When Alexei Ratmansky premiered his reconstruction of Marius Petipa's miniature commedia dell'arte ballet Harlequinade last season, it was a revelation. Ratmansky followed the Stepanov notation of Petipa's original choreography and you could see where previous versions (including Balanchine's excellent 1965 version) drew its inspiration, but also see the parts of Petipa's choreography that had been altered, simplified, or flat out deleted over the years. The casts I saw were inspired and performances were energetic.

Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in <i>Harlequinade</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in Harlequinade
© Rosalie O’Connor

A year later, some of the shine has already worn off this reconstruction. Last night's performance (which was also the opening performance of the 2019 American Ballet Theatre Spring Season) looked well-danced and well-rehearsed. But the joy and spark that is so necessary for these commedia dell'arte tales to work was missing. For one, why did the extended mime sequences in the first act become so cartoonish? The mime between Colombine's father (Alexei Agoudine) and his servant Pierrot (Thomas Forster) was so exaggerated it looked like silent movie acting. Why did the group dances for the masked couples look so formulaic? Why did the Good Fairy (Tatiana Ratmansky) look somewhat bored as she mimed about the powers of Harlequin's magic stick?

There was much to enjoy about individual performances. The lovesick, mandolin-playing Harlequin is one of James Whiteside's best roles. Whiteside is essentially a demi-character dancer who is often asked to dance princely roles which do not suit him. In this pure demi-character role he can revel in his strengths – his comic timing, his strong partnering skills. Harlequin's solos are full of petit allegro jumps which Whiteside dispatched with ease. As his wealthy love Colombine, Isabella Boylston easily manages the difficult variations which involve changing free positions while hopping on pointe. She also exudes enough hauteur so that the class difference between Colombine and Harlequin is believable. Stella Abrera as the shrewish wife Pierrette was very funny as was Thomas Forster as the hapless Pierrot.

Stella Abrera and Thomas Forster in <i>Harlequinade</i> © Doug Gifford
Stella Abrera and Thomas Forster in Harlequinade
© Doug Gifford

The first act is the harder act to sit through – it is filled with more mime than actual dancing, and the story of Harlequin's attempts to woo Colombine has a hard and cruel edge as Harlequin's father and Pierrot throw Harlequin off the balcony and toss his body parts around onstage. The famous pas de deux is actually a pas de quatre between Harlequin, Colombine, Pierrette and an unnamed cavalier, with a corps de ballet in the background. It's actually rather busy looking and one wishes that Ratmansky had been more of an interventionist in this instance.

The second act however is a lovely celebration of the love between Harlequin and Colombine. There are extended sequences for children who are dressed like the main characters of the first act and whose dances retell the story. The children of the JKO school were cute and danced with an endearing cleanness.

Scene from <i>Harlequinade</i> © Erin Baiano
Scene from Harlequinade
© Erin Baiano

The grand pas de deux between Harlequin and Colombine was undoubtedly the choreographic highlight of the ballet. The theme is avian – members of the corps de ballet are dressed in feathery bird-like dresses, and they form a birds-nest formation as Harlequin repeatedly carries Colombine across the bird's nest in a flying lark lift. After each lift, Colombine turns her body so Harlequin is cradling her. Colombine's arms also flutter like a bird's wing in her solo. This is ballet master Petipa as his best, able to find tender intimacy within the confines of academic classical ballet. But several things marred this otherwise lovely pas de deux. One was that the corps de ballet of "birds" were grinning from ear to ear while dancing, and that seemed out of place in this rather serious moment. The other was that in Colombine's variation Boylston's arm and finger fluttering did not exactly match the flutters in Drigo's music.

Harlequinade shows Ratmansky's usual scrupulous care when reconstructing Petipa's ballets. His attention to detail and obvious love for the art form are to be admired. But these ballets are also living, breathing works and they need strong performances to be viable in the repertory. The mannerisms and sluggishness that were in last night's performance cannot continue; the audience response was so unenthusiastic that there wasn't even a single curtain call in front of the gold curtain. Petipa deserves better.

***11