Review: In Gala, American Ballet Theater Is Open to Debate

Misty Copeland in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” part of the American Ballet Theater’s spring gala on Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Credit...Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Alexei Ratmansky’s latest ballet, “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium,” is the most authoritatively original creation this bewilderingly versatile choreographer has given us. Since 2009, Mr. Ratmansky has been artist in residence with American Ballet Theater, which, after this premiere at Monday’s gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, emphasized its affiliation to his work by closing with the first performance of his “Firebird” since its premiere season in 2012, with Misty Copeland in the title role.

Ms. Copeland and others rose to the occasion. The “Firebird” — now enthrallingly suspenseful storytelling — looked far better than when new. (Natalia Osipova danced the premiere.) For these and other reasons, this was Ballet Theater’s most valuable gala in many, many years. Mr. Ratmansky, long a very fine choreographer, now begins to seem a great one.

“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium,” made to Leonard Bernstein’s exceptional 1954 violin concerto of that name, is intriguingly multilayered. With seven male dancers, it reveals the intense individuality of each one, with beautifully subtle classicism. (Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo, Calvin Royal III, James Whiteside, Daniil Simkin, Blaine Hoven and Gabe Stone Shayer danced it on Monday; different casts follow this week.) It’s a marvel of musicality; you hear this American concerto (Benjamin Bowman played the solo violin with beautifully singing eloquence) far better for watching the dance. And yet Mr. Ratmansky’s “Symposium” also evokes conversation, debate, camaraderie, an Athenian evening of philosophical talk in the days of Socrates when men did the talking and the voting.

In Plato’s “Symposium,” seven noted Athenians discuss the nature of love (“eros”). Mr. Ratmansky’s ballet affectingly honors philosophical debate itself, showing us the supremely civilized kind of evening in which seven vividly different characters propose different ways of being, different forms of human energy. They coexist and support one another in intricate ways. The word “symposium” is written in Greek on a canvas hanging above the stage, but one section could be subtitled “agon,” in the sense of “disputation”; you can see the start of a quarrel, the rising of temper.

In one poignant and amorously heroic interlude, a woman (Devon Teuscher) appears; the others leave her alone with Mr. Gomes. She appears again at the end of the work, when all the men gesture toward her in the ballet’s closing image. She may well represent love; her duet with Mr. Gomes has both a grandeur and an intimacy that set it apart from the rest of this ballet.

ImageFrom left, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III and Gabe Stone Shayer in the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium,” part of American Ballet Theater’s spring gala Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Credit...Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

And yet this work’s true heart lies in the colloquy among those seven men. Not since Merce Cunningham’s “Nearly Ninety” (2009) has a choreographer so showcased human variety in solos as Mr. Ratmansky does in this work. His same-sex partnering here is not erotically charged; yet affection and mutual supportiveness are wonderfully apparent. As a dance evocation of the philosophical discourse of Socrates — how amazing to encounter any dance in this terrain! — “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” may at once be ranked alongside Cunningham’s “Septet” (whose subject, he wrote, was “Eros”) and “Second Hand” (which was, John Cage once revealed, about the death of Socrates); and Mark Morris’s “Socrates.”

Mr. Ratmansky’s premiere richly extends the nature of dance theater — though it would look 10 times better if the lighting (by Brad Fields) did not direct white light into the eyes of the audience. And, though I love the differentiated elegance of Jérôme Kaplan’s costumes, one of them (for Mr. Royal) slightly interferes with dance movement. Even the best-known of these eight dancers — Mr. Gomes and Mr. Cornejo — show dimensions we’ve never seen before. Mr. Royal, Mr. Simkin, Mr. Whiteside and Mr. Hoven have never been better. And Ms. Teuscher (noble) and Mr. Shayer (merry) help to make this a celebration of human diversity.

Everything previously excellent about “Firebird” looks even better now; Simon Pastukh’s changing décor is theatricality itself. What felt like problems are no longer serious — though I still wish the maidens were not transformed into uniformly blond Aryan types. The long pas de quatre for Firebird (Ms. Copeland), Ivan (Mr. Gomes), the Maiden (Stella Abrera) and Koschei (Cory Stearns) has gained more suspense. Mr. Ratmansky departs, at times radically, from the story intended by Igor Stravinsky in his 1910 score; while he misses a few of its opportunities (a magical chord late in the Firebird-Ivan duet passes unnoticed), his tale now proves spellbinding.

The gala also presented dances from Frederick Ashton’s “Sylvia” (which the company danced last week) and “La Fille Mal Gardée” (which rejoins repertory next week); and from Mr. Ratmansky’s 2015 production of Marius Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty” (which will end the company’s eight-week season) and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Requiem.”

This “Requiem” (1976) happens to be the Fauré one; we saw the “Pie Jesu” solo, an unfortunate study in maudlin coyness (MacMillan based its choreography on photographs of his little daughter, Charlotte) danced by Alessandra Ferri, who was returning to the Met stage nine years after her farewell to American Ballet Theater there. The touchingly youthful simplicity of her style is unchanged; the gorgeous arches of her tapering feet seem more remarkable than ever.

Though “Sylvia,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “La Fille Mal Gardée” excerpts were vehicles for the lead dancers Maria Kochetkova, Hee Seo, Veronika Part, Mr. Stearns, Isabella Boylston and Jeffrey Cirio, these dances all demonstrate that in 2016 Ballet Theater is presenting itself as a true company. The eight attendant huntresses in “Sylvia” have wonderful steps, geometries, phrases; they looked jubilant, their high energy setting the gala off to a pulse-raising start.

All three Ballet Theater conductors — David Lamarche, Charles Barker and Ormsby Wilkins — were at their finest throughout the evening. I know of no ballet conductor anywhere today who has such revelatory affinity with the music of one composer as Mr. Lamarche does with Delibes, as the “Sylvia” dance showed. You could close your eyes and listen with joy; but Ashton’s choreography helped you hear the music even better.