American Ballet Theatre returned to Los Angeles last week with an all-Ratmansky program including his 2012 Firebird. Symphony #9 with music by Shostakovich, and Serenade After Plato’s Symposium (set against Leonard Bernstein’s mindful quasi concerto for violin with strings and percussion) accompanied the Los Angeles premiére of Firebird in a repertory evening featuring exceptional music.
Ratmansky has created many excellent ballets for ABT since becoming the company’s choreographer in residence. Notable among them are his revivals of historical works like The Bright Stream, and Le Coq d’Or which along with the iconic Firebird harken back to the era of the Ballets Russes. But his retelling of the complex Russian folk tale of the Firebird is too filled with offhanded humor and an overly camp bad guy (the sorcerer Kaschei) to capture the ominous and threatening domains of Stravinsky’s music. On Friday evening both Isabella Boylston as the Firebird and Alexandre Hammoudi as the protagonist Ivan, danced anodyne performances that risked little emotionally, leaving the triumphalism of the concluding music almost purposeless. It was, in the end, a story that ran out gas, but spectacularly so, amidst the truly miraculous, gigantic smoking and glowing trees of Simon Pastukh’s set. The best performance among the ballet’s four soloists belonged to Cassandra Trenary as the Maiden. She brought lively invention and exceptional acting to a secondary role as an infatuated girl putting the make on the easily distracted Ivan. Pastukh’s sets ultimately provided a perfect and eerie visual world that captured the energies and colors of Stravinsky’s music with a fervor missing in Ratmansky’s choreography.
The design of evening arced quietly in the direction of narrative dance and theatricality. Symphony #9 which opened the evening is filled with mostly buoyant, scherzo-like music. Ratmansky celebrates its Mozartian qualities with an airiness laced with fast feet and fleet patterns. The action was fuelled by lots of coming and going for both the soloists and the supporting cast. It was dancing that coasted on the music’s cheerful themes, and at times, with the miming of the percussion parts, even turned a little corny. It was light fare, but exceptional light fare.
Symposium seemed mostly a concept gone awry. Bernstein’s music takes on heady, intellectual territory: a musical retelling of Socrates and his man pals holding forth on a discourse about love. Ratmansky’s partying philosophers though, looked—and acted—more like narcissistic fashion plates in Jérôme Kaplan’s eccentric costumes. And what seems like a fertile field for a men’s ballet, takes an awkwardly gratuitous turn at the end with the glorified entrance of a lone woman. Looking suitably Greek-like in a draped dress, she joins the festivities but ultimately makes only glancing connections with the action and participants. Object of affection perhaps, but here, the role felt more like a distraction. Investing their roles with exceptional dancing were Calvin Royal III in the introspective Agathon section, and the high-flying Jeffrey Cirio in the final movement. Marcelo Gomes anchored the ensemble, casting an aura of maturity over a group of mostly younger, flashier dancers. Concertmaster Benjamin Bowman (great name for a violinist) was excellent in the virtuoso solo violin part. His playing combined both grit and lyricism.
(The performance took place on Friday July 8, 2016 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The orchestra was conducted by David LaMarche and Ormsby Wilkins. “Firebird” was previously reviewed in a performance at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2012)