Alexei Ratmansky's Jeu de Cartes was built on the very specific talents of Bolshoi Ballet royalty, international luminaries such as Natalia Osipova, Svetlana Lunkina, and Maria Alexandrova.
The fleet, energetic ballet, set to Stravinsky, was choreographed in 2005 to honor the 80th birthday of Maya Plisetskaya, one of the most prima of ballerinas ever to grace a stage. It won a major Russian award for best choreography. And only the Bolshoi has ever danced it.
Until this week.
Pennsylvania Ballet presents Jeu de Cartes on its "Russian Suite" program Thursday at the Academy of Music, along with George Balanchine's Raymonda Variations and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
When artistic director Roy Kaiser approached his agent about acquiring a ballet from the highly sought-after Russian in time for the 2011-12 season opening, Ratmansky - who initially knew nothing about the company - selected Jeu de Cartes because he didn't have time to create a new work, he was eager to revive this one, and he learned that Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004 had debuted the Swan Lake of another highly regarded choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon.
And Ratmansky wanted to make it special. Philadelphia is "close to New York, and I don't think it's nice to repeat things that I've seen there," he said, sitting under an umbrella at a cafe table behind Pennsylvania Ballet's East Falls studios on a drizzly day last week. "I've done a lot of stuff in Russia, so I just think it's a good opportunity for me to bring something."
The 43-year-old Ratmansky danced with the Kiev Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet before leading the Bolshoi for five years. By 2008 he had worked so much with New York City Ballet that he seemed poised to succeed Wheeldon as resident choreographer there, under ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
Instead, he stunned the dance world by signing with American Ballet Theatre, as artist in residence.
"It's just schedule conflicts, because I had planned some projects that didn't really go well with Peter's plan of a resident choreographer. My schedule is much more free" with ABT, where in April his contract was extended to 2023. He continues to work with companies around the world and is premiering a major Romeo & Juliet at National Ballet of Canada next month.
Jeu de Cartes - "The Card Game" - was initially a wild card. Another ballet planned for Plisetskaya's gala hadn't come together, So with time running short, the Bolshoi shuffled the deck and turned to Ratmansky, then its artistic director.
"We were all like in panic: 'What to do? What to do?' " the choreographer said. "And so they all said, 'Well, there's nothing left. You have to do this yourself.' "
He had choreographed for the Bolshoi before, as well as the Mariinsky and other major companies. But this was one of his first works as artistic director, and the first time he had to choreograph on the fly, with no plans and with whichever dancers he could pull together.
"I knew this music, and I wanted to do this piece for a long time," Ratmansky said, "and it just happened. All the plans were made, and I just thought, 'OK, this principal guy is free,' or 'These three people are free, I will take them.' It was sort of this organic process. I didn't have anything."
His bet paid off. Ratmansky won Russia's Golden Mask Award for best new choreography for Jeu de Cartes, an honor akin to a Tony Award on an even larger scale because it spans all theatrical forms, from opera to puppetry to drama to dance.
For the Philadelphia premiere, he entrusted the casting to Kaiser. His wife, Tatiana, came two weeks ahead of him, to teach the steps.
"I sent a letter, because I didn't have a chance to come here myself," Ratmansky said. "But I described all the characters, quite precisely, to Roy. And he said, 'Well, that's people we have, and I'll make a choice. If you see something wrong, you'll change it.' But it seemed to work."
His Jeu de Cartes is not literally a card game, but Ratmansky, known for his extremely inventive musicality, plays with the Stravinsky score.
"It just blew my mind," said Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Brooke Moore, "what steps he would put where. And how many steps he wants you to do within one count - three different steps within two counts. Musically, it makes sense, but it's a challenge for your body to break it down. He's using everything that's in those three counts, things I just did not think I could do."
His inspiration arose partly out of Plisetskaya's interests. "I know that she likes solitaire, playing with cards with herself," he said.
There's no story. "It was more like a portrait of the dancers I worked with, so the vocabulary of the solos was what they could do best. It does make it difficult to set it on other companies."
Moore stepped into one of those positions. "He needed a powerhouse," she said. "In the second movement, my girl just does not stop for a while. He needed somebody who was more of an athletic dancer.
"The whole ballet is really hard," she said. "The solo that I have in the middle of the second movement is just very fast, and he basically wants me to move quicker than I think I'm capable of. I just have to push myself with everything I have."
In a recent rehearsal, Ratmansky spent more than 15 minutes with Moore going over and over and over the same phrase, stopping her every few steps to correct her foot position, her speed, or how she leaned into another dancer's arms. He and Tatiana stepped in to demonstrate.
"My goal is to get the maximum out of them, the most physicality, the most excitement," Ratmansky said.
"I will say that his wife was wonderful," Moore said, "but the ballet has become like a completely different piece within just the week that we've worked with him, because he's just very determined to get us to move the way he envisions us. And his musicality.
"He's super-nice, but he wants it for us - for his ballet, yes, but he wants us to move that way."
Ratmansky agrees. "I enjoy working, because no matter how good the dancers are, any company can have good dancers now. But to make the dancers do something better, that's the most exciting moment."