New York City Ballet’s ambitious six-week spring season got underway last week, a combo of repertory and seven commissioned premieres, including Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. Perhaps the most anticipated ballet, it surpassed expectations and set the bar sky high for the remaining premieres. It showed Ratmansky’s ability to be inspired by, and create appropriate movement for, the cast at hand, balancing interesting movement with humor. One thing it didn’t include is a sculptural set by architect Santiago Calatrava, which will be used by five of the remaining six choreographers.
Ratmansky showed us plenty of reasons why he doesn’t need a set to create a fascinating microcosm, set to impressionistic music by Edouard Lalo. There’s a loose plot involving Robert Fairchild’s sailor, roving the world aquatic to find his true love, who is one among Jenifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, and Wendy Whelan. He encounters a clone-like corps (those headwraps, by costumers Marc Happel and Rustam Khamdamov, foil any chance at individualism), which demonstrates one of Ratmansky’s great talents—using simple steps and uncomplicated rhythms to create captivating geometric patterns as connected to folk dance as ballet. An example is when the group of 16 women advance in a matrix, and all but one kneels down. They move in circles, spirals, grids, and lines. As a giant organism, the group takes on a separate, inner life—like an anemone—changing from elegant yellow pleated gowns to neat, blue-hued tutus reminiscent of nautilus or slipper shells.
Fairchild commands with great ease, agility, and an almost jazzy scatting of steps. Yet it is Sara Mearns who steals the show in a few scenes, as she has been doing lately, to audiences’ delight. She dances on the limit, eating up space as her long legs sweep in ronds like a decathlete doing a hammer throw. Stabbing the floor diagonally in order to push the opposite way as hard as possible resulted in only one slip, an accepted necessity of her go-for-broke performances. In one section, eight men partner her, and it isn’t nearly enough. She’s not the smallest dancer, but even at an average size, her stage presence feels infinite, more part of the galaxy than this planet.
Jenifer Ringer, whose movie star looks disguise a wicked funny streak, has a louche scene that feels more backstage than down front, what with her slouching and taking drags on a ciggy between tossing off some dance phrases.
The trio of Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht was given the pixie section, suitable to their nimble speediness and small-scale expressiveness. Caramel-colored nymphs, they skittered and ping-ponged gleefully through several sections. There is a big romantic duet near the end of this near hour-long opus, with traditional lifts in which Whelan floats as if weightless in Robert Fairchild’s arms, in her magical, immortal way. A ceremony ends in a smooch as the corps ebbs. It made me want to wait for the tide to rise so I could see it all over again.
Coming up are premieres by Benjamin Millepied, Melissa Barak, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, Mauro Bigonzetti, and Peter Martins, many of them cause for anticipation as NYC’s big ballet season begins in earnest next week with American Ballet Theatre’s season opening.
Image: Sara Mearns in Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. Photo by Paul Kolnik.