NEW YORK — We think of ballet as a nonverbal art, but for the last few months, the words “tell” and “say” have echoed in the studios of American Ballet Theater. The dancers aren’t using their voices; it is their bodies that are doing the talking.
“Harlequinade,” which has its premiere at Ballet Theater on June 4 in a staging by Alexei Ratmansky, is a highly conversational ballet, inspired by the popular 18th-century theatrical form known as commedia dell’arte. Between the dances, the characters “speak” to one another in broad, legible gestures and glances that fit into the musical phrases like words in a song. The dancing, too, is full of details that add to the character of each scene. The gestures dance; the dances tell stories.
“The characters are almost putting on a show, talking to the audience as they go,” said Cassandra Trenary, who alternates in the role of Columbine, Harlequin’s sweetheart. “We’re breaking that fourth wall.” When Harlequin, the young hero — a trickster in brightly colored tights — offers a serenade to his beloved, he strums a mandolin, moving his lips as if really singing a tune.
This ballet isn’t Ratmansky’s invention, but rather a restaging of a comedy by Marius Petipa, originally called “Les Millions d’Arlequin,” or “Harlequin’s Millions.” It was first performed in 1900 in St. Petersburg, where it remained in the repertory for almost three decades.
Petipa, the principal choreographer at the Imperial Theaters in the second half of the 19th century, put on dozens of ballets, including many that are still repertory fixtures: “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Don Quixote,” “La Bayadère.” These were passed down mainly through oral tradition, as in a game of telephone, from teacher to student, with tweaks and additions compounding over time. Written notations for many ballets do exist, at least in partial form, but mostly they are ignored, on the theory that dance is a living, breathing art form, always changing.
This stylistic drift doesn’t sit well with Ratmansky, he explained over coffee near Lincoln Center. Until recently, he said: “I had lost my interest in these classical ballets. I didn’t want to see them.” Something, for him, was missing — but he wasn’t sure what.
There were later versions of “Harlequinade” in Russia by Fyodor Lopukhov (in the 1930s) and Pyotr Gusev (in the ‘70s); and, at New York City Ballet, by George Balanchine (1965, with additions in 1973). As with most later stagings of Petipa, they were loosely based on the original — Balanchine made up his own steps, “in the style of” Petipa — but none made any claim of authenticity.
So, rather than patch together a “Harlequinade” based on the versions he knew or dream up his own, like Balanchine, Ratmansky went back to a trove of dance notations kept at Harvard: detailed scores written out in a system of lines, dots, arrows, X’s and O’s. Stepanov Notation, as the system is called, was developed by dancer Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov in Russia in the 1890s. Note-takers sat in studios, scribbling in real time as the dancers rehearsed.
This labor-intensive system fell out of use after the Russian Revolution, when people had more important things on their minds. In the decades since, few people have bothered to learn how to decode the notes. (One of the few was Sergei Vikharev, who remounted several ballets using notes in Russia.)
Why bother with them at all? For Ratmansky, Petipa’s choreography mattered. “It’s about the steps,” he said. “Choreography is a text, and this is the text we have. You wouldn’t change Balanchine or Fokine, so why Petipa?”
Five years ago, Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, a former dancer who assists him in his reconstructions, sat down to figure out what the notes actually contained. What they found has surprised and delighted him. “The key is the simplicity of the phrases,” he said. “Petipa’s choreography is so simple, and so wise. Everything feels inevitable.”
The style has inspired him in his own work, he added. “You can see it in my ballet ‘Whipped Cream’ — it’s really structured after a Petipa ballet, with all the changes of mood, the stage pictures, the diversity of approaches to each scene.”
“Harlequinade” is Ratmansky’s fourth deep dive into the historical record, after “The Sleeping Beauty” (for Ballet Theater, in 2015), “Swan Lake” (for Zurich Ballet, in 2016), and “Paquita” (for Bayerisches Staatsballett, in 2014). In the fall, he’ll take on “La Bayadère,” for Staatsballett Berlin.
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As he has become more conversant in Petipa’s style, his freedom within it has increased. In “The Sleeping Beauty,” he was adamant that the women should raise their legs up only 90 degrees and not point their feet when they stood at rest, but rather hold them in a semirelaxed position. Many of the women’s turns were executed with the foot on half tiptoe rather than fully on the tips of the toes.
These period details were difficult to maintain — the dancers kept going back to their old habits, he said — so he hasn’t insisted on them in “Harlequinade.” “It requires too much time to make it work, and there are never enough rehearsals,” he said.
What he hasn’t dropped is his focus on the specificity of Petipa’s style. “Even the arabesques and the arms and the angles of the body tell us something about the character or the situation,” Ratmansky said. Many of those details had been smoothed out over time. In a pose from the final pas de deux, for example, he asked the dancer to twist her shoulders slightly so that she could peer back at her partner: “There’s a lot of story here; you’re telling us about your fear.” The pose wasn’t just pretty; it carried meaning.
How much of this comes from Petipa and how much from Ratmansky? The line can be blurry. Some sections of the notes are fairly sparse, with only indications for the legs and feet, or a simple floor plan. Even when there is more detail, it requires interpretation.
“There is this section where Harlequin does a diagonal of batterie” — jumps in which the legs beat together in the air — “and each time you jump, there’s a turn,” Daniil Simkin, one of the dancers alternating as Harlequin, said during a rehearsal break. “Exactly when that turn happens is up to discussion.” (The other Harlequins are Gabe Stone Shayer, James Whiteside and Jeffrey Cirio.)
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Ratmansky described the process of reconstruction as “finding the little bits in the dust, and then placing them together to create a picture.” It is not a science, after all, but an act of the imagination.
“Harlequinade” runs Monday through June 9 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan; abt.org.