Alexei Ratmansky always manages to fascinate. His work is immersed in ballet tradition, yet is never obvious and never fails to surprise. The surprise doesn't come from executing a familiar step in an unusual way, but rather by preserving the movement within an unfamiliar context. In Ratmansky's world, as in life, there are no logical conclusions to a sequence of events; the unexpected is always expected. This may not be conveyed by a dance move at all, but a facial expression or a shrug of the shoulders, turning a series of joyous steps into something sad, or an introspective moment into something comic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ratmansky has the courage to let his audience laugh.
His plotless ballets are never that, and there are multiple and complex layers of reactions and interactions between his dancers, which hint at stories never fully explained. Naturally, one wants to seek out the story, and everyone will have his or her own version of what has been said… or not said. His ballets can be seen again and again, with so much detail and subtle degrees of emotion waiting to be discovered.
Ratmansky is fundamentally positive about the world: costumes are colourful, movements outgoing, angst fleeting. With the brilliance of the steps, underlining his experience as a Royal Danish Ballet principal, he conveys real joy through effervescent and virtuosic technique.
All this is typical of the first two pieces in Teatro alla Scala's triple bill, Serata Ratmansky. Russian Seasons and Concerto DSCH, were created for the New York City Ballet, and it shows. Both have Balanchine-esque touches and, as at NYCB fast footwork is the order of the day, Ratmansky exploited their lightning speed.
Even when fast and festive, Leonid Desyatnikov's music for Russian Seasons has melancholy at its core – when's Lyuba's entrance? He uses folk themes, which conjure up peasant life, and Ratmansky's six couples pass from season to season as he glimpses at the life of a community during the course of a year. Antonino Sutera stood out for the brilliance of his dancing, and Bolshoi guest Andrei Mercuriev, who regularly collaborates with Ratmansky, showed how Russians do it: greater contrast between positions, an intensity in the use of épaulement… bigger, which, in this case, is better. Virna Toppi was assured and charming as the woman in red.
Concerto DSCH, which La Scala mounted in 2012, is a wonderful work that revels in complexity and joie de vivre. The young Carlo Di Lanno, with his princely line, should have been partnering Svetlana Zakharova, but she was indisposed for the preview performance for young people. Disappointing, as they surely make an elegant couple. Marta Romagna gamely stood in at the last minute. The impish pair of Sutera and Federico Fresi dazzled in the intricacy of the choreography.
To close the programme was Opera, a commission by La Scala, and this time Desyatnikov was asked to create a new composition, whereas Russian Seasons had been a pre-existing work. Ratmansky has produced a tribute to the La Scala theatre, the shrine of the lirica. It is a fantasy on Baroque opera, both musically and choreographically. Desyatnikov sets texts by Metastasio and Goldoni to music inspired by Baroque styles. The result recalls Benjamin Britten's vocal music, and makes great demands on the three singers in the pit.
Ratmansky doesn't try to adapt Baroque dancing, or even include elements of it, but uses his uncanny ability to match movement to music without mimicking it, yet neither going against it. It's a fine line. In complete contrast to the first two works of the evening, Opera is noble and bold, the movements less quicksilver and more sustained. Roman generals and their troops confront each other, dressed in Colleen Atwood's sumptuous Ben Hur costumes.
Opera celebrates opera. The two principal couples, Beatrice Carbone with Roberto Bolle and Emanuela Montanari with Mick Zeni, are given recitatives and arias. The ‘chorus' is composed of eight couples. Wendall Harrington's projections fill the width and height of the stage with classical backdrops, until the final scene, which portrays La Scala's auditorium as it was at the end of the 18th century. It is grand and big, and Italian and Russian. A glorious homage which reflects the past into the future.
Opera finds Roberto Bolle on top form. He is elegant and regal with effortless pirouettes and turns. Beatrice Carbone, who grew up with Bolle through the La Scala Ballet School, works well with him. She has a magnificent quality to her pas de bras, and their long pas de deux toward the end of the ballet sees them equally matched. Mick Zeni is a strong stage presence, with unforced jumps and commanding gestures, and together with the refined qualities of Emanuela Montanari, they produced some arresting moments.
La Scala has invested well in this project. This ballet is here to stay.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.