Balanchine states, “[s]i une musique m’a inspiré, je me familiarise avec elle. J’essaie de découvrir ce que son auteur avait dans l’esprit lorsqu’il l’a composée et je cherche un thème qui s’accorde avec elle.” (If a piece of music inspires me, I familiarize myself with it. I try to discover what the composer had in mind when he made it and I look for a theme which agrees with that.) This certainly holds true for Ratmansky’s new ballet: Pictures at an Exhibition, to Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano composition of the same title. This famous score was created in response to Mussorgsky’s impressions at a posthumous exhibition of his friend Victor Hartmann’s artwork. (Hartmann died suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of 39.) The different sections of the music are named after specific pictures by Hartmann, and the dancers in the new ballet sometimes closely represent these titular images; sometimes their movements correspond only vaguely. Sara Mearns has a tour de force solo that looks nothing like the musical concept of “The Gnome” to which she dances, yet Adrian Danchig-Waring and Gretchen Smith portray an elderly couple who have lost their glasses in the excerpt called “Two Old Jews.” The terrific group dances cling tightly to their titles: a dance for four women to “Cows” invokes bleating cattle fenced together (a motif made by the women’s linked arms), while five men have a hilarious, plucky romp to “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells.”
One of my favorite sections, called “Catacombs,” utilizes the entire cast of the ballet. To me, it appears to be the reverie of one man—Tyler Angle—as he remembers his youth (Tyler’s movements are shadowed by Joe Gordon who figures as his younger self and foil) and the various relationships in his life. I also love Amar Ramasar’s section to the music inspired by the Russian witch Baba-Yaga. Amar has a solo in which he looks like a sorcerer conjuring a spell—or he could be a club kid at a rave—and then a violent pas de deux with Sara Mearns in which he seemingly vanquishes her. Tiler Peck’s sections of the ballet are also among my favorites, and her choreography has little apparent connection to the musical titles “Tuileries” and “The Market at Limoges.” Wendy Whelan’s pas de deux with Tyler Angle, called “The Old Castle” in the score (which I think is fitting for this gloriously sculpted retiring ballerina) is also a highlight.
The set design for the piece is a mishmash of Kandinsky paintings which change and recombine during each dance. This reflects the music’s title in a literal way, yet the Kandinsky pieces are wholly abstract while Hartmann’s were not. This cleverly adds one more layer to the ballet/music’s conceit. The costumes look as if they were cut from canvasses at a modern art gallery too. Interestingly, though the music is rooted in the art world, it has some uncanny links to ballet. Hartmann’s gnomish watercolor was supposedly inspired by a grotesque Nutcracker doll, and the sketch “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells” was a children’s costume design Hartmann made for a real Petipa ballet called Trilby.
The other Balanchine quote that I feel befits Ratmanksy has to do with his demeanor in the studio. Balanchine avers, “[q]uand je crée, petit á petit, un mouvement, je montre á chaque danseur exactement ce qu’il doit faire, et j’exige qu’il m’obéisse jusque dans le plus petit détail.” (When I create, little by little, a movement, I show each dancer exactly what they must do, and I demand that they obey in even the smallest details.) In rehearsals the soft-spoken, incredibly polite Ratmansky demonstrates every single step exactly as he wants it to be performed—and then carefully coaches his cast until they do precisely that. It is amazing to watch—he possesses a gentle strictness that pulls very specific performances out of his dancers. He is encouraging of each dancer’s individual strengths, yet he also has a clear vision of what he wants them to do with those talents. Of course I never worked with Balanchine—alas, not even Wendy got to do that!—but I have heard that he also had a quiet yet demanding presence. I am always surprised that no former dancers ever speak ill of Balanchine; he evidently inspired tremendous love and respect in everyone around him. Watching the kind and ridiculously talented Ratmanksy at work makes me believe that this could be so. I am sure tonight will be a success; I hope we will have many more ballets from him to come.