Ratmansky Takes Manhattan
By the time Ratmansky arrived in Denmark in 1997, he had begun to make ballets for a touring troupe of dancers formed by Ananiashvili, later for the Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet in St. Petersburg and eventually for the Danes, for whom he created a Nutcracker in 2001. The few works I have seen from this early period are characterized by an enormous inventiveness and verve, if not necessarily great depth. Middle Duet, a short piece he made for the Maryinsky in 1998, is a stylish deconstruction of the tango, with little swivels en pointe and deep, indelicate pliés--he is a fan of the juicy plié--interspersed with fast, slicing kicks and small sideways jumps. It ends with the performers' apparent death in a messy heap onstage. From the same year, Dreams About Japan, performed in March 2008 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by Ananiashvili, is a wickedly funny Eastern fantasy, set to Japanese taiko drumming and flute, in which Ratmansky riffs on the plots of four Kabuki plays, throwing in stylized "Japanese" notes--flexed feet, turned in legs, exotic arm flourishes--while gleefully acknowledging the fanciful nature of his vision. Ratmansky's delight at playing with Japanese themes, while using a recognizable and fairly straightforward classical vocabulary, provides the ballet's principal pleasure. But the piece also revealed his excellent ear for musical detail and his ability to elicit performances of surprising freedom. Who had ever seen Ananiashvili, famous for her dramatic interpretations of Giselle and Swan Lake, have such fun?
Ratmansky's breakthrough came in 2003 with a revival of The Bright Stream, an evening-length work by Shostakovich whose original production, which premiered in 1935, had a short, gruesome life. The ballet, Shostakovich's third, features a slight, ostensibly politically correct plot involving the visit of a troupe of performers from the capital to a collective farm during a harvest festival. A series of romantic entanglements ensue, leading to disguises, episodes of mistaken identity and amusing gender reversals. All is resolved in the end, and the peasants dance, celebrating their happy lives. Stalin disapproved of these silly antics, and the ballet was crucified in Pravda and pulled from the stage; Shostakovich was disgraced and never wrote another ballet, the choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov was fired and the co-librettist Adrian Piotrovsky was arrested and perished in the gulag.
Ratmansky decided to play the story straight, preserving the ballet's plot and cast of characters while reinventing the steps from scratch and adding some satiric touches. In the final dance, the peasants carry enormous vegetables, the prize, one assumes, for their virtuous labors. His guide, once again, was the music; he has described the score as one of "the most danceable, lovely scores ever written." He relished the opportunities for humor: one of the Muscovites, a male dancer, dresses up in a long gauzy tutu and pointe shoes to perform a hilarious and very accurate parody of Romantic ballerina conventions (the little hops, the soft arms, the coy looks). His partner, a classical ballerina, is similarly transformed, donning trousers and boots and knocking out a fantastic series of leaps and turns--an exact replica of a virtuoso male variation. Not only is the scene funny but the dancing is thrilling and marvelously varied--little jumps, big jumps, manèges around the stage, fast turns. But not all is fun and games on the collective farm. The outsized vegetables are an ironic reminder of the millions who starved to death during Stalin's forced collectivizations. And on a more intimate level, Zina, the heroine, is forced to disguise herself to win back her philandering husband; like the garden scene at the end of Le Nozze di Figaro, their pas de deux is bitter, humiliating and heart-wrenching. Ratmansky did not invent the situation--it's in the original scenario--but he understands it and knows how to draw out its pathos without resorting to melodrama.
The success of Ratmansky's The Bright Stream in Russia and abroad led to his appointment to the post of artistic director of the Bolshoi in 2004. The Bolshoi is a behemoth, with more than 200 dancers, and during the Soviet period it was the crown jewel of the Kremlin's cultural export policy. It specializes in lavish spectacles with heroic, "big" dancing; perhaps the most famous work in its repertory is Spartacus, a three-act tour de force about the Roman slave revolt, with music by Khachaturian. The man who made it, Yuri Grigorovich, directed the company with an iron fist for three decades, until he was pushed out in 1995. By the time Ratmansky arrived, at the tender age of 35, the company was in the throes of an identity crisis and beset with financial troubles. With characteristic modesty, he said at the time, "I am not sure if I am the right person, but I am willing to try."