Spring Gala: New Ratmansky, Old Gala Warhorses

Cast of Odessa, photo @ Andrea Mohin

Spring Gala at the New York City Ballet is traditionally a more substantive, dance-heavy evening than the Fall Fashion Gala. The good news: dance lovers often line the third and fourth rings dressed in non-designer clothes because they love ballet. The bad news: the ballets.

The raison d'etre for last night's gala was Alexei Ratmansky's new piece for City Ballet. Ratmansky's batting average at the NYCB has been 4/4 -- Russian Seasons (2006), Concerto DSCH (2008), Namouna (2010), and Pictures at an Exhibition (2014) have all traveled widely to other companies and are considered modern classics. My expectations were sky-high for his new work Odessa.

How was Odessa? Well ... uh ... I think I need to see this ballet more times to fully absorb it, but it was radically different from Ratmansky's usual style. There was no quirky humor, no sense of a happy, insular community. Instead it was a dark and disturbing piece that seemed to consciously eschew all the qualities that make Ratmansky so in-demand as a choreographer.

The music by Leonid Destatnikov (the same composer of Russian Seasons) was haunting. If it sometimes sounds like movie music that's because it is -- it's incidental music from the Russian film Sunset. A mix of tango rhythms with Russian folk dance and a strain of traditional Jewish music. The setting was a smoky, dark ballroom where a group of six dancing couples are in the back of the stage and only intermittently aware of the drama between the three main couples: Sterling Hyltin/Joaquin de Luz, Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley, and Sara Mearns/Amar Ramasar. The costumes by Keso Dekker were colorful and stylish.

The big departure for Ratmansky was the gender relationships in Odessa. Gender relations between couples in Ratmansky ballets are usually quirky, cute, even cloying. (Remember in Nutcracker how Clara plays peek-a-boo in the middle of the pas de deux?) In Odessa the dance hall becomes a trap for the women. Taylor Stanley grabbed Tiler Peck in an attempt to force her to dance. Peck wriggled, pushed, struggled against the sexual assault. She was still carried offstage with force. The next time we saw her however she was alone and walked downstage and did a seemingly endless series of pirouettes. It garnered applause. No one puts Tiler Peck in a corner.

Hyltin and de Luz, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Even creepier was the Hyltin/de Luz relationship. de Luz constantly reached out to Hyltin, trying to get her to dance. His efforts were not successful, as she proved elusive and non-responsive even when he did make contact with her. Her body bent as if she was traumatized from abuse. Finally a group of males carried her in the air, threw her up and down like a beanbag, and roughly manhandled her into submission. de Luz reached for her to prevent the gang assault. When she finally was released she slapped de Luz in the face. Why? The audience gasped. Only the Mearns/Amasar relationship was consensual. They danced a slow, if joyless dance together. The entire group of dancers and the corps gathered onstage for a dark, bleak ending where some of them already seemed dead.

The steps were always inventive -- sometimes resembling ballroom, other times folk dance, other times modern dance. It clocked in at 20 minutes and was compulsively watchable. Ratmansky is probably the most talented choreographer in making inventive steps for dancers and he's obviously branching out from his tried-and-true style. I just didn't personally enjoy the ballet as much as I've enjoyed his other works.

Here are the curtain calls for Odessa:

Kowroski and La Cour
As for the rest of the gala, not even the talents of Megan Fairchild, Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, and Aaron Sanz as well as some of the cutest costumes could save Martins' Jeu de Cartes. It's one of Martins' excruciatingly long, meandering pieces where when the curtain goes down you've learned nothing and felt nothing. After Jeu was that overdone gala piece, Wheeldon's After the Rain pas de deux. Maria Kowroski unfurled her long limbs, cascading hair, and jelly-like flexibility into the various gynecological poses of this ballet, while Ask La Cour proved a solid board for Maria to dive into constantly in the ballet's main motif. It's not my thing, but the audience loved it.

Bouder and Veyette
Thankfully there was some Balanchine -- Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette in Tchaikovksy pas de deux. These two are old hands at this sort of thing. Veyette ran out of steam in his turns a la seconde in the coda, so Ashley saved the day by leaping into his arms with so much force that a less experienced partner would have dropped Bouder face-first onto the stage. But of course Veyette caught her, and they repeated this gravity-baiting trick a second time, and by that time the audience was roaring and they were still roaring when Veyette carried Bouder into the wings. I guess that's the power of Balanchine -- he had the unmatched gift of making audiences delirious with happiness.

So how do I feel about Odessa? It's not a work that engenders instant love, the way Concerto DSCH or Namouna do. But I remember it. The vision of Sterling Hyltin struggling while being held aloft by men she is afraid of are still on my mind. And that's what is important.

Update: I saw Odessa again on May 6 with a different cast: Ashley Bouder/Taylor Stanley were the "Tiler/Taylor" couple, Unity Phelan/Tyler Angle were the "Sara/Amar" couple, and Megan Fairchild/Daniel Ulbricht were the "Sterling/Joaquin" couple. With the new cast the ballet was considerably less dark and disturbing. The battle between Ashley and Taylor seemed more like a lovers' quarrel than a violent dispute, and Megan did not exude the same kind of fear as Sterling towards the men. When she slapped Daniel she seemed more peeved than anything. Daniel Ulbricht made his character considerably less sleazy and menacing than Joaquin de Luz. It wasn't better or worse, just different. The music and steps are as watchable as ever.

Also on the program were two works that premiered in the fall: Lauren Lovette's For Clara and Peter Walker's ten in seven. For Clara now seems a better work than I remembered -- I liked her inventive work for the corps. Still don't like the aggressive partnering for the solo dancers, but I definitely see more structure and style in the work than I did in the fall. ten in seven on the other hand was much less impressive on second viewing. Still an enjoyable trifle but that's all it is.


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