Take a chance on Russian Suites at the Pennsylvania Ballet

A scene from "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" Source: paballet.org (click on image)

Throw in some classical Balanchine, some sexy, striptease-metaballet and Ratmansky and serve on a chilly October night at Center City Philadelphia. Voila, the Russian Suites at the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The night began with a long trip from safe suburbia to Philly at night. The magnificent steel and glass stalagmites of the Comcast center and the Amtrack building cast a magical glow on the thousands of pedestrians that braved the cold for charity walks, Occupy Philly, ballet or just a good time. With all the highways burping late evening traffic, I made it just before the ushers closed the doors.

Russian Suites opened with  Raymonda Variations. It was 30 minutes filled with complex corps numbers featuring multiple geometric arrangements, some lovely solos, a pas ballonne en pointe which garnered an enthusiastic applause from the audience, and a somewhat disappointing pas de deux performed by Arantxa Ochoa and Ian Hussey. Though both shined in their respective solos, the partnering was awkward:  penchee’s wobbly and often the port de bras abruptly cut by the principal “searching” for her partner’s arm.

After the short intermission, it was time for some sizzling Ratmansky. And by sizzling, I mean Sizzling. Everything from the bright purple costumes, which changed gradually piece by piece into bright yellow costumes, Stravinsky’s energetic and unsettling score, and the combination of floor work and body language was electrifying. It was a Jeu de Cartes, game of cards, in the most metaphorical of senses, a gamble and a masterful showing of technique from the PA ballet dancers.

And yet, in all its technical mastery, I failed to understand it. Perhaps because it was a personal Ratmansky ballet and not a universal ballet. “They are more like portraits of the dancers I choreographed for,” Ratmansky says when talking about the characters of Jeu de Cartes. And indeed, these are characters that exist for Ratmansky. For the audience, they are bodies in transition, geometric shapes and arrangements, but lacking completely in the traditional universal themes of the great story ballets. True, there are moments, when the geometries materialize into characters, a woman flirting with a man, a group of women lazily leaning against the walls watching a group of men dance. By the final movement, when the corps member topple to the floor in a sequence like dominos falling one after the other, the viewer is left with a lively portrait, albeit one painted more in the style of cubism than realism. You know what you are looking at for a brief moment and then the clear image slips into an intricate pattern of the abstract. Watch PA Ballet rehearsing Jeu de Cartes here .

The third piece, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”  was probably one of the most anticipated ones. During the intermission, as the audience scanned the blurbs in the programme, I heard someone whisper, “A stripper?” Yes, a stripper. And yes, at a ballet. This was the first metaballet, a ballet that is aware of itself being a ballet and makes a commentary on itself, that I have ever seen. It begins with a dialogue between a star principal dancer and a gangster. The star dancer asks the gangster to murder his rival during a performance. The gangster agrees, casually descends from the stage and takes a seat in one of the balconies. Silence.

Then the curtains rise revealing a splash of 30’s retroglamour: late night whiskey, stripper girls, swing music, cabaret…no pointe shoes, no tutus. It brought to mind the same kind of Depression era hopelessness that Tennessee Williams wrote about in The Glass Menagerie: lonely souls burning with desire, yet unable to find consolation in anything but lust, alcohol and violence. The crux of the ballet within the ballet focuses on the relationship, love story, between a man (played by the rival etoile, who is to be assassinated) and the stripper (whose raw and no-apologies portrayal by principal Amy Aldrigde deserves appreciation) jealously protected by the owner of the bar.  I won’t reveal how it all ends, but if you ever have a chance, go see this little gem. Though it’s no tutus, but guns, drinks and bar fights, it is in many ways more human than the great story ballets. It speaks to us not through the grand feelings of sacrifice, unrequited love and betrayal, but through our depravities: lust, envy and violence.