Namouna, a Grand Divertissement

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, September 19.

Ballets rarely use much plot. Ideally, if there’s a narrative at all, you want just enough to immerse the dance in emotion. Works that try to pack in convoluted twists and subplots dry out in a desert of pantomime.

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement” is not one of those over-plotted ballets. To the contrary, it’s gleefully under-plotted, hinting at familiar ballet story elements (a lovestruck young man, virtuosic pirates, a sultry seductress, a demure mystery girl, a corps made up of identical, interchangeable women) but never bothering to knit them into a coherent story. “Namouna” is deliberately elusive, all intimation and no resonance, and as such, it’s charming but emotionally empty. Calling the work a “grand divertissement” is actually quite apt: for all its grandeur, it’s a trifle. That could be criticism, I suppose, but when the trifle is so delicious, why complain?

Ratmansky owes much of the work’s appeal to nineteenth-century composer Édouard Lalo, who really ought to be better known. His full-length Namouna, the inspiration for Ratmansky’s divertissement, never entered the canon, but the score is delightful, a sort of missing link between Tchaikovsky and Debussy: sweeping romanticism alight with oh-so-French sonorities, boundless energy, percussive rhythms, and sparkling, multihued orchestration.

On its own, Lalo’s spirited, exuberant music could stay on the proper side of proper, but the ballerinas’ attire confirms that Ratmansky is tipping the whole thing into camp. The women make their initial appearance wearing jet-black Louise Brooks wigs, which are plenty goofy but not nearly as goofy as the white-blond marcelled wigs they wear toward the end. The Brooks hair grew on me, but those bizarre marcelled caps are nothing but a distraction. The dresses, however, are gorgeous even in their quirkiness. Empire-waisted slips seem utterly shapeless at first, but they billow in diaphanous splendor at the slightest provocation. Later, the women wear stripped-down, deconstructed tutus—just a couple of stiff, translucent leaves articulating the waist—simple yet fairy-like.

The costumes work largely because they call attention to the ballerinas’ slender arms and long-legged grace, as does Ratmansky’s choreography, in which the appendages continually bend and angle themselves in interesting but distinctly non-classical ways. Legs curl; arms coil from the shoulder. Dancers leap about in a frenzy of point work. It’s stunningly virtuosic and almost willful in its refusal to take itself seriously.

The principal character is the questing man, the throughline in the hour-long work, but “Namouna” belongs to the three ballerinas who take center stage in succession: here Jenifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, and Wendy Whelan. Each gets a distinct character—Ringer, a vampy, twitchy smoker; Mearns, an alluring siren; and Whelan, an ethereal enigma (her specialty)—and each is captivating in her own way. You could probably find something academic to say about the splintered prima donna role (is each woman the elusive titular Namouna, a different side of a single personality?), but I think Ratmansky’s ballet is best appreciated simply as silly tweaking of the conventions of the canonical story ballets. What it lacks in passion or purpose, it makes up for in humor and panache.

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For the record, Sunday’s program also included Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” but as that work is not one of my favorites, I decided to leave at intermission, which felt very freeing. Besides, it was a beautiful day.