Monday, January 24, 2011


Concerto DSCH

Alexei Ratmansky is perversely funny. He must be. I can't think of any other choreographer I've seen who consistently finds way to tease out the humor in music and to translate this into motion. He seems to find endless ways to make us laugh. And like the best humorists, his funniness can teeter slightly toward discomfort.

A more accessible example would be his mice in the newly choreographed Nutcracker. Yes, it was funny to see the mice in the kitchen at the start of the ballet--but also quite disturbing and unexpected. In Namouna, which I saw last year and absolutely loved (and ought to write about), he brought out the personalities of three excellent but highly disparate dancers--Jennifer Ringer, Sara Mearns and Wendy Whelan--while also giving each a different brand of humor. Ringer was a smoking tease (dancers do smoke). Sara an off-kilter seductress. And Whelan somehow ended up as the grand ballet queen at the very end, in a ceremonial pas de deux which to me felt equal parts sincere and mocking of ballet as a medium for romantic love.

So, even though I loved the Nutcracker, I'd been wondering lately if he could choreograph with space and with complete sincerity. Does everything always have to be jam packed with intricate jumps and turns? Must everything always be so funny? Could he escape the moniker I sometimes use on a certain kind of writing and art which seems to be so popular these days--could he be anything but a very clever boy?

The answer, is yes. I've now seen two casts perform Concerto DSCH, and in both, found much to admire. Ratmansky always bears repeated viewing because of the complexity of his choreography and the sheer business of his stage presentation. But DSCH also contains real moments of potential nuance. The "leads," if we are to think of them that way, are a boy and girl who have the "serious" story and two boys and a girl who have the "playful" story. This is a very simplistic explanation of casting, but it helps me to describe the impact of what I say.

Last Thursday, Wendy Whelan and Benjamin Millepied were the "serious" couple. Both are accomplished dancers, and they whirred through the choreography. At one point, the music, by Shostakovich, featured a piano solo. The steps seemed to indicate a man and woman struggling to connect, coming together, the losing each other, then reconnecting until Whelan was led away by a chorus of women and Millpied, a group of men (who themselves reflected back the coming together-apart theme). I found this section moving, but how much more of an impact it had with Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle on Sunday. Whelan and Millepied are smaller--their turns and footwork more brisk. Mearns and Angle, however, dove into the feeling of the music and as a result, gave all the steps greater resonance. Their coming-together made me feel briefly hopeful, and their parting full of regret. Their version of the choreography was sincere, and never hammy; this is a rare thing to achieve. It's hard to fake sadness.

I don't know, though, if Ratmansky intends for us to be too sad at the end of DSCH since all the parties are back together. I sort of suspect he eschews too much tragedy. And so, when Mearns re-enters to stage to get her partner's attention again (it was momentarily diverted by the humorous girl), she did it with great comedic affect. The whole thing worked.

As for the humorous couples--the first night I saw de Luz, Bouder and Veyette, and on Sunday, Ulbricht, Scheller and Veyette. How does Ashley Bouder manage to be so funny? Yes, Scheller is an extremely strong dancer--her legs and center are really solid, as I've said before. There is never a moment where I worry about her doing, say, grande ronde de jambe on point, unassisted. But Bouder managed to find the inherent funniness of the steps and this added a real contrast to the "serious" section. In my dreams, I'd see Bouder and co on the same night as Mearns and Angle. The level of contrast--and thus the tension of the piece--would be delicious.

Like the Four Temperaments, I think of Concerto DSCH as a showstopper for anyone who can actually command the steps. It is never going to be a boring ballet with anachronistically pretty steps. But also like the 4Ts, Concerto DSCH has the potential to be a deeper emotional experience for the audience when performed by dancers who find something even more meaningful within the music and the choreography. And that alone makes it a brilliant construction--it is the kind of dance that can work on several levels, depending on who is dancing. The best kind of art always works this way. And this makes me wonder--does Ratmansky know? Does he do this on purpose?

Finally--my shallow points.

Firstly-there is something wrong with the capped sleeves on the dresses. I thought that Ashley Bouder's body looked odd in the blue dress, and Ashley Bouder does not look odd. Then I wondered if perhaps it was her costume, if the lines somehow cut her body in the wrong place. Ana Sofia Scheller also looked strange in her blue dress (though perhaps a little bit better). Then I realized--it's the capped sleeves. All the dresses had capped sleeves, but did not look as strange, because the warm, earth toned dresses (red, orange) blended in better with the skin, and the line on the sleeve was not as jarring.

It has now been a decade since Juicy Couture and Three Dot t-shirts showed us how to cut a shirt and sleeve. Even the Gap has done away with the chunky "let me show off your fat arm" t-shirts in favor of flattering capped sleeves. I would think this would be a universal law of costuming and sewing by now.

Secondly--what is it with the strange shades of green that show up in these Ratmansky productions? I don't mind green in general-I like it as a color (an early and successful poem of mine is titled "Celadon" and begins: "I could eat you"). I just think that green can really be a tricky color to wear if you don't have the right skin tone. If I remember correctly, that strange shade of green also showed up in On the Dnieper.

There are additional problems with this green color--it often doesn't really "pop" to the far back of the theater. It seems to fade away. And maybe that's the point and I'm missing something. All the same, I find it frustrating to search for the dancer's form on stage. And it seems unfair to reward those in the audience sitting closest to the stage with a crisp performance, while making it even harder for those sitting far away to see well.

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