Ratmansky's Harlequinade: Petipa in the House

Boylston and Whiteside, photo @ Alan Alejandro
Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of Marius Petipa's Harlequinade had its premiere in the fourth week of ABT's spring season. For dance historians this was the event of the spring season. After all, although there have been occasional revivals of Harlequinade this is one Petipa ballet that is mostly relegated to excerpts at a gala. Perhaps the most complete version was Balanchine's adaptation that he set on NYCB in 1965. There is a grainy video of the complete Balanchine here. So as the lights went down I wondered, so what does Petipa's version look like?

Act One scene design, photo @ Rosalie O'Connor
The short answer is: hard. Cruel. Commedia dell'arte where humor is conveyed by slapstick (literally -- Harlequin's magical weapon is a hard stick), and a man being thrown down a balcony, "dying," and his body parts thrown around the stage is supposed to be funny. Harlequin wins his bride by beating up all his opponents and then finally paying off his bride's intractable father. It's no wonder this ballet didn't really take after Petipa was gone -- there's no Lilac Fairy beckoning forgiveness, no divertissements like Dawn and Prayer as there are in Coppélia that hint at a brighter future.  There is a Good Fairy but she only gives Harlequin power in the form of a stick and money. In the world of commedia dell'arte, might (and $$$) makes right. There is something quite fascinating about seeing this Harlequinade compared to Balanchine's version. You can see where Mr. B made the story more palatable to modern audiences, and to see the actual thing is eye-opening.

Pavlova and Fokine. Look at that hat of hers.
For one, in Petipa's version the story is about class. Colombine and Pierrette's high status is conveyed not just by the balcony they stand atop but by their costumes -- they are both wearing big fancy fascinator hats in Act One, the ones that were on display during Harry and Meghan's wedding. And Petipa's choreography makes it clear that Colombine and Pierrette are soul sisters in every way. You know the famous "Harlequinade pas de deux"? Turns out it's actually a pas de quatre for Harlequin, Colombine, Pierrette, and one of Harlequin's friends (uncredited, but it was Alexandre Hammoudi who danced the part). The two couples' movements mirror each other.

Colombine and Pierrette's solo variations all involve long sequences (often complete stage diagonals) of hops on pointe. This shows their bossiness, their take-charge personalities, their toughness. One solo for Colombine has her do a complete backwards diagonal with hops on pointe in different directions -- first with her free leg facing the left, then hops in arabesque, etc. Those hops on pointe after awhile was giving me anxiety blisters by proxy. The fact that they do it all night means they are women not to be trifled with. The choreography also reveals how technically strong the dancers in the Imperial era were.

I also admired the way Petipa structured his ballet. The first act has as much mime as dancing -- the Good Fairy is a pure mime role, and Harlequin's mandolin solo also starts off with a long mime sequence. The second act after the resolution of the conflict (spoiler alert: Harlequin's magical slapstick also can create money out of thin air) is all formal academic classical ballet. It starts with throngs of adorable children dressed up as mini-Harlequin/Colombine/Pierrette/Pierrot sort of making a pure-dance cliff notes of the first act drama. The JKO students were neat, clean, crisp, with tight fifth positions, except for an unfortunate spill the second night. Bodes well for the future of ABT.

The larks in the Wedding pas d'action, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Up until the wedding pas d'action the Balanchine version and Petipa had few actual differences. Yes in Petipa the first act pas de deux is a pas de quatre and the Good Fairy is a pure mime role, but everything else is obviously based on the same choreographic DNA. The act one finale even had the same balcony lowering magically and the children's dances were also very similar-looking, down to the concentric circle patterns that Balanchine would put into his ballets repeatedly.

The biggest revelation choreographically is the wedding grand pas de deux. Here the choreography turns into stuff I've never seen before. It features a corps de ballet made up of feathery "larks" and the major theme (maybe the most beautiful of the night) has Harlequin repeatedly carrying Colombine in a "flying" lark lift over a bird's nest formation from the corps. It is stunning in its abstract beauty. Harlequin's solo for this pas de deux should be very familiar for those who know the Balanchine's version -- basically lots of petit batterie and beats followed by sudden fast turns a la seconde that of course acted as a big applause machine. It's basically identical to the solo that is at 6:56 in the video below. (I should add that Harlequin's solo variations in the ballet are so similar between Petipa and Balanchine as to be almost identical.) Colombine's variation is beautiful -- gentle backwards hops on pointe accompanied by exquisite bird fluttering arm and hand gestures. It's very different from the famous Serenade Balanchine made for Patricia McBride which ends with her blowing a kiss to the audience (see below). Petipa's version is less audience facing, more abstract. The final very formal ballroom quadrille was jarring -- it seemed less commedia dell'arte than Imperial Russia.

As to the actual production, Alexei Ratmansky has become (in)famous for how much rehearsal time and commitment he demands for his projects. But whatever he does, he gets results, because the ABT corps that can look so sloppy in Giselle and La Bayadere truly dance as one in his productions. Their arms are in the same positions. They are musically in sync. Their legs are raised to the same height. In other words, they actually dance like a world class ballet company. Ratmansky has eased his insistence about dancing in the style of the Imperial Ballet -- this time, passé/relevé are allowed to go high, all the way up the calf. Arabesques can sneak a few degrees above 90. Pirouettes no longer have to be done with the leg so close to the ankle. These allowances for modern technique and aesthetics don't take away from his achievement -- the cohesion he's able to get out of the company is something to be treasured.

Boylston and Whiteside, photo @ Andrea Mohin
He's also known as an exacting taskmaster for his principal dancers, and once again, it gets results. The first cast had Isabella Boylston (Colombine), James Whiteside (Harlequin), Gillian Murphy (Pierrette), Thomas Forster (Pierrot) as the leads. Boylston can often look a bit sloppy. Not tonight. She managed all those circular hops on pointe while maintaining the elegance in her upper body. James Whiteside not only executed all the petit batterie with aplomb but he got all the sad, mournful gestures of the Harlequin jester.

 Gillian Murphy was also more dramatically engaged than I've seen in a long time -- her shrewish Pierrette provided many of the evening's laughs and wow at her hops on pointe. Forster was an appropriately pathetic Pierrot, although his role is maybe 95% mime.

Forster and Murphy at curtain calls
The minor characters were obviously coached to the bone by Ratmansky -- Roman Zhurbin as Colombine's father, Duncan Lyle as Leandre, Colombine's rich suitor, and the Good Fairy (played by Tatiana Ratmansky, Alexei's wife). Their mime, their characterization, their storytelling was 100% on point.

Cirio, Lane, Ratmansky, Abrera, Hallberg, from Sarah's IG
The second night cast was unfortunately a bit weaker. Jeffrey Cirio (Harlequin) and Sarah Lane (Colombine) are strong technicians with that kind of tiny build that you would think would make them look so right in these demi-character roles. However Cirio is a cipher onstage and commedia dell'arte is all about the over-the-top mime and gestures. His partnering was also a bit labored -- those bird lifts are supposed to look effortless, like flying, not like Harlequin struggling to carry the partner across the nest formation. Other than a spill in the second act Lane had some lovely moments but I don't think she's a natural comedienne either. The comedy was supplied by Pierrette (Stella Abrera) and Pierrot (David Hallberg). Hallberg in this mime role was hilarious -- when not asked to do 24 entrechats one forgets what a comedian he can be. Hallberg made for a sadder Pierrot -- those hangdog expressions touched the heart. Abrera didn't have the absolute security of Murphy but she did make Pierrette a slightly gentler character.

From Hallberg's Instagram
The amount of care lavished on this production was evident in both the beautiful costumes and designs by Robert Perdziola and even how well the ABT orchestra played Drigo's charming score -- Ratmansky's solution to the eternal "ABT doesn't dance as a coherent company" problem seems to be preparation, preparation, preparation. The program book acknowledged the help of Edward Villella -- Villella was Mr. B's original Harlequin. This makes sense -- Villella learned the ballet directly from Balanchine, who was famous for his incredible memory. During the second performance Villella was sitting right in front of me and I asked him what he coached and he said the mime and characterization for the lead couples. The applause at the end was extremely enthusiastic during opening night when Ratmansky and his team appeared for curtain calls.

Is Harlequinade on the level of Sleeping Beauty or La Bayadere? No, but it doesn't make the reconstruction any less valuable. Since Petipa's death there's been a heavy emphasis on reviving his huge, grand spectacles. It's instructive to see Petipa's smaller, more intimate efforts (the ballet is very short -- about an hour and a half of dancing). A century from now it would be a shame if all that was left of Balanchine was, say, his leotard ballets, and it was totally forgotten that in 1965 he had created his own "reconstruction" of Petipa's Harlequinade.


  1. Thank you so much for your detailed description, analysis and critique of Ratmansky's latest archeological project. I think your emphasis on his ability to rehearse and unify the corps and the company is so important--in addition to enough rehearsal time dancers tend to need a leader they want to follow. It's a crucial part of running any company and especially true in ballet. Anyway, I couldn't go and your review was the next best thing to being there!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Ratmansky has also been very good about picking out talent. For instance before anyone picked him out Ratmansky singled out Gabe Stone Shayer in The Tempest. He did similarly with Cassandra Trenary.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

COVIDammerung -- The End of the World in Met Streams

Comparing Nutcrackers Across the Pond

Angela Meade's Anna