By Robert Greskovic

American Ballet Theatre’s new two-act production by Alexei Ratmansky of Marius Petipa’s Harlequinade — known at its 1900 premiere in St. Petersburg as Les Millions d’Arlequin, and soon thereafter as Arlekinada — has so far met with a wide range of reactions. Following its world premiere, the New York Times headlined Brian Seibert’s review: “‘Harlequinade’ Has Charming Baubles, but Why Do It?”

My own reaction was awe for the effectiveness of the 118-year-old ballet, which offered varied theatrics and challenging showcases for American Ballet Theatre’s dancers, as well as for students from its Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of ballet. In short, this Harlequinade presented a fitting and fresh homage to a legendary balletmaster, whose bicentenary is being marked this year by dances and dancing that give renewed lustre to a dancemaker whose reputation is based at times nowadays on dubious remakes of ballets that bear his name. Meanwhile, taking casual measure of my fellow theatregoers, their laughter-laced responses to the dances and narrative plot points, not to mention rounds of applause for the dancers’ more expert performing, suggested their enthusiasm.

Ratmansky has staged the approximately 100-minute production, including intermission, with care for its Russian roots. Its subject concerns a foursome of central commedia dell’arte characters as seen through Petersburg’s then-Francophile sensibilities: Harlequin, a prankish servant; Columbine, his strong-willed ladylove with an overbearing father; Pierrot, an ineffective but loyal servant of Columbine’s father; and Pierrette, wife of Pierrot, sympathetic to Columbine’s plight.

The narrative’s delicately tangled arc evolves as a sometimes slapstick affair, literally so when Harlequin, as mercurial trickster, works with the traditional hinged wood-snapping slapstick that is transformed by a good fairy into a magic wand. With melodious support from Riccardo Drigo’s score, the action of Harlequinade presents a felicitous mix of vivid pantomime, full-bodied and geometrically arranged character dancing, as well as clear, seemingly simple classical dancing. With the choreography’s inclusion of various dances for children — at times 32-strong for a suite of miniature commedia characters — Harlequinade entertains and engages.

As with any number of Petipa ballets, including the grander and more familiar Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda, Harlequinade concludes its narrative plot at the start of its final act. Here, once the business of approving the marriage of a couple of lovers who had to overcome obstacles to their union, the theatrics can blossom into an extended suite of fine dancing. In this case, that means a polonaise, a harlequinade (here in the form of a carnival-like quartet of dances for classically schooled children), an allegorical classical divertissement representing a hunt for fluttering larks, all capped by a galop of grand proportions.

None of this means to say that the plot is without theatrical dimensions. Ratmansky’s faith in careful arrangement of pantomime stocks his ballet with compelling visual details and fun-loving action. Delighted laughter consistently arose during the five performances I attended at the sight of a dummy Harlequin being thrown as a dismembered mannequin from a balcony, only to be tossed into an alcove like so many logs on a fire and ultimately made miraculously whole and brought back to life by the good fairy’s intercession.

When the dancing flows forth in earnest, further dance delights and dancer showcasing can rule the day. Space does not permit a detailed description of the marvellous textures and tones ballet dancing can produce from Petipa’s hand (many made of simpler means than those of the tricked-out, ramped up efforts of 20th-century remakes). The range provided by Ratmansky’s “reading” of this Petipa work, lovingly based on historic notations of Harlequinade held in the Harvard Theatre Collection, goes from incrementally configured, grounded group dances to finely gauged ballet dances, especially those for the 12-stong female ensemble of Larks and, portraying a central lark, Columbine.

Robert Perdziola’s scenery and costumes, based on the original scheme by Orest Allegri and Ivan Vsevolozhsky respectively, deserve an essay all their own detailing the many fine points and fanciful effects.

The original Columbine was Mathilda Kshessinskaya, sometimes recollected as wielding undue influence over the imperial ballet due to her liaisons with the heir to the throne. Looking at what Ratmansky has divined of the dancing she did here, her reputation as a formidable technician seems more noteworthy than any historical gossip. In the often-demanding challenges of this role’s choreography, Isabella Boylston made the most effective showing in the current production, sustaining the extended work that is asked of Columbine from a single point of balance. At times, such moments involved pulsing hops while working geometric accents with her extended leg. Cassandra Trenary mostly matched Boylston’s aplomb in another cast.

Of the four men performing Harlequin, James Whiteside turned in the most confident portrayal. His scampish persona, athletic, aerial dancing and secure partnering shone. Daniil Simkin had some impressive moments with Harlequin’s bounding jumps. The characters of Pierrot and Pierrette have less demanding dancing, but both Thomas Forster and Gillian Murphy, respectively, filled out this sleepy husband and headstrong wife duo with wit and ease. Roman Zhurbin was memorable as Cassandre, Columbine’s blustering father, and Duncan Lyle made subtle work of the foppish suitor Léandre. 

DI FALL 2018

American Ballet Theatre’s Isabella Boylston (Columbine) and
James Whiteside (Harlequin) in Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade
Photo: Marty Sohl