By Rollie Hochstein
Opening night of the Miami City Ballet last Friday (January 10) packed the house. Not a table was to be found in any restaurant at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. My daughter Bess and I were lucky to find a couple of lounge chairs at the Books and Books Cafe (and book-store), where a server was willing to get us something to eat. We were even luckier to be in Miami on the night that this sensational dance program was coming off.
I liked the performance space. The soft lighting and mellow wood made a restful contrast to the spiky glitz of the Miami landscape. We had good seats (I could see no bad ones). We were among an eager audience, wide-ranging in age and dress. There was much deep décolletage and many glittering shoes, mostly but not entirely on women’s feet.
The first ballet opens with a giant screen showing the credits from the 1942 black-and-white movie “You Were Never Lovelier.” As the nostalgia settles in, the film catches Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth beginning their dance sequence. “I’m Old-Fashioned” is the song and the name of the 1983 ballet Jerome Robbins made of it, which Robbins dedicated to Astaire. I saw and never forgot the original New York City Ballet production at the State Theater in Lincoln Center. This Miami performance is the first one permitted to be staged outside the NYCB. I knew Astaire was a good dancer but this time I was struck all over again by his ease and fluidity—and the swinging waltzing steps that keep your eyes wide open and your feet wanting to tap.
Hayworth isn’t bad, either. Their dance is fast, flip and sometimes funny and you wouldn’t mind seeing it over again.
Which you do.
Robbins’s ballet is a Theme and Variations. The movie segment is the theme. The screen dissolves and the company dancers come on: solos, ensembles, full company; romance, intrigue, fun–all based more or less on the movie segment and to the music of Morton Gould based on the original Jerome Kern.
“Wonderful” is just a word. This goes beyond. The back-of-the-neck tingling thrill, for me, is when the movie comes on for a second time, the theme repeated. This time three couples costumed and mannered a la Fred (black tie) and Rita (filmy party dress) are dancing with the stars, simulating their steps on stage below their super-sized images.
After the standing ovation and an intermission barely long enough to catch your breath, the program continued to dazzle and gratify. “This Bitter Earth” starts out as a conventional boy-girl duet (Emily Bromberg-Rainer Krenstetter) picks up intensity and complexity over a bluesy soundtrack featuring Dinah Washington.
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his savvy dancers engage the audience in melting and muscular, always engrossing, confrontations (and separations) in which there is no “weaker” sex.
The “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” is a show-off treat. Cut and spliced 60 years ago from the (“failed”) original “Swan Lake,” George Balanchine‘s” opus provides plenty of pyrotechnics for Miami’s strong and vibrant dancers, Katia Carranza and stop-on-a-dime Carlos Quenedit.
Oh boy! All that and then Ratmansky. If choreography were a book, his would be a page-turner. Best-seller, too—since he is unanimously (as far as I have heard or read) counted today’s reigning classical choreographer. Don’t be put off by “classical,” if you might be. Alexei Ratmansky’s work has solid classical underpinnings but the invention comes from a today-into-tomorrow mentality. When Ratmansky is on the program, I try to get there—or at least read the reviews.
“Symphonic Dances” is the ballet he made for Miami City Ballet in 2012. This is another breath-taker, often deploying a stageful of dancers going at top speed.
The music is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s, stormy and racing, with a big cast of dancers handily deployed. Ratmansky, in the program, says “There’s no real story.” He’s interested in “images” and “feelings.” I grant the impact of both but couldn’t help seeing stories. Street-fighting (some of the dancers in blood-stained shirts) is one of them and why not? Isn’t there a “Symphonic Dances” by Leonard Bernstein in “West Side Story”? Ratmansky’s is generations younger and the movements evocative of the pain and terror of today’s headlines.
Another story in the three-part music suggested woman-to-woman attraction and the pull of society to break it up. Here the female dancers are costumed in colorful ball gowns and their movement works to separate the two women in blue while the tuxedoed men try to divert one of the women with suave exchanges, splendid lifts, elegant partnering.
All this mind-exercise is stimulated by Ratmansky’s vision, precision and inspiration for using space on a stage. Miami’s spirited and gorgeously athletic dancers make the most of it. You’re experiencing a great ballet and a gripping action drama at the same time. The ironic finale draws the dance together to the immense gratification of the audience. They were on their feet again and cheering.
Quite a program. If you’re around southern Florida this month, you can see it at the Arsht Center till Jan. 12, at the Kravis Center, Dreyfoos Concert Hall Jan. 17- 19, and at the Broward Center, Au-Rene Theater Jan. 25 and 26.