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Ratmansky Takes Manhattan | The Nation

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Ratmansky Takes Manhattan

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GENE SCHIAVONE/ABTAlexei Ratmansky in rehearsal for On the Dnieper with ABT

About the Author

Marina Harss
Marina Harss is a freelance dance writer and translator in New York. Her dance writing has appeared in The New Yorker,...

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A ballet not performed is a ballet soon forgotten. Unlike opera or symphonic music, dance has no written score. Most ballets are not notated, and even video recordings are limited in their usefulness: they cannot capture the details of a performance's three-dimensional use of space, the nuance of its steps, the texture of its patterns. Other than a handful of ballets labeled "classic"--Swan Lake, La Sylphide, Giselle--and a fraction of the works created by a small group of twentieth-century masters (Fokine, Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor, Robbins), the vast majority of dances leave almost no trace of their passing. This fleetingness is a source of constant worry among balletomanes. Is the best behind us? Are we destined to a horizon of diminishing returns, of endless repetition of "classics" interspersed with short-lived novelties and intriguing experiments leading nowhere? Is the whole notion of dancing en pointe, using a series of recognizable traditional positions, a fading relic of a dim past?

I think there is reason for hope; in recent years there have been compelling works by William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, Karole Armitage and, perhaps most encouraging, Christopher Wheeldon. Forsythe has profoundly redefined the ways in which the dancer's body can be arranged in space; more recently, however, he has forsaken the vocabulary of ballet. Tharp, who began as an experimental choreographer, has invigorated ballet with her brand of athleticism, deadpan glamour and quirkiness of execution; but her interest lies mainly in the contrast between classical dance and more vernacular forms, not in the language of ballet itself. Armitage continues to experiment with the erotic potential of the dancer's body and the tension created by ballet's extremes of flexibility, strength and control. Wheeldon, on the other hand, is interested in ballet as such, particularly in how movement innovation and emotionality--especially in the realm of the pas de deux--can be combined for maximum effect.

But recently another choreographer has loomed large in the panorama of the danse d'école, reminding us of its vitality and appeal: Alexei Ratmansky. In the summer of 2008, after turning down an offer from the New York City Ballet, Ratmansky was named artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. His arrival in New York has been the occasion of heated speculation and enormous excitement, in part because ABT has never had an official "artist in residence," though it has benefited from lasting, complicated relationships with other choreographers, like Antony Tudor and Tharp. Ratmansky's first full-length ballet for the company, On the Dnieper, premiered in early June, during the company's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg in 1968, the son of a psychiatrist and an engineer. He grew up in Kiev and studied dance at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow, graduating in the class of 1986 with the international ballet star Vladimir Malakhov. He was not taken into the Bolshoi company upon graduation, however (neither was Malakhov), and went on to dance in Kiev and Winnipeg and with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. He is part of a unique new breed of Russian ballet dancers who matured in the immediate post-Soviet era and were able to perform both the Russian and the Western repertories, from Petipa and Bournonville classics to Balanchine, Tudor, Maurice Béjart and Tharp. This training provided Ratmansky with a wealth of styles from which to draw later as a choreographer: the attack and freeness of Tharp, the speed and musicality of Balanchine, the unaffected demeanor and intricate footwork of Bournonville, the psychological depth of Tudor.

Musicality is a key feature of Ratmansky's work. He is adventurous in his choices and constantly on the prowl for scores that spark his imagination, a recent find being On the Dnieper, composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1931 but recorded only in the 1990s. Written soon after The Prodigal Son and a few years before Romeo and Juliet, it contains echoes of both, though it lacks the marked "danciness" and sharp mood swings of Prodigal and the lyrical sweep of Romeo. It is beautiful and stirring but also, as Ratmansky points out, a bit puzzling. In the ABT studios in May, he was still trying to unlock its secrets through his characterization of the central figure of Sergei, as interpreted by ABT dancer Marcelo Gomes: "The main idea is a man comes back to the place where he used to live but hasn't been for a long time, and he starts to find a way to establish his identity within this place. He is in the center." This reading of the plot was not necessarily a feature of the original choreography--of which almost nothing is known--but it is the story the music was telling him.

Ratmansky no longer dances onstage; he has said it is difficult for him to look in the mirror, even though his 41-year-old body is hardly unfit. Yet his choreography seems to spring as much from his intensive analysis of scores and libretti as from his body and his particular way of moving. In the morning, before heading to the studio, he listens to the passage of music he will be focusing on that day, working out steps in his head. ("In Denmark," he told the New York Times last year, "I would put on some music and then switch on a camera and film myself. I wanted to see what my body would tell me because it's smarter. It responds to music almost spontaneously.") A while later, he strides energetically into the studio with an intense expression, as if already seeing the movement in his mind's eye, and immediately gets to work. Not a minute is wasted.

"Ladies, let's begin where we left off," he said during a rehearsal this spring, showing first one dancer's steps, then another's. As he watched a phrase he had created, he began to modify and refine it, making suggestions, showing the differences on his own body, building methodically from one phrase to the next. He moves fluidly and encourages fluidity in his dancers, as well as intention: "careful it doesn't look like an exercise," he said at one point to the girls. His attention to the nuances of timing and quality is constant and infinitely detailed, and he often asked to hear a phrase several times on the piano, sitting perfectly still or standing next to the instrument, discussing counts, tempos and accents. Ashley Bouder of the New York City Ballet, for whom Ratmansky created a whirlwind role in his Concerto DSCH last year, says that in rehearsals the choreographer seemed able to pick out "things that people don't normally hear in the music, and show them." The charming piece of fluff he created for Nina Ananiashvili at the ABT gala this spring, set to Khachaturian's "Waltz Masquerade," contained one of these tiny musical revelations, a little figure in the leg--out, in--echoed in the arms--out, up and then, out, down--that perfectly mirrored a pizzicato figure in the strings. It was as if Khachaturian had been dreaming of exactly this when he composed the piece.

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