Ratmansky Takes Manhattan
Ratmansky's tenure in Moscow, which ended last year, was a success steeped in controversy. Breaking the monopoly of Soviet spectacles and Sovietized classics like Don Quixote and The Pharaoh's Daughter, he staged dances by Balanchine, Roland Petit, Tharp and Léonide Massine. He commissioned a ballet from Christopher Wheeldon, Elsinore. He invited veterans from abroad--including Violette Verdy, Adam Lüders and John Clifford--to teach class and coach the dancers. There was resistance: "None of the Bolshoi stars respect him and I don't know an important dancer who has not had a scandal with him," Nikolai Tsiskaridze, one of the company's principals, told the Washington Post in 2007. But Ratmansky forged ahead, firmly but gently nudging the company into the future. At the same time, he didn't lose sight of the Bolshoi's past. He staged a lavish reconstruction of Le Corsaire, a nineteenth-century pirate caper filled with spectacular dancing and equally brilliant effects--including a shipwreck--as well as an over-the-top, sexually charged pas de deux with a slave, a fixture at ballet galas (it was one of Nureyev's favorite bits). Performed this summer by the company at the Kennedy Center, the ballet received rave reviews for the exuberance of its dancing and the detail of its staging. Ratmansky also chose to preserve much of the repertory, including Grigorovich's Spartacus, realizing that these works are an important part of the company's identity. Perhaps he was also trying to please. "I don't like that some people hate what I'm doing. I want to be loved, or at least not disliked," he told Chip Brown of the Times. Even so, the Bolshoi stint was transformative. He featured and promoted younger dancers, like Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, now rising international stars, and elevated the dancing of the whole company.
Ratmansky also decided to try his hand with two early Soviet ballets, Bolt and Flames of Paris. Almost nothing is known of the original choreography of the first (other than that it was trashed as "a grotesque dancification of everyday life" by the authorities), and only a few fragments remain of the second, including some vigorous group dances captured on film and a famous pas de deux that, like the pas d'esclave from Le Corsaire, is a mainstay of the gala circuit. In both cases, Ratmansky subtly adjusted the plot in order to emphasize the fate of a central figure. The original Bolt is a satiric ballet whose plot revolves around an act of sabotage by a lazy counterrevolutionary. In Ratmansky's version, he is a love-struck non-conformist driven by despair and drink. One can't help but sympathize.
Two passages in particular come to mind. The first epitomizes Ratmansky's playful visual imagination, his ability to turn group dances into clever choreographic puns that reveal secrets about the nature of dance itself. The second takes the analogy one step further, exposing the emotional truth at the core of the ballet, as well as one of Ratmansky's recurring themes, the role of the outsider, the lonely figure and his--often unsuccessful--quest for identity. As the ballet opens, the factory workers, squeaky-clean in their rolled-up shorts and white shirts, line up for their morning calisthenics. With piano accompaniment, they perform a series of exercises, beginning with arm movements, then moving on to squats and leg lifts. Denis, the slacker, can't keep up and continually gets in everybody's way. One immediately thinks of the basic drills of ballet class, with its piano études and orderly series of port de bras, pliés and leg exercises. The other sequence occurs near the end, after the hapless Denis has been arrested and carried off. The smiling workers return for another round of gymnastics, but in the midst of this apotheosis of good health and good cheer, Denis returns to center stage, only to crumple to the ground, cut down, one imagines, by a barrage of bullets. He disappears so quickly into the crowd of legs and arms that one is unsure of what has just happened, as if awakening from a bad dream.
For all its good ideas, Bolt is an awkward ballet, with too many divertissements and not enough plot to hold them together, or at least that was my impression from a commercially available video recording. On the other hand, Ratmansky's Flames of Paris--a Soviet glorification of the overthrow of the ancien régime that ends with the beheading of the villain, a predatory Marquis--is a marvel, full of exciting regional dances, rococo details and nifty movement ideas, including a repeated running lunge-step-step figure executed by a group of soldiers. The famous Flames of Paris pas de deux, so often seen out of context, here becomes a wedding dance for two revolutionaries in love; gone are the taut heroics, replaced by youthful glee. There is also a wonderful rococo ballet-within-the-ballet, set at the palace of Versailles, on a mythological theme, performed with low, stately leg extensions and static poses. It is repeated, almost step for step but with different costumes, for the members of the National Convention.