All audiences want for Christmas may be The Nutcracker, but this December’s ballet event came in the form of a rare all-Ratmansky mixed bill in Milan. La Scala Ballet is steadily building a relationship with the choreographer under artistic director Makhar Vaziev, who commissioned some of his earliest works at the Mariinsky. It has now acquired a creation to call its own, Opera, presented alongside two of Ratmansky’s masterpieces: Russian Seasons and Concerto DSCH.
Both were made for New York City Ballet when Ratmansky was still at the helm of the Bolshoi, and they are gifts that keep on giving. There is jubilation and a sense of freedom in the way they explore new territory even as they acknowledge Ratmansky’s Russian roots, with scores by Leonid Desyatnikov and Shostakovitch.
The choreography for both is tightly woven, and bubbles over with invention. The peasant-like community of Russian Seasons and the brisk, athletic whirlwind that is Concerto DSCH give us ballet as a life-affirming language, full of humour and pathos. You notice more details with each performance: a corps member jumping up and down with flexed feet in Concerto DSCH as everyone else carries on imperturbably; a gleeful passage for a soloist who jumps like a pinball between two partners.
Bolshoi prima Svetlana Zakharova, who is on La Scala’s roster as an étoile, reprised roles created for NYCB’s Wendy Whelan in both works. She is a changed dancer in Ratmansky’s repertoire, far more spontaneous and alive to the steps. Her partner in Concerto DSCH was Carlo di Lanno, a young Italian dancer who has prince written all over him. Federico Fresi, appearing in both ballets, was another standout, with Bolshoi-style flair.
Opera may also require repeated viewings to reveal its secrets, but it lacks its companions’ sense of inevitability. Set to a new score by Desyatnikov, it is a quirky tribute to La Scala and to opera, which has long overshadowed ballet in Milan. The music incorporates texts by two 18th-century librettists and authors, Metastasio and Carlo Goldoni, with three singers in the pit.
Ratmansky responds in grand, slightly absurd fashion. Elaborate, richly coloured costumes (including armour and Roman-style helmets) are set against video projections that give classical sculptures the Russian Constructivist treatment. The choreography, with its hackneyed characters and situations, reads like a plotless crash course in tragedy. There is a Racinian pas de deux for the couple in blue, who succumb against reason and the advice of their confidants; leading ladies console each other solemnly; their consorts meet for a dignified confrontation.
But Ratmansky thrives on such dialogue between past and present, and his immense skill is evident in Opera. The corps de ballet – by turns court retinue, furies, mourners or Greek chorus – acts as a vivid counterpoint to the action throughout; some sections are Baroque in spirit, with ornate ports de bras and sweeping fish dives. It is repetitive, however, and the four principals lack the qualities that often inspire Ratmansky – the verve and brio of the original casts are still evident in Russian Seasons and Concerto DSCH. For La Scala Ballet, however, his work is a formidable training ground, and the company is fast reaping the rewards.