by Alastair Macaulay
The New York Times
October 21, 2011
Does a month go by without some kind of premiere by the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky? In April the Bolshoi danced the world premiere of his three-act “Lost Illusions;” in May American Ballet Theater presented the world premiere of “Dumbarton,” and in June, its first New York performances of his full-length “Bright Stream”; in July the Mariinsky Ballet gave New York its first view of his “Anna Karenina” and “Little Humpbacked Horse”; and in September the Paris Opera Ballet gave the world premiere of “Psyché,” based on the Greek myth. On Thursday the Pennsylvania Ballet presented the North American premiere of Mr. Ratmansky’s “Jeu de Cartes.” It would be nice to think the guy took August off as a well-earned vacation, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
The “Jeu de Cartes” that the Pennsylvania Ballet is dancing this week at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, as the centerpiece of a triple bill, was first danced by the Bolshoi in 2005. Its score is the one Stravinsky composed for a world premiere in 1937, choreographed by George Balanchine, in which poker became comic drama, and cards were dancers.
The Pennsylvania production includes a note from Mr. Ratmansky: “We are not card players; there will be no cards in this ballet. The meaning of the original title, which we have kept, may be interpreted as follows: to dance to music by Stravinsky is always a bit of a gamble — how not to lose count. We will go for broke!” And when the Bolshoi danced the ballet in London in 2006, “Go for Broke” was its title.
As that suggests, this “Jeu de Cartes” is a high-energy rush. It’s also full of many kinds of game playing. The 15 dancers enter not only from the wings but also through a central, gatelike space, down a small ramp and along a flat ledge — and they all use these areas to wait and observe what’s happening center stage.
The imagery includes playing dice on the floor; trotting while clasping invisible reins; displays of male virtuosity delivered with athletic or acrobatic display; and rolling on the floor too. The work’s most recurrent motif, for individual women, is a straight-legged, side-to-side teeter on point, with the dancer transferring her whole weight from toe to toe and back again — tentative but twinkling.
Principally it’s pure dance. The idea of games is pervasive. And though we don’t see cards, we feel as if we were in the thick of card playing. Group succeeds group like one hand of cards after another, forever being rearranged, and sometimes in rivalry. Some groupings recur — two male-female-male trios, batches of three or more men — but the main point seems to be near-constant change and renewal.
As it proceeds, it’s increasingly fast, furious and funny. One ballerina whips off a taxing circuit of turning jumps, then briefly collapses, caught as she falls by another woman. At the end everyone suddenly, excitingly coalesces in a freeze-frame tableau.
The designs are by Igor Chapurin. The dancers start largely in purple costumes, change into purple-cum-yellow for the second section and wear mainly yellow for the third and final part. These strong colors are offset effectively in each case by black.
It’s enterprising of Pennsylvania Ballet to present this Continental premiere. Two Balanchine ballets sandwich it: the brilliantly but fragrantly ultraclassical “Raymonda Variations” (1961) and the comic show-within-a-show-within-a-show “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (1936).
The company, which has had a strong Balanchine association since its start in 1963, has just 32 dancers, most of whom danced two of Thursday’s ballets each. Its orchestra played the three scores handsomely, skillfully conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron. The elegant, bright Arantxa Ochoa and the hunky, precise Ian Hussey led “Raymonda Variations” to Glazunov’s music. It’s wonderful to see again this astonishingly intricate and step-packed piece, with its staggering demands of footwork, turns and jumps for five supporting women, as well as the lead couple.
The Pennsylvania dancers don’t have full Balanchinean turnout — amid the highest-speed passages there were a few blurs and slips — but their style is bright and lucid, with especially spacious arms. The steps shone: Audience members left the performance talking about them (and their awesome demands) above all. Ms. Ochoa’s deportment is one source of delight; Mr. Hussey’s command of rapidly beaten jumps another.
In “Slaughter” Amy Aldridge is not quite the bombshell needed for the Strip Tease Girl; still, she makes the bump-and-grind movement lively, and her merriment carries the story. Jonathan Stiles is an appealing Hoofer. The Richard Rodgers score is a comic marvel, steering us to find death as a joke and love as serious.
It’s a particular pleasure to revisit the Philadelphia Academy of Music, with its red, gold and gray interior, its beautifully painted ceiling and its spectacular central chandelier. In the intermissions I eagerly explored the theater’s upper tiers. Built in 1857, it’s the oldest opera house in America still used for the purpose for which it was built. And nowhere in the United States have I yet encountered an opera house more beautiful. The company dances Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” with its 19th-century setting, each year there: a perfect house for it.
Read at nytimes.com.