The paint is barely dry on Alexei Ratmansky’s exquisite reconstruction of Giselle for the Bolshoi, which was just livestreamed worldwide. Now Voices, his new non-narrative work for New York City Ballet, has premiered in the house that Balanchine built, and it’s as absorbing a tribute to the female spirit as the fearsome Wilis in Giselle.

Sara Mearns and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s <i>Voices</i> © Erin Baiano
Sara Mearns and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s Voices
© Erin Baiano

The Voices are those of six women who carved singular paths in their pursuit of art, four of whom were famously reclusive, and all of whom had wrestled in some manner with the patriarchy. We hear the recorded voices of new music pioneer Bonnie Barnett on her Los Angeles radio show, Iranian feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad reading verses in Farsi, Japanese actress Setsuko Hara in the film Tokyo Story, which reflects on the Westernization of the traditional Japanese family. Plus, interviews with singer-songwriter and activist Nina Simone, painter Agnes Martin, and Norwegian folksinger Gjendine Slålien, from whom Edvard Grieg drew inspiration.

Making ballets to spoken word is hardly a new thing. Alonzo King’s 2017 Figures of Speech, set to poems written in languages that are on the edge of extinction, leaps to mind. And Milissa Payne Bradley’s wicked Enough Said, in which ballet dancers engaged with recorded routines of famous stand-up comics.

Ratmansky has picked quirky compositions by Peter Ablinger, who wrote piano parts – played live by Stephen Gosling – that sometimes mimic the timbre, cadence and pitch of the women’s voices, or attempt to respond to them. Five of the portraits are danced as solos that draw out exceptional individual qualities of each of five ballerinas.

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s <i>Voices</i> © Erin Baiano
New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Voices
© Erin Baiano

Sara Mearns, with her incisive attack, luscious renversés, and ability to find drama in even the tiniest steps, was a terrific match for the deep, lustrous voice of Bonnie Barnett, who reeled off the names of jazz artists with the excitement of someone falling in love for the very first time. Megan Fairchild, channeling Norwegian milkmaid and songstress Gjendine Slålien, hopped and flopped in an endearingly off-kilter manner. Unity Phelan flung herself about elegantly to Farrokhzad’s voice, which rushed and swirled like rapids in a river. Every move Georgina Pazcoguin made exploded under the influence of Nina Simone’s defiant yet world-weary voice, as she assessed with brutal frankness the damage her protest songs had inflicted on her career. Lauren Lovette, tracing Hara’s increasingly apprehensive utterances, sustained her balance in precarious positions, fiercely maintaining her composure in the face of obscure threats.

Even if audiences understood all the languages spoken, the words themselves were somewhat obscured by the piano. Even without translations, piano and dancer seemed to amplify emotions underlying the speech, and the forces that shaped these women’s lives.

Megan Fairchild and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s <i>Voices</i> © Erin Baiano
Megan Fairchild and Company in Alexei Ratmansky’s Voices
© Erin Baiano

Voices is a vehicle for women, but the men couldn’t be sidelined entirely. So Ratmansky had them travel in packs and ferry the women around. While Mearns/Barnett extolled the gifts of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a quartet of men stomped in, arms linked. Before they could hijack center-stage, Mearns inserted herself deftly into the pack – because jazz is a man’s world, and she’s barging in – and steered them right into the wings. And in a hilarious reversal of a classical tradition, Ratmansky gave each man in turn a brief solo in the entr’actes – grands pirouettes, big leaps en manège, etc. It’s a cheeky nod to those 19th-century ballerinas who would demand a special solo variation in the middle of a story ballet to show off their signature moves (even if it did nothing to advance the plot.) Ratmansky didn’t bother to give the men any music, however, so they were left to perform in silence. The notion that we need to give a man some bravura thing to do, even if we’ve run out of music, is hilarious.

Where the piece weakens is in the final meditation on painter Agnes Martin, danced by the ensemble of five women and five men. It’s mainly a lot of rushing in and out of partnered poses and group tableaux. Perhaps Ratmansky aimed to capture Martin’s propensity to abstract shapes and emotions into horizontal lines and grids of glowing, barely-there color. But he had such a good thing going – pairing each ballerina with an iconic female voice – that he should have stuck with it.

Voices was ill-served by the surrounding program – apart from a bullet-proof, if bloodless, rendering of Christopher Wheeldon’s taut and dazzlingly musical Polyphonia, set to an assortment of Gyorgy Ligeti’s acrobatic works for solo and duo piano. But Mira Nadon, who shone so wickedly in Balanchine’s Rubies in seasons past, was wasted in Justin Peck’s pointless Bright. And Gonzalo Garcia could not muster the precision required in Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer. The ballet was saved by the luminous Unity Phelan, debuting in the role of his alternately vivacious and wistful muse.