A famed choreographer tackles a ballet that’s bedeviled the dance world

Alexei Ratmansky with Miami City Ballet’s Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro in rehearsal for “The Fairy’s Kiss.”
Alexei Ratmansky with Miami City Ballet’s Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro in rehearsal for “The Fairy’s Kiss.” Photo © Daniel Azoulay

For close to a century, choreographers have been fascinated by “The Fairy’s Kiss,” a Stravinsky ballet that tells a strange tale that’s part ancient magic, part modern obsession with creativity. The Russian composer based the plot on “The Ice Maiden,” one of Hans Christian Anderson’s more bizarre fairy tales; the score was based on music by his countryman Tschikovsky.

From Bronislava Nijinska’s first version in 1928, to George Balanchine (several times) and many more, famous dancemakers have tried to capture this compelling and elusive work.

Now Alexei Ratmansky, the formidable Russian dance artist who is resident choreographer at American Ballet Theatre, is creating his version of “The Fairy’s Kiss” for Miami City Ballet. The second commission from the Miami troupe for Ratmansky, following his powerful “Symphonic Dances” in 2012, it premieres Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

As a young man in Russia in the 1990s, Ratmansky made two versions of the “Fairy’s Kiss” for the Kiev Opera and the Maryinsky Ballet. But he cannot entirely explain the allure the ballet has for him, or the many choreographers, including Frederick Ashton, Maurice Béjart, Kenneth MacMillan, who have tried to capture it before him.

“The story is almost nonexistent — it’s more like a metaphor,” Ratmansky says. Stravinsky’s brief libretto reads simply: “A fairy imprints her magic kiss on a child at birth and parts it from its mother. Twenty years later, when the youth has attained the very zenith of his good fortune, she repeats the fatal kiss and carries him off to live in supreme happiness with her ever afterward.”

Stravinsky conceived the kiss as the gift — or curse — of creativity, bestowed by the fairy, a tribute to Tschaikovsky’s talent, as well as his emotionally troubled life.

“The fairy kisses the boy like the muse kissed Tschaikovsky,” Ratmansky says. “At the end of the ballet, she takes him to the place beyond space and time, where he belongs to her.”

In the story, a Young Man (the characters do not have names), unaware of the magic kiss he received as a baby, is preparing to marry a woman in his village. When the Fairy returns, at one point disguising herself as his fiancé and at another as a fortune-telling gypsy, he is bewildered.

“He doesn’t make any decisions — he grows up and is in love,” Ratmansky says. “But then he understands that it’s going to be another happiness for him, not the life of a simple man marrying and having kids and getting older and watching them grow up. It’s not his destiny.”

Ratmansky, who has a wife and son, has enjoyed both kinds of happiness. But Tschaikovsky was famously depressed, in part because he was gay at a time when it was socially and legally prohibited.

“He didn’t have any happiness in his private life,” Ratmansky says. “He was only able to realize himself fully in his art.”

“I didn’t face that dilemma. I do feel a reaction to that story, but it’s not that literal. But I think each artist faces that question of choice or a certain sacrifice at some point.”

Ratmansky has often praised the musicality, spirit and intensity of MCB’s dancers. Several who had leading roles in “Symphonic Dances” enjoy them in “Fairy’s Kiss.” They include Kleber Rebello, who alternates the role of the Young Man with Renan Cerdeiro, and Jeanette Delgado, as the fiance. Nathalia Arja, who had a breakout performance as the fierce “war girl” in “Dances,” is the second cast Fairy, while Simone Messmer, with whom Ratmansky worked at ABT, dances the title part on opening night.

Delgado says the dancers were ecstatic at the chance to work with Ratmansky again.

“He’s the kindest, most generous human being ... our hearts melt when he walks into the room,” says the Miami-raised and MCB-trained principal dancer. “The first time, we were nervous. At this point, we’re just so excited... He can get more out of us because our brains are not as blown away.”

Even Ratmansky’s abstract works are full of a sense of drama and emotion. But Delgado says “Fairy’s Kiss” is still more packed with meaning.

“He’s got this incredible way of having 10 to 15 thoughts for just one step,” she says. “It keeps you feeling like there’s no limit to how you can do it. It’s so challenging, but such a wonderful process.”

For one jump, Ratmansky told them “you’re going to lower your head and raise it to the heavens as you jump, in ecstasy at what’s going to happen to you.” As he instructed Cerdeiro in how to move his arms in a solo, the choreographer told him “you’re almost saying I’m confused, and it became something totally different. You were brought into his world and his head.”

Ratmansky’s prestige makes this a major event for the company, and the long history of “Fairy’s Kiss” helps make it a notable one for the ballet world. The company previewed it at a “Works and Process” program at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and the New York Times is sending a critic to review “Fairy’s Kiss.”

“It speaks volumes about the company and his admiration for the dancers,” says MCB executive director Michael Scolamiero. “He is in demand to choreograph all over the world, and his choosing Miami City Ballet puts us in very rare company.”

The piece is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, which is sharing the work’s $425,000 cost. “Fairy’s Kiss” will share the program with the MCB premiere of Balanchine’s dramatic, sweeping “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” and Christopher Wheeldon’s austerely striking “Polyphonia,” a substantial evening of ballet.

Even as they approach opening night, a quarter-century after he first tried his hand at this ballet, “The Fairy’s Kiss” still holds mystery for Ratmansky.

“I can’t tell you how I understand it in words,” he says. “Everything I understand about it I try to tell in the choreography. Which for me can tell much more than words can do.”

If You Go

What: Miami City Ballet Program III with “Walpurgisnacht Ballet,” “The Fairy’s Kiss,” and “Polyphonia”

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: $20 to $189 at miamicityballet.org or 305-929-7010

Program repeats Feb. 24 to 26 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and March 11 to 12 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.