The magical gift of inspiration at the heart of "The Fairy's Kiss," the new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky which Miami City Ballet premiered on Friday, does not quite extend to the work itself. Despite some marvelous choreographic craftsmanship and fine performances, Ratmansky's effort seems likely to join the long list of attempts to convert "Kiss" into a work as compelling as its Igor Stravinsky score and libretto have been for choreographers for nearly a century.
Friday night's debut at the Adrienne Arsht Center was the showcase event of MCB's season. The Russian-born Ratmansky, a resident choreographer at American Ballet Theater, is perhaps the most highly regarded ballet maker in the world. His previous work for MCB, 2012's "Symphonic Dances," has been an unalloyed artistic and popular success, and on Friday the Ziff Ballet Opera House buzzed with anticipation that slowly fizzled.
"Kiss" tells the story of a Fairy (Simone Messmer) who encounters a mother (Jordan-Elizabeth Long) and her baby in a snowstorm, and gives the baby a magical kiss of artistic talent. The Young Man (Renan Cerdiro) grows up and becomes engaged to a girl (Jeanette Delgado) in his village, but normal life is not for him - the Fairy returns and spirits him off to a place "beyond space and time" where his creative gift can be realized. (Nathalia Arja, Kleber Rebello and Tricia Albertson will alternate in the lead roles.)
The cool, exquisite Messmer, whose aloofness can hinder her impact, was superb here as the Fairy, imperious, capricious, elegant. Cerdeiro, the ballet's center, was wonderful, adding new authority to his bright, boyish energy; he danced with thrilling velocity and commitment, and was heartbreakingly convincing in his passage from an impulsive youth to a figure tortured, and then exalted, by his fate. Delgado radiated warmth and a rich physical purity; after a period of intermittent injuries, she has never looked better, a mature ballerina in the best sense of the word.
The design was striking, from Jérȏme Kaplan's starkly curving Cubist style sets, to Wendall K. Harrington's robust, swirling graphic projections, and James F. Ingalls' richly modulated lighting. Kaplan's costumes were fine for the Fairy and townsfolk, but the Young Man's overalls look more Broadway hillbilly than folkloric European.
But the dramatic momentum is broken up by awkward or unconvincing moments. As a crowd of spirits swirl in the opening (with flashes of the snowstorm scene from George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"), Messmer repeatedly tosses the baby, which looks and is treated like a bundle of stuffing, into the air, where it's barely caught by her attendants. Perhaps this is meant to show her disregard for mere humanity, but it's initially shocking, then creepily funny - and weirdly off putting either way. Playful and romantic duets for Cerdeiro and Delgado have a lovely synchronicity, and there's a striking pas de deux where Messmer, disguised as the bride, captivates Cerdeiro - showing him that creativity is his true love. But even these, as well as some group passages, have a flowing, repetitive quality that makes them feel as if they go on too long - the ideas feel illustrated, rather than sweeping us up.
The moment when Cerdeiro is caught between his beloved and the Fairy is wrenching, as is the stark image of him isolated in a dark stage. In the climax, an extraordinary feat of choreographic construction, Cerdeiro commands a vast bank of mannequin-like dancers in flesh-toned drapery, conjuring them into elaborate poses from famous ballets, his gestures expanding, until he's lifted high and exalted, as his three women - mother, fiance and fairy - recline admiringly before him. Ratmansky is going for awe, but it's undercut by a sense of grandiosity, of self-consciousness at how wondrous this moment is. Which seems more like what the artist feels at what he's doing, rather than how the audience feels at what he's done.
Opening the substantial program was the MCB premiere of Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht Ballet," a sweepingly lyrical dance for a grand phalanx of women to music from Gonoud's opera "Faust." The always sparkling Nathalia Arja reached new heights of crystalline lightness here, seeming to hover in startlingly high hops on pointe. Lauren Fadely's lush and authoritative dancing was a pleasure; and Jovani Furlan, the lone man here, was a tender partner and striking presence. The corps sparkled in superbly constructed, kaleidescopic patterns. "Walpurgisnacht" may not be weighty, but it is delightful.
In the middle was Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia," an enigmatic, austere 2001 work for four couples to piano music by Gyorgy Ligeti. As committed as the dancers were to the choreography's spiky, idiosyncratic architecture, they seemed to miss a sense of understanding. Yet "Polyphonia" remained affecting, particularly the tender, somber authority of Reyneris Reyes and Tricia Albertson's duets. In another, Renato Penteado slowly abandons Emily Bromberg to a darkened stage and a reaching, yearning solo.
Gary Sheldon did a fine job in leading the Opus One Orchestra through an extremely dense and diverse range of music. Francisco Renno played the Ligeti with welcome authority.
If You Go
What: Miami City Ballet Program III with “Walpurgisnacht Ballet,” “Polyphonia,” and “The Fairy’s Kiss.”
When/Where: Feb. 24 to 26 at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, and March 11 to 12 at the Broward Center, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Info: $20 to $189 at miamicityballet.org or 305-929-7010