Home Is Where the Heart Is

Claudia La Rocco on Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck

Alexei Ratmansky, “Symphony #9,” 2012. From The Shostakovich Trilogy, 2013. Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova. Photo: Marty Sohl.

SOMETIMES A WHOLE THEATER leans forward and up, like a great set of hands is gathering the audience, and lifting. I don’t know anything else like it. The triumphant roar of the crowd at a baseball game comes close, but that surge is physical, whereas this is energetically felt, at once communal and deeply internal.

When such electricity sweeps through a big, storied house, it is amplified, given power and speed. This has been my experience at the New York State Theater (permit me, in this context, to not call it the David H. Koch Theater) during the three ballets Alexei Ratmansky has choreographed for New York City Ballet: Russian Seasons, Concerto DSCH, and Namouna, a Grand Divertissement.

The much in-demand Russian was meant to be in residence at that theater, a fit that seemed right in ways both artistic and historical. Reports vary as to whether Ratmansky was too busy elsewhere to truly commit to a residency offered him in 2008, or City Ballet management too inflexible to allow him enough freedom. He landed at Lincoln Center anyway: American Ballet Theatre, perennially happy to have its talent parachute in and out, snapped him up.

This is old history, but worth repeating. Architecture matters, as does the spirit of a place, and a company. The Metropolitan Opera House isn’t the State Theater (neither is the Koch), and ABT isn’t City Ballet.

Last weekend came ABT’s unveiling of Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy: “Symphony #9” from 2012 and two premieres, “Chamber Symphony” and “Piano Concerto #1.” I was practically static-y with excitement as I slid into my plush seat at the Met. The lights dimmed, the musicians readied, the starburst chandeliers slid up toward the massive ceiling. And then—

Dismay, and a rather bewildering enervation. That’s the funny thing about a big house; sometimes it doesn’t amplify, it annihilates. (That same night, a friend was downtown, watching Yvonne Meier at Abrons Arts Center: “As soon as I sat down I was exhausted,” she later reported of her experience at Abrons, which in scale and design could be the Met’s neglected walk-in closet.) By first intermission, when I saw a friend and much-respected colleague, I could only smile wanly at his excitement for a night he likened to City Ballet’s 1967 premiere of George Balanchine’s Jewels triptych.

There are many wonderful things about Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. His movement invention remains singularly marvelous, so that these works are in deep conversation with their scores without being beholden to them. There is a complexity and ambiguity of meaning throughout much of the choreography; as is his wont, Ratmansky sets carefully drawn individuals against the rush of the crowd. When great gusts of dancers were swept on and off the stage, the women’s toe shoes hitting hard, I thought of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

History and melancholy. The stage as darkling plain. How far away that plain is at the Met, how dwarfed by what surrounds it (and, at least as lit by Jennifer Tipton, how murky). Ratmansky’s art is not served by such a frame. Nor does he seem to make his most vibrant work within this expertly polished company of imported stars. It glitters, but does it live?

Sitting there on Friday, I also thought of something really dumb that another British writer, Kinglsey Amis, said in a 1975 interview: “And being American is, I think, a very difficult thing in art, because all the elements are European, and to give them a distinctive American stamp is something you can’t try to do—it can only be hoped that in the end this will emerge.”

So here’s something I was thinking that night, something that might also be really dumb: Being ABT seems to often be a very difficult thing, and maybe that is in part because so much of what it values in ballet centers around the art’s European trappings. Disorientation writ large: American Ballet Theatre, the Yankee declaration and Brit spelling slammed together.

I dunno. Maybe that’s a reach. Maybe what I should instead say is that I am still in mourning over Ratmansky not having ended up at City Ballet, and that while his works for ABT have been consistently solid and occasionally terrific, they have still never generated the same charge as have his works for City Ballet—a company that never laid claim on an entire country, just a metropolis, and all of the impatient, corner-cutting speed that went with it.

Justin Peck, In Creases, 2012. Robert Fairchild. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Which brings us to Justin Peck.

That next afternoon I was back at Lincoln Center, across the plaza this time, to see City Ballet perform In Creases, the earliest of the three ballets Peck has made for the company.

Peck is a native Californian, still in his mid-twenties and still a dancer (City Ballet recently promoted him to soloist). He has talked about the adrenaline rush of New York, what that does for an artist, and also what it means to be rooted in one theater, one company. He has not yet gone into production hyperdrive, saying yes to one marquee commission after another. Though one imagines this is coming, just as it did for Ratmansky and, before him, Christopher Wheeldon—once the ballet world smells choreographic talent, it latches on for dear life.

And boy is Peck talented. For my money, he’s the most galvanizing voice in ballet right now. After the show the principal dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring texted me: “I’m grateful he’s working here.” I feel just the same.

Saturday’s sleepy weekend matinee began in a living history: Balanchine’s great opening statement in America, the 1935 work Serenade. Peck is in conversation with it, and with so much of City Ballet’s history (including, in a big way, Ratmansky). Replies tumble out of him in steps and phrases and even costumes.

You could feel the energy building as soon as In Creases began, its eight dancers plunging into the relentless first and third movements from Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos. There were the pianos, hovering upstage center like sleek conjoined machines. The hands reached for us, and we were caught.

All of this isn’t to say Peck is a better choreographer than Ratmansky (which is anyway the stupidest sort of reasoning). It’s that there is something about the moment he’s in, time and place, and the fact that his dancers are all in, in a way that the seasoned pros across the plaza didn’t seem to be on Friday night. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Ratmansky; it’s more to say that Peck is working with his (often very young) colleagues, his peers, and he is in a different sort of exchange with them. That won’t last. How could it? But for now, it seems pretty special, so that, even when the ballets themselves aren't working in places, there is that larger sense of the thing itself working.

And maybe I am only projecting, creating my own sort of romance around a contemporary moment. (It’s a small romance, compared to how people talk of what it meant to see new Balanchine works unveiled—but then, isn’t such diminishment the story of this long last century?) I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Or escapable. The forces at work when people call sports radio shows at two in the morning, half out of their minds for players and teams—well. Why should it be any different in the theater?