BWW Review: ABT's Historical Reconstruction of HARLEQUINADE Is (Literally) a Slapstick Romp That Delights the Eyes and Ears
In 2018 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of legendary choreographer Marius Petipa, American Ballet Theatre presented the premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's meticulous historical reconstruction of the full-length Harlequinade. His wife, Tatiana Ratmansky, assisted him and appeared as the Good Fairy in some performances. Originally titled Les Millions d'Arlequin, the ballet premiered in 1900 and was Petipa's last work before his retirement.
Ratmansky, ABT's Artist-in-Residence, is on a mission to preserve ballet history through reconstructions. I wholeheartedly applaud this effort. As I always remind my ballet students, ours is a living art that cannot be hung on a museum wall for posterity in the way that paintings can. Each new generation of dancers must perform what has gone before as well as what is new, or else our history will be lost.
Fortunately, however, Ratmansky has modified his view that reconstructions need to be historically accurate right down to the technique that was prevalent back in the day. I was not a fan of Ratmansky's 2015 reconstruction of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty, in which the dancers moved mostly on demi pointe although wearing pointe shoes and never raised their legs above 90 degrees. As BWW Dance World's own Barnett Serchuck wrote about that production, "Ratmansky does not have the women raise their legs above 90 degrees, which may be 1890/1921 stylistically correct but, as my friend who accompanied me said, their muscle memory is going haywire. They want their legs to reach the stars; here they are not going above the dining room chair. And the strain on their faces, not to mention their bodies, is very palpable." (Full disclosure: I was the friend who made that muscle memory remark.)
In Harlequinade, however, the dancers bring their current technique to the reconstruction although the rest of the production is a testament to Ratmansky's exhaustive research. An article in the Playbill by Mario R. Mercado reports that Ratmansky studied the available documentation in the Nikolai Sergeev collection in the Houghton Library at Harvard University, including dance notation by Vladimir Stepanov in the Harlequinade files and also some notations erroneously filed with those for another ballet.
The result is a joyous romp harking back to the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition, complete with an actual slapstick: two flexible pieces of wood joined together at one end used by clowns and in pantomime to produce a loud slapping noise. The buffoonery and largely silly but ultimately touching love triangle plot were for me a welcome respite from today's unsettling political news. Also, the scenery and costumes by Robert Perdziola are breathtakingly gorgeous while the music by Ricardo Drigo is eminently danceable and will be happily recognizable to anyone who takes ballet classes.
As for the dancing, on the evening of June 8th 2018 at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center Jeffrey Cirio was a bouncy and beguiling Harlequin with the lovely Sarah Lane as his Columbine. David Hallberg, always wonderful to watch, was an expressive Pierrot with the technically amazing Stella Abrera as Pierrette. The scene stealers, though, were the remarkably proficient children from ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (JKO) school.
I don't often read other critics' reviews before posting my own, but I made an exception in this case. I strongly disagree with Brian Seibert's assessment in the New York Times on June 5th 2018, which he titled "Harlequinade Has Charming Baubles, but Why Do It?" He concluded that the reconstruction represents "money that might have been better spent". Seibert wrote an award-winning book about tap dancing, but he is not an authority on ballet. There, I finally said it! I stand fast with my earlier stated reference to the importance of preserving our ephemeral art. Ratmansky has done exactly that with this reconstruction of Harlequinade.
The current run ended on June 9th 2018, but my hope it that Harlequinade will remain in ABT's repertoire. If it does, take the next available chance to enjoy a sweetly funny, riotously colorful, and exquisitely danced production.