Alexei Ratmansky’s career is a tale of two choreographers: One, to a significant degree, looks to the past, producing meticulous reconstructions of 19th-century classics for American Ballet Theater, where he is the artist in residence.
But at New York City Ballet, the years seem to melt off him as he makes dances for the modern day that unfold more like lines of poetry inspired by the dancers in the room: individuals, each of a different shape and aura. As movement flows out of them, you sense not just the persistence of their bodies, but also of their minds.
His latest dance for City Ballet, “Voices,” which premiered at the David H. Koch Theater on Thursday night, is Mr. Ratmansky’s first set to recorded voice, selections from Peter Ablinger’s “Voices and Piano,” a series featuring spoken recordings. Within this specific sonic atmosphere, it’s as if Mr. Ratmansky distilled a dancer’s distinctive energy and placed it under a microscope.
There are moments when the experiment goes awry. But what’s important is that a world-class choreographer has pushed himself and is releasing something that’s been bottled up inside.
In Mr. Ratmansky’s new work the subject is women, from the voices of Bonnie Barnett, Gjendine Slalien, Forough Farrokhzad, Nina Simone and Setsuko Hara to its soloists: Sara Mearns, Megan Fairchild, Unity Phelan, Georgina Pazcoguin and Lauren Lovette. When the group, including five men, converges, the final voice is of the artist Agnes Martin. All feature live piano by Stephen Gosling.
The first to appear is Ms. Mearns, standing at the front of the stage with the curtain barely parted around her. As the it opens, male dancers, following it, run into the wings. Decorating the back of stage is a projection of sound waves. Mr. Ratmansky is showing us three instruments or elements, and that’s plenty: the body, the voice and the piano.
With straight legs opened wide, Ms. Mearns, in a glossy purple leotard, rocks from side to side — jittery actions that erupt into bigger, full bodied steps. (The sleek costumes, with a different color for each dancer, and scenery are by Keso Dekker.) Ms. Mearns is a force, inhabiting a landscape alongside Ms. Barnett, a vocalist and composer; we hear snippets from “Trilogy,” a Los Angeles radio program she co-hosts.
With quick energetic shifts that tickle the space to show containment and expansion, Ms. Mearns executes a series of turns, some with loping runs as transitions, that highlight the clear, decisive way in which she uses her elongation to devour space. As she spins, Ms. Barnett notes, “Well, I certainly have been playing some scrumptious music tonight.” It isn’t always apparent, but there’s a wit to the layering of the rhythm and words. It’s like the body is talking.
Without knowing Norwegian, there’s no way to know what words Ms. Fairchild is reacting to. But there is something to the way Slalien’s cadence builds that effect. (Slalien was a folk singer who influenced Grieg’s music.) Ms. Fairchild, both sharp and soft, flitters backward while slapping her thighs or suddenly wilts to the floor like a deflated balloon. She’s playfully weird: in her own universe and full of intention.
In between these solos, the men — Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joseph Gordon, Ask la Cour, Roman Mejia and Andrew Veyette — perform virtuosic flash dances that are gone before you know it. Like teasers between the main events, these moments are playfully weird, too.
Ms. Phelan, dancing to the voice of the Iranian poet and film director Forough Farrokhzad, is pulled in one direction and then the other as her willowy arms come to life in ways that her legs are used to doing. More fiery is Ms. Pazcoguin who dashes on and off the stage to the familiar sound of Nina Simone’s voice.
When she says, “Mississippi Goddamn,” Ms. Pazcoguin crashes her arms to the floor. Tense and prickly, the solo is explosive, a mirror of Ms. Pazcoguin’s passionate, visceral dancing, which, in this case, meshes with the text: “I’ve had a couple of times onstage when I really felt free, and that’s something else,” Simone says. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me — no fear.”
That feverish performance makes Ms. Lovette’s solo, to the Japanese actress Setsuko Hara — the muse of the director Yasujiro Ozu, and as delicate as the dancer herself — all the more sensitive. As the lithe Ms. Lovette skitters across the stage with tiny walks on point and her hand to her mouth, her shapes somehow evoke the voice’s whispery inflection.
When the final section, featuring Agnes Martin, is played, all 10 dancers, paired as couples, soar and scatter across the stage in waves. The women suddenly plunge into the arms of the men in uniform fish dives, but rather than being a virtuosic act, it’s like a pause mid sentence that allows the eye to freeze, for just a second, on a moving painting. Just as Ms. Martin talks about the horizontal line, Mr. Ratmansky, with hypnotizing patterns and moments of stillness, choreographs not just bodies but vibrations that allow the stage to pulsate rhythmically and sculpturally.
Eventually the dancers end up on the floor along the stage’s lip. One by one they strike the same position: a front bent leg with the other stretched high to the side. The curtain lowers halfway. “No,” Martin says, “you’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty.”
Just as “Voices” has a gleaming austerity, it also has dicey moments, mainly related to design. The lowered curtain at the end feels amateurish, as does that sound wave projection, which seems too obvious, even a little corny. And let’s face it: Dancing to spoken word is hardly groundbreaking, and neither is “Voices,” but the ballet world is sometimes clueless about the rest of the field. In postmodern dance, all of this stuff has been done before.
But everything is new somewhere for someone and for Mr. Ratmansky, who makes dances to music, Mr. Ablinger’s song cycles seem to have unlocked something. There were glimpses of a new movement vocabulary — even the awkward-interesting pose at the end — that evoked something of his other interest, scouring Petipa notations for steps that today can look, well, a little strange. Is “Voices” placing some of that within a contemporary frame? It could be that Mr. Ratmansky’s two halves are merging: He’s taking what he’s learned from the past and syncing it with the vitality of dancers living in the moment.
Program repeats through Feb. 12 at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center; nycballet.com.