Some New Yorkers will remember the summer of 2011 for Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. Others will remember it for Rihanna on the radio 3,000 times a day. But for dance aficionados, this summer was an absolute bonanza of ballet.
The home teams—American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet—both had memorable seasons. But the city was visited by three of the world’s most historically important companies: the National Ballet of Cuba, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov). It all resulted in night-after-night of performances—followed by mornings spent reading, tweeting, and kvetching about how completely wrong so-and-so is about such-and-such. All of which is to say: If ballet is dying, it is dying a vibrant death. The differences among the touring companies were distinct enough to serve as a reminder that even though global travel has exposed dancers to different techniques—which can have a homogenizing effect—nationalism reigns.
The Mariinsky, presented at the Metropolitan Opera House as part of Lincoln Center Festival, brought a mix of cosmopolitan polish and zesty confidence: long extensions, pliable backs, streamlined purity. Of all the performances, the highlight was “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” a comic 19th-century ballet based on a Russian fairy tale and rechoreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.
The plot involves a young man who winds up with a humpbacked horse after a trade; with the aid of the horse, the boy outwits a silly czar and gets the girl. “Horse” has moments of virtuoso technique, but its lure is in its high spirits, contemporary mime, and a postmodern awareness of the audience. At one point, the utterly charming Vladimir Shklyarov, who played the leading man, finished a long sequence of jumps to thunderous applause. He responded with a wave to the audience that said, “Oh, go on. That was nothing!” When he first encountered his partner, Yevgenia Obraztsova, he tapped her on the shoulder. She played with her braid, while standing flat-footed, trying to ignore him—as any young girl might when a boy is pestering her.
“The Little Humpbacked Horse” is a combination of ballet idiom and modern comedy. It’s rare to see an audience smiling and laughing so spontaneously at antics on the ballet stage—except that, in this bonanza of a season, it came within weeks of American Ballet Theatre dancing Ratmansky’s equally comic, equally marvelous “The Bright Stream,” which is like an episode of Three’s Company set on a Soviet collective farm. If you can imagine. The Russians also danced George Balanchine’s glorious “Symphony in C,” a glittering neoclassical ballet set to Bizet and requiring four ballerinas of dramatically different qualities in four distinct sections. The roster illustrated the depth of the company. There was a girl for all seasons: crisp lines for the first movement, lush glamour in the second, followed by unbridled good cheer and sweet simplicity.
The style of the Royal Danish Ballet, which performed at the David H. Koch Theater, is inherently its own. The Danes’ technique is still firmly rooted in the principles established by August Bournonville: ease, harmony, a calm upper body with fast feet jumping and zipping through intricate steps. Since 2008, the company has been under the artistic direction of the former New York City Ballet principal dancer Nikolaj Hübbe. Since the Danes had not toured the United States in more than 20 years, it’s hard to know the depth of Hübbe’s impact. What we do see is that the company can pull off a versatile repertory that ranges from the abstract, incoherent movement of choreographer Jorma Elo’s “Lost on Slow” (which I refer to as “Lost on Me”) to the still-effective charm of classic Bournonville, as seen in the signature works “La Sylphide” and “Napoli.”
In New York, the company danced only Act III of “Napoli,” which is a long stretch of bouncy, delightful dances in a public square. But what was most valuable was seeing the leads dancing a tarantella within the setting of the full-length ballet. Balanchine created a distilled version in 1964 with costumes and ribbons, but without sets. It’s a high-voltage, virtuoso pas de deux that City Ballet dances beautifully and often, but it’s always without context. Here, we saw what Balanchine was paying homage to.
In contrast to the Danes and Russians, the National Ballet of Cuba is devoted to a style of classicism that is in some ways preserved under glass, like an antique, but is part of the fascination that drew everyone who’s anyone in dance to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Cubans danced a greatest-hits mixed bill: scenes from the most important classical ballets, including “Giselle” (which is among its specialties) and “Don Quixote.”
The company is still heavily influenced by the artistic sensibility of its founder Alicia Alonso, who is 90 years old. Though some of its dancers bring an international style—broader movement, greater flexibility—the company has its signature take on classicism. Arms are often heavy and low. Heads are slightly bowed forward. Poses are delicately placed, with a tilt of the head and elongation of the back. And though the jumps can be vivacious, the style emphasizes stillness—whereas the Danes seem endlessly mobile, always pop, pop, popping. And when the Russians pause, it is in anticipation of the next phrase.
You have to consider the Cubans’ performances with a measure of respect for the company’s unusual situation. Isolated, yet resourceful; devoted, yet continually drained of dancers seeking other stages in other countries. Like Cuba’s politics, such as they are, this company’s future can only be full of change.
Pia Catton writes the arts column, Culture City, for the Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York section.