Choreography by Marius Petipa
Staging and Additional Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
Assisted by Tatiana Ratmansky
Music by Ricardo Drigo
Scenery and Costumes by Robert Perdziola (inspired by Orest Allegri and Ivan Vsevolozhsky)
First performed: 1900 at the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the title Les Millions d’Arlequin
Harlequin and his love, Columbine, as well as their friends, Pierrot and Pierrette, have been enchanting audiences since at least the late 16thcentury. They were principal characters of the commedia dell’arte, which traveled all over Europe with its stock characters recognizable by everyone and stories that had been around for centuries. The stories are timeless and pop up in other ballets. This one – of a pretty young girl who falls in love with a poor young man to the displeasure of her father, who wants to marry her off to a totally unsuitable suitor or an old, rich man – supplies plots for such works as La Fille Mal Gardee and Don Quixote. It still makes us laugh. (There is something wondrously chilling about watching a story that one knows made one’s 15thgreat-grandparents laugh too.)
Photo copyright American Ballet Theatre.
In contrast, what first struck me about Ratmansky’s Harlequinade is how rich it is. Ratmansky consulted the Stepanov notations, now at Harvard, in addition to other sources, and interviewed dancers who had been in the Balanchine version; he learned many of the mime scenes from Edward Villella, who had been taught them by Balanchine who had danced in the Petipa version. But nothing about Ratmansky’s Harlequinade seems to be merely the product of careful research. He somehow managed to digest all of this material and then walk into a studio and make it seem new. Save for Sir Frederick Ashton, Ratmansky is the only choreographer I can think of who can blend his own additions to Petipa's base into a seamless whole.
Ratmansky’s version of Harlequinade is a wonderful mix of dancing and mime, supported by Robert Perdziola's exquisitely detailed scenery and costumes. I write based on a video of the opening night New York performance, which I watched several times. It reminded me of Bournonville’s “Napoli,” where the mime is so set on the music that, in a good staging, it really is “the dance of the turned in feet.” I kept puzzling how Ratmansky could tell a story so clearly, and in such interesting ways, and yet at the same time create what can be seen as a suite of dances – demi-caractère and character dancing, mostly, except for an absolutely gorgeous dance of larks in the second act that’s softly classical. Several reviews said the ballet contained very little dancing, but that could be discussed. It’s not “Kingdom of the Shades,” but it’s not trying to be. Ratmansky’s Harlequinade shows another, very delightful, side of Petipa and I’m so very glad we have it.
Ratmansky has been bringing classical ballet back from the dead for some years now, not only with his lovingly perceptive restagings of four of Petipa’s ballets (in addition to Harlequinade, Paquita, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake) but with many of the ballets he’s choreographed himself. He seems to love classical ballet; he believes in it, and he makes the dancers believe in it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ABT’s dancers perform group dances in such a lively way, and they make the Petipa/Ratmansky intricate patterns fascinating and alive. Often, with this (and many other companies too), these dances seem like filler, something for the audience to watch while the principals are resting between solos. But here, the dances are the text, they’re important, and the dancers are not just doing steps, they’re dancing, and they seem to love it. There’s very little virtuosity – certainly none for its own sake. I’ve read that, as performances have continued, the legs are getting to 21stcentury heights, but on opening night, they’re what Petipa would have set, what was classical then, and they suit the ballet. I wish they could stay that way (maybe it would inspire emulation in others!)
For a review of the opening night cast, please see Mary Cargill’s Hop To It. There’s nothing I can add to what she wrote. In this performance, everyone is at the top of his or her game, the dancing flows, nothing is oversold, and it shows off the company beautifully.