Alexei Ratmansky puts imprint on American Ballet Theatre
On a brisk January afternoon, there’s an air of high spirits as dozens of American Ballet Theatre’s dancers and staff gather in the largest studio of the company’s Lower Manhattan headquarters. For two hours, as they run through ABT’s newest full-length ballet, “The Bright Stream,” bravura mixes with hilarity, as virtuoso turns alternate with comic vignettes. Numerous characters not usually found on the ABT stage — a tractor driver, a milkmaid and the denizens of a 1930s Soviet agricultural collective — express themselves with individuality and distinctive styles. Even as played on a rehearsal piano, the music, a long-neglected 1935 score by Dmitri Shostakovich, is full of verve and variety.
At the center of the robust, charmingly inventive action is a slim, unassuming man in a salmon polo shirt and gray pants who occasionally pauses the action to clarify spatial details or musical timing. This low-key and amiable figure is Alexei Ratmansky, the 42-year-old Russian choreographer who is widely seen as the man of the moment in contemporary ballet.
Companies worldwide are clamoring for his ballets (and some get them), but it’s ABT where he has made an ongoing commitment, as its artist in residence since 2009. In just a short time, Ratmansky already has had a considerable influence on ABT’s repertory and, by extension, its artistic profile, contributing two full-length productions and three shorter ballets. All have been marked by his ability to blend a deep knowledge and appreciation of ballet history with sophisticated musical awareness to create bracingly inventive yet truly classical works.
Those winter rehearsals for “The Bright Stream,” which Ratmansky created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003, were for the ballet’s ABT premiere at the Kennedy Center a few short weeks after the company had unveiled the choreographer’s new production of “The Nutcracker.” This week, the company will give five performances of “The Bright Stream” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The ballet takes place during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Russian steppes, a Moscow dance troupe arrives to entertain the workers, resulting in romantic delusions, cross-dressing disguises, and a series of comic nocturnal assignations.
When ABT announced Ratmansky’s new position in September 2008, he was just concluding a productive, often turbulent five-year tenure as the Bolshoi’s artistic director. His choreography had already been seen in New York, receiving enthusiastic critical response. The Bolshoi had toured the U.S. with “The Bright Stream” in 2005 (when it was seen in Costa Mesa), which gave audiences a whole new take on the company best known for macho athletic stunts. Then Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, was savvy enough to engage his services, and his three works for that company met with rapturous acclaim.
Speculation was rampant for months that Ratmansky would become New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer (a post vacated when Christopher Wheeldon launched Morphoses in 2007) when ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie surprised the dance world with the news of Ratmansky’s new position. The choreographer devotes 20 weeks per year to ABT — and clearly makes the most of them — but remains in demand the rest of the year with his globe-trotting freelance career. He made a new work, “Lost Illusions,” for the Bolshoi earlier this year. He’s now working on “Psyché,” to a César Franck score, for the Paris Opera Ballet. Miami Ballet has a Ratmansky premiere scheduled for next season.
No wonder it’s hard to get Ratmansky to sit down for an interview, but he did find time last month, in the midst of “The Bright Stream’s” eight New York performances. Patiently answering questions in the Metropolitan Opera House’s press lounge, he was remarkably reticent and unassuming for a man who has been taking the ballet world by storm. He’s carefully circumspect about potentially juicy subjects, such as his negotiations with the two New York troupes.
“It was scheduling conflicts. I had commissions for the future that I wanted to realize. Peter [Martins] was not happy about that. City Ballet decided to wait, but at the same time, I had already quit as Bolshoi director. I was sort of in the middle, and Kevin asked me to join.”
Ratmansky came to ballet at 10, when he left home (Kiev, where his family moved from St. Petersburg when he was 2) to attend the Bolshoi Ballet School. When he graduated in 1986 and was not taken into the company, he performed with the less prominent Ukrainian National Ballet — where he met and married his wife, Tatiana — before expanding his horizons by dancing with Western companies. He joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, then the Royal Danish Ballet, where he became a principal dancer and was encouraged to develop his choreographic talents.
The 2003 “Bright Stream” commission from the Bolshoi brought him back to where he started. Before it even premiered, he was invited to become the company’s artistic director. He hadn’t planned a return to Russia, but he says, “I just thought that if I said no, I would probably regret.”
“I had a lot of doubts,” he recalls. “The company didn’t work with choreographers much, because [longtime director Yuri] Grigorovich left in 1995, and for 10 years before that, he didn’t choreograph. So a whole generation was raised with no experience working with choreographers. For me as a dancer, I always knew that the more I did, the better I would become. There’s no way else you learn the styles, develop. So I was thinking that the [Bolshoi’s] main problem was the lack of creative process.”
Ratmansky did plenty to remedy that. From 2004 to 2008, he created four full-length and eight shorter ballets. He brought in foreign guest teachers, something that was unheard of, and woke up Moscow’s ballet audience with a program of Balanchine’s “Serenade,” Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” and a Christopher Wheeldon premiere. Perhaps even more radical was the evening he presented of Leonide Massine works. The Massine ballets are historic, influential works from the 1930s known in Europe and the U.S. but somehow never before performed in Russia.
“Those who wanted to, who were open to new ideas, gained a lot. But there were quite a lot of people who felt it was completely wrong,” he says of his tenure. By 2008, the job had soured. “I was doing too much of things that are not artistic. I had no time to prepare, to listen to the music, to think about my new choreography. I knew I needed to sacrifice a lot of things if I was to continue as director.”
The Bolshoi’s loss has been ABT’s (and the larger ballet world’s) gain. American Ballet Theatre’s dancers have been challenged technically and dramatically by Ratmansky’s works, and many observers have noted a reinvigorated company spirit. (The company has rarely had a choreographer who worked with its dancers regularly, over a period of time. There was Antony Tudor in the old days, and Tharp was a frequent presence in the 1980s and ‘90s.)
Reviewing ABT’s “Bright Stream” last month at the Met, Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times’ chief dance critic, wrote, “All the dancers onstage at each performance show fresh aspects of themselves,” and, he observed, “in the current season, when [ABT] has been mainly a mere backing troupe for visiting luminaries, no ballets have made it a truer ensemble than his.”
“He’s never frantic, always calm. There’s no screaming — but he’s tough,” says principal dancer Paloma Herrera, who is in “The Bright Stream” opening-night cast (it has four demanding lead roles) in L.A.
“He inspires hard work. He knows exactly what he wants to achieve in the ballet. We can be really tired, but the way he works, it’s an inspiration; you just keep going. He really challenges you. He takes it to the next level. He really encourages you to make it special.”
Principal dancer Marcelo Gomes, also fast becoming a Ratmansky regular, will appear as Pyotr — the potentially straying husband of Herrera’s Zina — on opening night, and shares her enthusiasm: “His comedic timing and musicality for ‘The Bright Stream’ are impeccable — and he transmits that to all of us so well, so clearly. He’s the real deal. He does a lot of research about what it is that he wants to put on the stage. He tries to really bring past and present together. That’s a wonderful thing, that I think ballet audiences need — not to lose the sense of classical ballet but also not be afraid to move in a different way.”
Ratmansky recently extended his ABT contract to 2023 and says, “I’ll do whatever the company needs — a small ballet or a bigger one.” His new “Firebird” for them will have its world premiere at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in March. Though he travels widely, New York is home for him, Tatiana (who staged this production) and their 13-year-old son.
“I think I can be more myself — of course, my roots are Russian, but I embraced what I’ve learned in the West. I think it’s very much part of me. I’m afraid I am considered an outsider back in Russia, while here, it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
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