When my mother and her brother were little, their aunt and uncle would give each of them 50 cents for an ice-cream cone—two scoops. The cost was 25 cents per scoop. As I understand it, my uncle would then slip them each another quarter, saying, “Make it a triple.”
I thought of this, so help me, at the American Ballet Theatre last night. ABT has begun its season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The offering was Ratmansky Trio, which consists of three one-act ballets choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, the Russian-American wonder. He is ABT’s artist-in-residence. You could also call Ratmansky Trio a Ratmansky sampler.
The first of the three ballets was Songs of Bukovina. Bukovina? Yes, a region now divided between Romania and Ukraine. The music is by Leonid Desyatnikov, a Russian born in 1955. He has composed many film scores, and he is a frequent collaborator with Ratmansky.
Songs of Bukovina uses, not songs exactly, but piano preludes by Desyatnikov. They are an eclectic bunch: jazzy and bluesy; a touch minimalistic; rustically dancing; dissonant and forbidding; songful and Chopinesque; and so on. One prelude features ghostly trills, à la Scriabin.
For piano preludes, you need a pianist, of course, and he was Jacek Mysinski, a graduate of the Juilliard School. The first line of his bio tells us that he “is considered to be one of the most outstanding pianists of his generation.” Hyperbole aside—and this is the norm, for bios—Mysinski is the genuine article, a real pianist.
When you heard the music, and watched the dancers, you thought the choreography was almost inevitable. It could almost be no other way.
Where was the piano, by the way? I’m not entirely sure. In the orchestra pit, on the left? Another question: Is the Metropolitan Opera House congenial to a piano? Horowitz played a few recitals there, but he was on the stage. At any rate, I think a piano in the house works (even from the pit). But you had better listen intently. You can’t talk, cough, or rustle too much, as you might when an orchestra is playing.
Obviously, Alexei Ratmansky has a rare, rare gift for choreography. He knows how to match movement and music. Let me expand: When you heard the music, and watched the dancers, you thought the choreography was almost inevitable. It could almost be no other way.
One of the leading dancers was Isabella Boylston, who, in any number of ballets, is girlish and elegant at the same time. I don’t think she aims for this combination. I suspect it is natural to her, and it is a lucky combo.
At some point during Songs of Bukovina, a baby started crying, loudly. He (or she) was hustled out. I had to smile. I appreciated the baby’s interruption, in a way. It was very human. You were not watching a video—you were in public. Also, you never hear a baby crying at the opera (or at least I don’t). Maybe there’s enough crying onstage?
Jacek Mysinski, the pianist, duly joined the dancers for bows. He rather looks like a dancer himself, with a lean frame. Enjoyably unshy, he thrust his arms out at the audience and blew kisses.
The second of the evening’s ballets was On the Dnieper, by Prokofiev. I was just writing about Prokofiev ballets—but not this one. In Carnegie Hall, Yuja Wang had played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which is virtually never performed. Describing the work, I said, “You can hear in these movements the coming ballets, namely Romeo and Juliet and, especially, Cinderella.”
Prokofiev wrote this concerto in 1932; On the Dnieper came two years before. It is not on the level of Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella—what is?—but it is pure Prokofiev: sassy, rude, modernist, folkloric, edgy, romantic, martial, mournful, tragic . . .
The ballet tells a story—star-crossed lovers and all that—and ABT’s dancers put on a clinic of storytelling through dance. (They weren’t hurt by Ratmansky’s choreography, of course.) To single out but one of the dancers, James Whiteside demonstrated what it is to explode in fury (balletically).
James Whiteside demonstrated what it is to explode in fury (balletically).
Third in Ratmansky Trio was The Seasons—not by Tchaikovsky. That’s a piano work. Not by Vivaldi, either. We are talking about the ballet by Glazunov, a ballet that might be dubbed “The People’s Idea of a Ballet.” It is what many expect from a ballet, a pleasing, heart-lifting classic.
Ignoring the dancers, let me speak of the orchestra. I have now and then knocked the ABT orchestra, saying it was too far below the standards of the dancers onstage. In The Seasons, the orchestra sounded like—forgive an insulting expression—a real orchestra. The soloists were worthy of the soloists onstage. I mean the flutist, the oboist, the clarinetist—and yet others.
Among the dancers were children, which brought “aww”s from the audience. (The aww-dience?) Is there anything more aww-inducing than kids dancing ballet?
A final word, concerning music: Sometimes, people ask me what the music I use on my Q&A podcast is—the music that opens and closes the show. It is the last movement of Glazunov’s Symphony No. 5, “Heroic.” Why this symphony does not get more airtime—why it lies under a bushel—I really don’t know.