New York City Ballet's Glorious Performance at the Kennedy Center

The New York City Ballet presented Alexei Ratmansky's extraordinary
The New York City Ballet presented Alexei Ratmansky's extraordinary "Concerto DSCH." (By Paul Kolnik)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH" contains enough whirring, propulsive energy to power a small town. At the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday, it spilled over the audience in waves, sucked us into dusky depths and then flung us back again on the beach. If you felt giddy but a bit unsteady at its close, you weren't alone.

The New York City Ballet performed Ratmansky's piece as part of the third triple bill it offered during its run here last week. Premiered just last year, it makes a ringing statement that ballet is going to get a lot more interesting on these shores.

Ratmansky, schooled in Russia, spent nearly a decade dancing in the West (at the Royal Danish Ballet and Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet) before becoming director of the Bolshoi Ballet. But his true calling is choreography, and he left Moscow at the end of last year to freelance. He recently signed on to be American Ballet Theatre's artist in residence -- the best dance news in some time.

There is an endlessly restoring force in "Concerto DSCH" that's almost unbearable to experience. First, consider the great momentum of its music, Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, conducted with powerful clarity by Faycal Karoui (who drew marvels from the New York City Ballet Orchestra all evening), with Susan Walters on piano. The work's title derives in part from Shostakovich's initials in the German spelling (D.Sch.). But the essential strength is Ratmansky's bottomless imagination. How seamlessly he knit bravura passages -- Joaquin De Luz tearing through space -- with the gentle lyricism of Wendy Whelan in a pas de deux with Benjamin Millepied. And how naturally he combined that couple's burgeoning romance with an ensemble that wasn't prettily framing them, in standard ballet style, but was engaged in its own restive dancing at the same time.

There are two or three stories going on here at once: the couple's love story; a trio (Ana Sophia Scheller, Gonzalo Garcia and De Luz) as bouncy as puppies; and an ensemble that watches them both somewhat skeptically and seems to be having its own issues getting along. The sheer exuberance and inventiveness of the dancing is astonishing, but what I found most interesting is the modern-dance sensibility Ratmansky brings to this work. By that I don't mean steps -- for example, the flexed feet or grinding hips that so many contemporary choreographers throw into a ballet to loosen up its squareness, or because they've run out of ideas about how to use classical dance. The modern-dance aspect that strikes me here is Ratmansky's use of simple human behaviors. When they're not dancing, the members of the ensemble sometimes stand at the back and fidget. A brief quarrel might erupt, told through dark looks, and one dancer might push another to the ground. As Whelan and Millepied begin a melancholy movement with an unsettled pas de deux, a couple of the dancers sit casually on the stage and watch them, as if they're at a concert in the park.

At this and other moments, I was reminded of Paul Taylor, especially in wistful works such as his "Sunset," where romance fades almost imperceptibly among a group of young lovers. This is a uniquely contemporary interest, teasing out the unspoken shifts of mood in human relationships. This is what was so revolutionary about Antony Tudor's ballets from the 1930s and '40s, which rejected showy technique in favor of quietly evocative gesture -- a style that ultimately influenced modern dance more than ballet.

But here, Ratmansky combines the quiet gesture and the showy technique in one work with absolutely coherent logic. "Concerto DSCH" is big and small at the same time. It feels like life, only vastly more intense. You hated for it to end.

Peter Martins's "Barber Violin Concerto," a work for two couples (Teresa Reichlen and Albert Evans, Megan Fairchild and Ask la Cour), contains some delightful moments, but coming on the heels of the Ratmansky, its occasional awkwardness was magnified. It looks in parts like a patchwork of characters from George Balanchine ballets -- the commanding, capricious ballerina tipped off-balance, the fleet-footed soubrette. Among its strengths Friday were soloist Kurt Nikkanen's crystalline violin in the concerto for which the work is named (Op. 14) and the sterling debuts by Reichlen and Fairchild.

Reichlen (a hometown heroine, from Clifton, Va.) had an especially illuminating run here, stepping in earlier last week for an injured Sara Mearns in "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" and having a featured role in "Slice to Sharp." With her leggy height and knowing air, she easily stands out; she is a confident, uncomplicated dancer who looks you square in the eye. But the Martins piece also brought out something more ethereal in her, a suspect innocence underlying that creamy legato.

Balanchine's sweeping "Symphony in Three Movements" completed this program, with all the showgirl glamour and orchestral muscle (courtesy of Stravinsky, no less enamored of spectacle than Balanchine) you could possibly pack into 20 minutes. But my heart belongs to "Concerto DSCH," a work that begs additional viewings. And who knows when that will be possible.

Ballet as achingly beautiful and mysterious as this leaves you with a bit of anxiety. Dance vanishes as it lives. Sometimes this can't happen fast enough; we've all sat through performances we hated. But if we're talking about a work of rare intelligence and vision, dance's evanescence hurts as much as it thrills. You've just fallen in love, and suddenly the train whistle blows. This past week, with "Chaconne," "Vienna Waltzes," "Mercurial Manoeuvres" and, especially, "Concerto DSCH," New York City Ballet caused a surprising, and wonderful, amount of heartache.

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