American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade is a lavish spectacle that takes audiences back in time, serving as a welcome respite from the tensions of everyday life. ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky recreated the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa (his last major work) by sleuthing through volumes of dance notation documents from the Nikolai Sergeev collection at Harvard University, staying as true to the original work as possible. Harlequinade serves as a tribute to Petipa, as ballet fans commemorate the bicentennial of his birth.
Harlequinade debuted in 1900 at the Imperial Theater of the Hermitage, Winter Palace for a private audience of the Russian court that included Tsar Nicolas II, grand dukes and princes. Sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola attempt to replicate the opulence of the Imperial Ballet with a wild kaleidoscope of colors. According to the program, Perdziola created nearly 100 designs which total more than 250 costumes.
Harlequinade is based on episodes from commedia dell’arte, an improvised kind of popular comedy in Italian theaters in the 16th–18th centuries, based on stock characters. Set to the bright and energetic score by Riccardo Drigo, the composer and conductor of the Imperial Ballet, the ballet centers around the hyperactive Harlequin and his love interest Columbine. The two are madly in love, but Columbine’s father, Cassandre, has other plans for her, notably the bumbling Léandre the wealthy suitor. Cassandre fares no better than Kitri’s father Lorenzo in Don Quixote and Lise’s mother Widow Simon in La Fille mal gardée in keeping his daughter away from a charismatic pauper. A moral of comedy ballets is that children have a mind of their own, valuing attachment over financial interests. Harlequin and Columbine have assistance getting to the altar in Act II from Pierrot, Cassandre’s servant and his wife Pierrette, and The Good Fairy who provides Harlequin a literal slapstick, which serves as a magic wand that gets him out of several jams. Those seeking the meaning of life will be disappointed; the plot is thin, campy, and silly in the short one hour and fifty minute production.
The work relies largely on ensemble dancing and pantomime from the main characters rather than grand solos that permeate other Petipa works. The dancers attempt to employ 1900s style technique such as lower than current day standard arabesques and low retiré positions on pirouettes with arms held low and close to the body. However, on Monday and Tuesday, the dancers were not as true to form as in Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty, with numerous high arabesques and extensions for the women (although the men performed the period style pirouettes with a low retiré position).
Unlike other Petipa classics like Le Corsaire and Don Quixote, there is little bravura steps from the leads. Steps for the lead women include intricate pointe work such as a tricky arabesque hopping step in which the leg rotates to second position. Beat steps are abundant for Harlequin solos. There is little razzle dazzle except for rapid turns/hops in second position for Harlequade in his Act II solo. Children dominate much of the dancing in Act II with 33 young dancers from the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. They are cute but a bit much as I would rather see more work from the adults.
The Monday world premier cast featured James Whiteside as Harlequin and Isabella Boylston as Columbine. The two have a great connection and played the roles with great joy and energy. In particular James scooted across the stage with boundless energy in pursuit of his true love. Leads Tuesday were Sarah Lane and Jeffrey Cirio. The two were effective in the roles although more subdued than the Monday cast, with a few rocky lifts. David Hallberg was outstanding Tuesday as the pathetic and hapless Léandre, moping the stage in a fruitless struggle for Columbine’s love. David has a great future as a character actor after his dancing days are done. Gillian Murphy and Stella Abrera were Pierrette on Monday and Tuesday evenings, respectively. Both played the role with great comedic touches.
Ratmansky’s full length ballets at ABT are always engaging in recreating Russian classics. Watching his works is like entering a time machine going back to the days of the Russian Tsars. Although I appreciate his full-length extravaganzas, my desire for multiple viewings of his works-my true test of commitment to a ballet-varies greatly. I adore his Sleeping Beauty and could see it multiple times a season depending on the cast. The production, also recreated from dance notations from the Serveev collection at Harvard, is true to Serge Diaghilev’s 1921 staging of the Imperial Russian Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty. On the other hand is Ratmansky’s Golden Cockerel which debuted at ABT in 2016 based on the Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov opera after a verse by Alexander Pushkin. Although I was stunned by the sets and thought the dynamic interplay between characters was interesting, I would skip it if it returns to the Met. Harlequinade stakes out a middle ground for me; I could see it at most once a season-but due to the lack of substantial dancing, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it (except to see Daniil Simkin as Harlequin). Much like Whipped Cream, which debuted last year, Halequinade serves as a happy escape from the tensions of everyday life and a welcome respite from tragic ballets that end in death and heartbreak.
Interesting that the reviews on Ratmansky’s Harlequinade are very mixed:
The stars were out Monday and Tuesday. I saw many current and former dancers in the audience from ABT and New York City Ballet. NYCB great Edward Villella was in attendance; he was thanked in the program for his invaluable assistance during rehearsals.