Echoing through the studios of American Ballet Theater are the words ‘tell’ and ‘say.’ The dancers are performing these actions with their bodies; not their voices. Alexei Ratmansky’s highly conversational ballet premiering on June 4th is giving us a new way to think about ballet.

Harlequinade inspired by an 18th Century theatrical form has the dancers speaking to one another in legible gestures and glances that fit the music as words fit in a song. The dances are full of details and add character to each of the scenes. These ‘gesture dances’ tell the story.

One of the characters, Cassandra Trenary, says the characters really put on a show. Their gestures talk to the audience as the ballet continues. Ratmansky did not invent this ballet, but he did restage a comedy by Marius Petipa that was initially known as Les Millions dArlequin. The original show performed for three decades during the 1900s in St. Petersburg.

Ratmansky is said to have lost his interest in classical ballets as he thought something was missing from them. He wanted to put together a performance created from the vision he thought should be a ballet. He didn’t want to patch together Harlequinade based on his own dreams, so he turned to dance notations kept at Harvard.

At Harvard, he found the notes made by Vladimir Ivanovich which were detailed scores called the Stepanov Notation. These were notations taken by hand as real-time dancers rehearsed. Ratmansky and his wife sat down five years ago with these notes and figured out what exactly they meant. He was delighted and surprised at what he discovered.

The style he saw through these notes inspired his own work. As you watch his Harlequinade, you can see a structured Petipa ballet containing changes in mood, a diverse approach to each scene and stage pictures.

Ratmansky describes the process of reconstructing Harlequinade as putting little bits of dust together to create a picture. It is an act of imagination, not science.