Last week I introduced my weekly dance column with a discussion of The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. This week the featured choreographer is … Alexei Ratmansky. It’s so hard to go past this man. Every serious ballet company in the world has had a work made for it by him, has acquired one by him, or is desperate to get one. He’s the best of the best. This week you can see one of his short works – and it’s unmissable. Trust me, there’s more in one act of Ratmansky than in many a full-length ballet I could name.

New York City Ballet: Concerto DSCH
Ashley Bouder and Joaquín De Luz in New York City Ballet's production of Concerto DSCH by Alexei Ratmansky

In 2008 Ratmansky made Concerto DSCH for New York City Ballet and the piece was a huge hit from the moment it premiered. Other companies have taken it into their repertoire but the performance you can see from Saturday May 8 at 10am AEST is from NYCB itself, recorded in 2018. The revival featured three of the original leads – Ashley Bouder, Joaquín De Luz and Gonzalo Garcia – alongside fellow principal artists Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle. It’s a starry group, but then NYCB seems to be composed entirely of stars, no matter their rank. NYCB is arguably the most distinctive of the world’s great ballet companies thanks to its Balanchine heritage. The dancers’ fleet-footed brilliance and deep musicality are a constant delight.

Two fun facts before we dive in. The first is that De Luz appeared in this ballet nine days before he retired from NYCB at the age of 42. Someone half his age would be delighted to have a quarter of his fizz. He’s a rocket. And on a local note, it does the heart good to see that the men’s corps includes Brisbane-born Alec Knight, the first Australian male to join NYCB, which he did in 2016.

It’s not a bad thing that Concerto DSCH is only 20 minutes long because you’ll want to watch it again and again. Ratmansky creates a world brimming over with wit, a little melancholy, high spirits and captivating human touches. It’s a lot to take in. There’s much that is unexpected, often in an action or gesture that’s gone in an instant, but in those moments lies the work’s genius. There is no plot but the ballet hints at many, many stories. Above all, there is an overwhelming sense of community, love and support. Concerto DSCH has a huge heart. Just the thing for right now.

The ballet is made to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Major and is in three movements, the bright, energetic outer ones enclosing an adagio of melting beauty. The music was written in 1957 at the urging of Shostakovich’s pianist son Maxim who premiered it for his conservatory graduation performance.

Sharp-eyed balletomanes will note that Kenneth MacMillan used it for his Concerto in 1966, made for Deutsche Oper Ballet and performed by The Australian Ballet as part of its British Liaisons program in 2011. The two ballets are very different although both feature a gorgeous pas de deux in the second movement.

We are introduced to all five leading dancers within the first minute or so and they are worth our close attention. Except wait! The group in the background is also intensely engaging. Why are those men, whose garments look a little like goofy old-fashioned bathing suits, jumping up and down on the spot? Where are those women sneaking off to? It’s difficult to know where to look, really, which is why you’ll need a couple of goes at it.

Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in New York City Ballet’s 2016 production of Concerto DSCH by Alexei Ratmansky

The madly virtuosic Bouder, De Luz and Garcia whizz off and on like spinning tops as they play out a flirtatious but competitive tussle between the three of them, the nature of which is electric and elusive. Their funny and complicated relationship has its counterbalance in that between the more serious Mearns and Angle, particularly in the luscious second movement. There the two are more tentative but one can see they are among people who care for them. Watch out for the brief kiss between one couple. It’s gone in a flash but is so sweet and eloquent.

A repeating motif is variations on circle dances, sometimes with a strong folk flavour, sometimes with other moods or allusions. At a point in the first movement Soviet triumphalism makes its presence felt – Shostakovich had a difficult relationship with the powers that be – and Angle lifts Mearns on high, she with arms outstretched and hands clasped as if in victory. The corps encloses them in emphatically stated circles, one clockwise, the other anti-clockwise. As I said, there’s a lot going on.

It’s lovely, for instance, to see Ratmansky’s quotation of Balanchine, NYCB’s founder and the choreographer who dominated 20th-century ballet. Early in the slow movement Angle crouches and rests his head on Mearns’ hand in precisely the way Apollo does with the three Muses in Balanchine’s Apollo, a seminal work created in 1928.

If you’d like to know more about Ratmansky you may enjoy episode 15 of NYCB’s podcast – City Ballet the Podcast – in which he talks to Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan. But you won’t want to stop there. There are also interviews with dancers and former dancers and discussions about dance music and history. I particularly enjoyed NYCB Music Director Andrew Litton on the subject of Swan Lake’s score. Episodes are put up weekly.

New ballets in NYCB’s Digital Spring Season become available for the rest of May on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10am (AEST) for 72 hours. It’s worth putting a reminder in your diary. Coming up on Wednesday next week is, among other riches, Jerome Robbins’ wonderful Afternoon of a Faun.

The Royal Ballet: Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake
Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in Liam Scarlett's Swan Lake for The Royal Ballet. Photograph © Bill Cooper/ROH

When The Royal Ballet commissioned Liam Scarlett to make a new traditional Swan Lake for the company it was big news. Given the voracious appetite audiences have for the ballet, there is no higher profile assignment and in 2018, when the production premiered, Scarlett was 31 – young by choreographic standards. He rose to the challenge and the response was ecstatic. John Macfarlane’s marvellous designs provided a sumptuous setting and Scarlett honoured the best of Petipa and Ivanov’s 1895 choreography while tweaking here and there, mostly to good effect. The depiction of Rothbart as a political schemer isn’t entirely successful but Scarlett isn’t the first choreographer to try to integrate the villain of Acts II and IV into the first and third acts at court.

Scarlett and the Royal have now parted company after allegations of impropriety were made against him, but Swan Lake was revived this year without him so it seems likely to stay in the repertoire. A performance from 2018, recorded by the BBC, is now available on YouTube, featuring the Royal’s undisputed leading pair, Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. Muntagirov is supremely elegant and thoughtful; Nuñez unmatched anywhere in the world for her glowing classicism. You won’t see better anywhere. 

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institure for Journalism and Ideas.