Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium is the first dance I’ve seen of his that’s set to American music, and it’s a knock-out. Named after the Leonard Bernstein score it faithfully follows, it is not only the best new dance in the ABT repertoire; it’s also one of the finest ballets, I think, that this phenomenal Russian choreographer has made to date. Thirty minutes long, it seems to go by in a flash when you’re watching it. And yet it’s lengthy enough, and various enough, to carry a strong sense of the Plato text on which both it and the 1953 Bernstein Serenade are based.
Naturally a wordless performance can’t reproduce precise philosophical ideas. But for anyone who has recently read the Symposium, certain images in this dance will seem to refer directly back to its Greek origins. In Plato’s witty and pointed discussion of love, for example, one of the seven male speakers, Alcibiades, arrives on the scene very late and very drunk; so does the equivalent character in the Ratmansky piece, embodied in a dancer who weaves his way unsteadily up the stage. In Plato, Alcibiades and Socrates have an intense, somewhat antagonistic, jealously loving relationship, and Ratmansky alludes to this by having the two men dance something that verges on a West Side Story–style “fight duet.” But even this moment is companionable in its way, as are all the dances—in trios and duets, in small groups or with the full group—that are performed by the seven male dancers who intermittently represent the Symposium’s named speakers.
The piece begins with all seven onstage, including one who lies down in the classic “symposium” pose often rendered on Greek vases—the body stretched out on its side, with one knee bent upward, the other leg lengthened, and the propped-up torso resting on a bent elbow. The first segment of the dance, set to Bernstein’s “Phaedrus and Pausanias” movement, introduces many of the gestures that are to reappear later: a “providing” motion (forearms and bent elbows held at waist height, with palms facing up and hands moving outward) that could refer to either speech or food, both of which get shared around in this story; a pair of dancers catching a third man as he falls backward and then quickly pushing him forward again, just as Plato’s disputing figures both catch and make up for one another’s hole-filled arguments; two men off to the side, one turning the other in a circle, as if to represent peripheral alliances. The costumes, too, ably pick up the classical theme—a half-body tunic in olive and black, a bronze top with Greek-style drapery, a variety of differently banded torso wraps—each individual, yet each in keeping with the others in terms of both color and style. Perhaps the most distinctive costume, a half-black, half-white, vertically divided outfit, is worn by the evening’s host, Agathon, who is a celebrated poet-playwright in the text: that is, just the sort of person who should be wearing motley garb.
Yet it is in Agathon’s lyrical solo, which occurs in the fourth movement of the piece, that Ratmansky’s divided allegiance truly comes into view. He may be channeling Plato to a certain extent, but his true loyalty lies with Leonard Bernstein, who named each of his five movements after one or more of the Symposium speakers. There is nothing particularly slow or measured about Agathon’s speech in the original text; it is Bernstein who has made his movement an adagio one, and Ratmansky simply follows suit. Similarly, Plato’s doctor, Eryximachus, is not especially quick-witted or silver-tongued (except to the extent that they all are), but Bernstein has written a brief but exciting presto movement for him, so Ratmansky gives him the fastest, most frenzied, most turn-filled solo in the entire work. (At Saturday night’s performance, which was the first of the two I watched, this part was executed with consummate grace and skill by Jeffrey Cirio.) At every turn, the choreographer follows the path laid down beforehand by his gifted collaborator, the composer. This leads at times to some curious omissions. Dance, for instance, could have conveyed Plato’s famous image of the once-doubled humans whom the envious gods have split down the middle, so that they are eternally searching for their lost halves; but since music cannot render this, Ratmansky has done without it. This loyalty to the music rather than the original text is not a shortcoming of the choreography. On the contrary, it may well be one of Ratmansky’s greatest virtues, especially when he chooses his music well, as he has in this case.
Bernstein was no doubt drawn to the text in part because of its open discussion of homosexual love. One can’t, however, portray homosexuality in music, any more than one can discuss love of immortality, or love of beauty, or the relative age of the God of Love, or any of Plato’s other fanciful subjects. So Ratmansky, even as he zealously follows the music, has felt free to jettison the Platonic themes that are not useful to him, including the overt homoeroticism. The seven principal dancers may all be male, but even when they are touching each other, the feel of the piece is rarely if ever sexual. It is, instead, joyously affectionate, occasionally competitive, often supportive, and frequently witty, with elements of Russian folk-dance and American soft-shoe brought in to suggest the idea of men relaxing together in each other’s company.
The one departure from this masculine atmosphere occurs in a scene that I take to be a reference to Diotima, the only woman who appears in the text. In Plato’s version, Socrates, who was her student, brings up her name and quotes her words directly, citing her wise opinions in order to instruct the other men. But in Ratmansky’s Serenade, this knowledgeable and instructive woman becomes, alas, a typically ethereal ballerina. Here we can see the choreographer struggling valiantly with the form in which he is working: he wants Diotima to be Socrates’ equal (and many of their gestures and steps are identical), but the inevitable lifts and turns of a ballet pas de deux, and above all the woman’s toe-shoes, brand her as a delicate, fragile creature. Plato’s eminently practical female philosopher would never have submitted to toe-shoes, and Socrates’ prolonged exposure to her life-changing wisdom would not have resembled a routine heterosexual pairing, as this duet unfortunately does.
But the Diotima passage is only a fleeting element in the long final movement, and it certainly doesn’t ruin Ratmansky’s dance. If anything, it strengthens our admiration for the all-male passages, making that seem the most natural and easiest form of human encounter (just as Plato thought it was—and Bernstein too, perhaps). Once the ballerina has disappeared through the golden sliver of space from whence she came, the real fifth movement begins, with Socrates and Alcibiades, the two named figures in that part of Bernstein’s score, dancing riotously together. Soon they make way for a series of quick solos, small duets, and all manner of comings and goings on the part of the other five. Toward the end of the movement, after the stage has briefly emptied, the seven men come dancing in from the left, one after the other, all holding hands. They turn to weave a garland with their line, passing under each other’s raised hands in folk-dance fashion, and then the whole group bursts into a concatenation of steps—sequential jumps, sequential turns, circles melting into rows that diagonally cross with each other—in a manner that exactly echoes the growing wildness of Bernstein’s music. At the last possible moment, Socrates, who has been marked out from the beginning by the red streamer hanging from his belt, leaps into the arms of the other dancers, and as they catch and hold him, his arms and body extended in a leftward-pointing line, the music and the dance freeze together, permanently fused on that final exhilarating note.