later, after his belated entrance, the story of the story continues with Harlequin describing to the audience, in mime, what the situation is and what he’s going to do. The other characters have similar detailed mime sequences, albeit not as lengthy. Addressing the audience this way isn’t unusual for Commedia dell’arte, but doing it in multiple mime-soliloquies and mime-bites just enhances the overall confusion. I prefer versions, even if inauthentic, in which only Harlequin directly addresses the audience, mimes the story outline, and it’s done. And the Act II “Lark Dance” (a grand pas within which the final pas de deux is embedded) looks strange, with corps dancers and Columbine fluttering their hands like a gaggle of “canaris qui chantes” (from The Sleeping Beauty), and a story-within-a-story of Harlequin hunting for and winning the inexplicably morose Columbine/lark’s heart as if the dance was an outtake from Swan Lake. [It’s a component of the Petipa original, labelled “La chasse aux alouettes”- “alouette” being French for “lark” – but the program summary doesn’t reference that, maybe in an effort to disassociate itself from that word. The alouette was a game bird in Europe, ergo the pretend “hunt,” but it’s also the basis for the gruesome lyrics of the nursery-rhyme song as prevalent in the late 19th Century as it is today. I don’t know why the lark/alouette was selected as the inspiration for the ballet’s centerpiece dance, but “Columbine” is the French word for “dove.” Wouldn’t a “dove dance” have been more appropriate? But I digress.]

On the other hand, I must admit that the story flies by expeditiously. What’s left in its wake is an overall joie de vivre, belly laughs for the sake of belly laughs; slapstick for the sake of slapstick – literally. Although he already had his perfectly functional “authentic 16th century” slapstick, the Good Fairy, after bringing him back to life, provides Harlequin with a golden slapstick – a noisy magic wand – to control action, and to grant wishes. [The sound of the slapstick’s two component sticks (actually, two parts of the same ruler-shaped slab of wood) “slapping” against each other makes a strange, comic sound, associated with strange, sometimes comic developments, from which comic “slapstick,” including the comparably comic-sounding whoopee cushion (blazing saddles, anyone?), was derived. I could swear that I’ve heard some of Drigo’s madcap-sounding music to match the madcap antics on stage in the context of Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and similar slapstick films (as the old television series The Lone Ranger appropriated Rossini’s The William Tell Overture).]

Admittedly, this is a lot of discussion about a story that isn’t there. What is there are the Commedia dell’arte-derived characters. These characters evolved over centuries, and have had traits added or subtracted many times over, so there’s no “standard” that fits all situations. That being said, at least based on those renditions I’ve seen, there are two basic ways in which they are most often presented: either as self-important, self-involved comic characters who come across as brassy and sassy, imposing and controlling, and to some extent unpleasant even when they’re trying to be funny; and characters who may share some of those traits, but who primarily come across as lovable (or at least likeable) and endearing. Of course, Pierrot (actually, more of a 17the century French creation than an “original” component of Italian Commedia dell’arte) is the sad sack (later Chaplin’s little tramp), the trusting fool, who most often (but not in this ballet) pines after Columbine, and always loses. As is probably obvious from my opening paragraphs, my preference is for characters that are more endearing than repellant.

Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside, and members of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's staging of "Harlequinade" Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside,
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s staging of “Harlequinade”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Seeing characters in the first rough category does nothing for me, and that’s what I saw in the opening night cast. Isabella Boylston’s Columbine was brash and sassy, flashy and just short of vulgar – seemingly intentionally. James Whiteside’s Harlequin was “out there.” It was all about him, with a constant, forced, “look at me, look how great I am” toothy grin. Not just a jester, but a joker. And the two of them gave the impression that they were trying to perform for and impress each other rather than the audience; that it all was a sort of clubby in-joke. Although these characterizations are not invalid (indeed, there was a quality of mutual suitability that fit – this Harlequin and Columbine deserved each other), they’re a turn off to me.

However, I can discount what I perceive as the characterizations, since that’s just my prejudice. But technical issues are relatively objective. Whiteside’s performance had no imperfections that I could discern. It was a straightforward and thoroughly credible, if not imaginative, in-your-face execution of the choreography. Boylston’s was another matter.

If nothing else (and there’s quite a bit else), Boylston is one of ABT’s strongest, most commanding, and most stage-strident of ballerinas. I’ve written previously that she gives the impression of being thoroughly able to handle things on her own: she seems fearless, and she owns the stage. But this performance was quite different. In both Act I and II, whenever she was about to transition into a difficult combination, I saw her demeanor tense visibly, her lips purse, her brow furrow, and not until the difficult combination ended did she relax. [This was very different from her mournful pseudo-Odette during the “lark dance” in Act II, where she’s supposed to look sad and apprehensive (what “game bird” about to be captured wouldn’t?).]

I’ve not seen Boylston anything less than supremely confident-looking in anything she’s danced, so this was quite disconcerting to me. It’s certainly possible that it was world premiere opening-night nerves and/or that it reflected some extra effort to get everything “right.” But it was recurring, and it impacted the performance. Given all these issues, plus the deficiencies I saw in the ballet itself – and notwithstanding Murphy’s superbly executed and characterized Pierrette and Thomas Forster’s likeable Pierrot, I left the theater not having enjoyed this Harlequinade at all.

Thomas Forster in Alexei Ratmansky's staging of "Harlequinade" Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Thomas Forster
in Alexei Ratmansky’s staging of “Harlequinade”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

On Wednesday afternoon, the cast changed to another set of role debuts, and with it I began to appreciate not only performances that I found more appealing, but I was able to tune out those aspects of the ballet I disliked.

So far, this has been an extraordinary season for Skylar Brandt. Her Columbine, from her first appearance (as with her Gamzatti the previous week) was spot on. The sassiness was there, as it needed to be for this ballet, but there was a likeability quality that was absent from Monday’s portrayal. And her technique, even through Ratmansky’s (or Petipa’s) wicked choreography, was both accomplished and natural. If she broke a sweat or felt in any way apprehensive, I didn’t notice. Hers was a first-rate performance.

But Daniil Simkin’s Harlequin was beyond first-rate. For all his character’s brashness, his Harlequin was a lovable rogue with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He didn’t impose himself on the audience with a glued-on grin; he drew the audience to him. And technically, he delivered solos, especially within the Act II pas de deux, that looked simple (no unnecessary complex acrobatic tricks) but astonishing. Unlike the other three Harlequins I saw, he seemed to dance much of his Act II in the air at a 45 degree angle, and land perfectly – and effortlessly – each time.

As Pierrette, Hee Seo’s characterization was magical. Part tease (it’s the character), part sweetheart, she delivered a multi-dimensional performance in a role that wouldn’t seem to require it. And her interactions with her Pierrot, Alexandre Hammoudi (who gave a fine performance, albeit at a lower decibel level than others), were marvelously captivating. [Wednesday afternoon’s cast deserves commendation as well for playing through the failure of the ballet’s visual trick to work (Harlequin’s magic slapstick suddenly creates air-propelled bills to satisfy Cassandre’s avarice). No one in the audience seemed to notice.]

Courtney Shealy, Luis Ribagorda, and members of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's staging of "Harlequinade" Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Courtney Shealy, Luis Ribagorda,
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s staging of “Harlequinade”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Cassandra Trenary’s Columbine debut on Wednesday evening was promising, with a demeanor that, not inappropriately, was neither too brash nor too sweet, and execution that was a bit more tentative than the others, but well done. Her Harlequin, Gabe Stone Shayer, was a rogue, closer to Whiteside’s characterization on Monday but not nearly as pushy or self-congratulatory, and with vibrant command of the exuberant choreography.

But to me Wednesday evening’s performance was dominated by Christine Shevchenko’s Pierrette and Blaine Hoven’s Pierrot. Shevchenko had an opportunity here to show a different side of her stage persona, and the characterization she delivered was very different from the other Pierrettes – she was dominating, but not at all in a negative sense. Shevchenko’s Pierrette controlled events, and teased and toyed with the other characters because her Pierrette came across as smarter than any of them (and knew it). All the Pierrettes (and all the other characters, for that matter), seemed to thoroughly enjoy what they were doing on stage, but Shevchenko looked like she was having an absolute blast. Hoven’s Pierrot was the most detailed in terms of expression and nuance, until I saw Hallberg two nights later.

Friday’s performance, the second for that cast, may have been the only one in my memory in which Hallberg’s initial appearance didn’t draw audience applause. Clouded within his Pierrot costume, no one recognized him. But it became apparent early on that this Pierrot was different: more shading, more expression in his face, arms, and overall demeanor, more characterization in every respect than the others. His character may have been a perpetual loser, but this Pierrot had an air of nobility, even slouched and sad and hopeless, than I’ve seen in any Pierrot previously. Sort of Emmett Kelly (without the Depression-era appearance) meets Marcel Marceau. It was memorable.

Sarah Lane added a different quality to her Columbine as well. There was the essential level of self-confidence, but sassiness was replaced by a pervasive sense of endearing sophistication. She was on a higher level not because she was snooty, but because she conveyed a quality of true (rather than ersatz) refinement that the other Columbines didn’t. And, to my eye, she executed flawlessly, although her commendably variable expression gave way to a more fixed smile, often a cover for exhaustion, as the ballet draw to a close.

Jeffrey Cirio’s Harlequin was very much in Simkin’s mold – a lovable rogue, Had it not been for Simkin’s remarkable portrayal, I would have considered his characterization to be the week’s best. And Stella Abrera’s Pierrette was as delightful and competent as the others.

Performances in three other roles should be acknowledged as well. Roman Zhurbin and Alexei Agoudine (on Monday/Wednesday afternoon and Wednesday evening/Friday respectively), did fine work as Cassandre, and Tatiana Ratmansky and Claire Davison did the same as the Good Fairy at the same respective performances. Former company member Keith Roberts was a thoroughly credible comic Leandre on Wednesday evening/Friday, but Duncan Lyle’s portrayal on Monday/Wednesday afternoon was flat out fabulous. If he hasn’t assayed the role already, he must be assigned Gamache during this season’s penultimate week Don Quixote.

The Act Curtain for American Ballet Theatre's "Harlequinade" Designed by Robert Perdziolla Photo by Jerry Hochman

The Act Curtain for American Ballet Theatre’s “Harlequinade”
Designed by Robert Perdziolla
Photo by Jerry Hochman

I mentioned earlier that I would reference one aspect of Drigo’s score later. As noted, and with exceptions (e,g, the Harlequin’s”Serenade”; portions of the pas de deux for Harlequin and Columbine in both Acts) the music was relatively uninspiring, although its Germanic ump-pa-pa folksiness, mardi gras-like effervescence, and harrumph punctuations appropriately mirror the story and the staging. But close to the end of Act II, following the lovely but perplexing “lark dance,” the “contemporary” viewers/celebratory invitees in Gay ’90s costume began a relatively insipid little ensemble dance (a polonaise) roughly comparable to dances of “prince’s aristocratic friends” in other Petipa ballets that contrast with the dances of peasant exuberance – and might cure insomnia. As they began to dance, I heard a recognizable melody emanating from the orchestra pit: The Bear Went Over the Mountain. I had to stifle a laugh.

But knowing that composers often incorporated “folk” melodies into compositions, I researched it. Turns out that the tune originated as a late 18th Century French folk song titled Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre, a tongue-in-cheek lament about the falsely-reported death of a general during the War of Spanish Succession the previous century. Don’t ask. That melody made its way to the populace, and became embedded in artistic works of the period (including by Beethoven in his Wellington’s Victory.) And this same tune, which evolved into the children’s song The Bear Went Over the Mountain, also independently evolved into For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow in England in the late 19th Century.

So the melody was part of the ambient folk/cultural stew when Drigo composed his score. But why did he use it? Certainly, as with many other folk melodies, he could have just used it because it was there. But maybe there was another motivation. Maybe Drigo was aware of the English devolution (which, by the late 19th Century, had spread throughout Europe, including Russia, in local language translations). And consequently, maybe he used as a surreptitious salute to Petipa, who was nearing a forced retirement.

Regardless, I’ll do the honors now.

This is the 200th Anniversary of Marius Petipa’s birth. The event is being celebrated by ballet companies worldwide, but somehow has escaped ABT’s notice. [It’s referenced in an independent Playbill article, but not by ABT.] That’s outrageous – but not surprising, since ABT has also not bothered to acknowledge the centennial of Jerome Robbins’s birth either (maybe they’re saving it for the Fall Season). In any event, here’s to Marius Petipa, the father of classical ballet as most of the world knows it. A million thanks. For he’s a jolly good fellow, that nobody can deny.