Ratmansky Takes Manhattan

Ratmansky Takes Manhattan

A celebrated Russian choreographer is charting a stylish new course for American Ballet Theatre.


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

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.

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.”

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.

Most contemporary ballets are abstract–no plot, no characters–and have as their goal the creation of striking images and novel ways of moving that break out of the expected patterns and shapes of classical form. In this, they are descendants of Balanchine (another Russian choreographer who made his way in the New World), who already in the 1920s had begun dispensing with plot and shaping the line of the body in new ways. Ratmansky too plays with the balletic vocabulary, but more gently. A favored repeating posture is the deeply drooping torso (a negation of ballet’s defining uplift), which can express dejection, discouragement or simply exhaustion. At the end of On the Dnieper, it develops a new meaning: profound gratitude and reverence. But movement invention is not Ratmansky’s primary interest. “I have a feeling that I found a vocabulary that I use, and every time I add a little bit to this vocabulary, but still [use] what I already have,” he says. This vocabulary of steps includes windmill arms and side-to-side jumps, almost naturalistic port de bras, the beats of the lower leg used as a kind of onstage dialogue, sprinklings of everyday gestures, suggestions of folk dance and sport and a profusion of circling patterns. More than anything, his movement has a particular look–dynamic, open-chested, exposed, constantly shifting, often playful and starkly unstudied. For American audiences, this look has been largely defined by the two ballets he made for the New York City Ballet.

Russian Seasons, from 2006, is a meditation on the stages of life set to a song cycle by the contemporary Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov. The music has a strong folk quality (percussive, syncopated rhythms, repetitive patterns with small variations), at times reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Here, Ratmansky creates a small world with a shifting cast of characters and half-suggested story lines. In one of the most striking sections, “Lullaby,” a girl in a simple, calf-length red dress dances alone, running forward and backward, looking lost. A line of women come on, stomping with big, vigorous strides, heads down, swinging their arms and clapping in a folk dance. The girl in red flings her arms, and her body droops as if possessed by an evil spirit. Three men encircle her but she escapes, falling into the arms of another man–perhaps a lover?–as she leaves the stage. With these few elements, Ratmansky has created a chilling mini-drama, which he then allows to dissolve into the next episode. In another section, titled “Song for St. George’s Day,” Ratmansky echoes the randomness and variety of daily life. Lots of stuff happens at once, scattered casually around the stage: a girl in yellow (the marvelously idiosyncratic Wendy Whelan) shakes her shoulders; a guy pivots on one bent leg; another mimics a whistle, echoing a glissando in the strings; someone lies down in the middle of the stage; a girl fixes her stocking. Then, just like that, two girls walk forward casually, bow and leave; two boys do the same; finally, the daydreamer gets up and walks off, taking the last girl with him. That’s it; goodbye. But it’s all a feint, and in the next section the dancers return as if nothing has happened.

Concerto DSCH, performed last year, is a high-spirited romp set to an exuberant Shostakovich piano concerto (No. 2, from 1957) with a rapturous slow movement. According to Whelan and Bouder, who were in the original cast, the ballet was made in less than three weeks, in a burst of creative energy. With the first jaunty notes on the bassoon, the dancers’ windmill arms set them in motion as they run, spin, jump and lunge across the stage. “I like more plié,” Ratmansky told me. “I like bigger steps and covering space and upper body answering the movement.” This is a ballet about dynamism, speed and the sheer pleasure of movement. There is a small “team” of virtuosos in blue–a girl and two guys–who compete in feats of prowess until suddenly they tire and plop down to watch the others, legs bent, knees flopping open. As in Russian Seasons, he never lets us forget that his dancers are people as well. And like Russian Seasons, DSCH has a troubling heart. The second movement contains an unsettling pas de deux, in which a lanky girl in green (originally Whelan) and her partner struggle to find harmony, expressed mainly in slow, highly exposing lifts. But the synthesis does not hold, and the thwarted lovers exit in opposite directions. People loved these two ballets, and their enthusiasm grew when it was reported that Ratmansky was in negotiations with the New York City Ballet, which had recently lost its resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. But the discussions broke down, probably because of the company’s demands on his time, and a few weeks later it was announced that he would join ABT instead.

Ratmansky’s first full-length ballet for ABT, On the Dnieper, is set to a score written by Prokofiev in 1931 for Serge Lifar, premier danseur and ballet master at the Paris Opera. Interestingly, he composed the music before he had a full scenario, which may account for its dramatic ambiguity. The music is beautiful–especially the string and woodwind prelude, reminiscent of The Prodigal Son–but lacks shape. The mood is unfailingly downbeat; it drifts from the dreamily melancholic to the ominous and then deepens into a dark, thickly orchestrated theme that returns at the end under very different circumstances. The setting reflects this murkiness; as the curtain rises it is already dusk, and half the ballet takes place under an inky black sky illuminated by an enormous moon. Moreover, the melodies and orchestration offer few clues to the characters’ inner lives, except for a pretty flute melody for one of the protagonists that emphasizes the purity of her emotions and seems to foreshadow Prokofiev’s Juliet. As Ratmansky admitted before the premiere, the music is a challenge: “I’m almost thinking I should have used another score, something easier to understand,” he told me.

The story is deceptively simple. The central character, Sergei, is a soldier who returns to his village–on the River Dnieper, in Ukraine–and is pained to discover that he no longer loves his sweetheart, Natalia, and is instead drawn to the town beauty, Olga, who is engaged to another man. Natalia, who in the first cast was danced by the beautiful and deeply tragic Russian dancer Veronika Part, barely has time to rejoice at the return of her beloved Sergei–the music doesn’t allow it. She is destined to be unhappy, though Ratmansky gives her some beautiful, delicate footwork and little swoons to illustrate her struggle. Olga, danced by Paloma Herrera, a bit of a powerhouse, has the sketchiest music and choreography; her part has few defining qualities, other than speed, skittishness (she tends to scamper around the other characters, except when she is in Sergei’s arms) and a touch of flirtatiousness. The role of Sergei suits Gomes perfectly. Romantic, expansive, grounded and profoundly decent, he seems genuinely tormented by his predicament: “Why do I feel this way?” his body asks, as he leaps and falls and crouches and kneels on the ground. He is initially so deliriously happy to be home that he can’t seem to stop turning and looking at everything; he whirls his arms and points at one thing and then another, then cups his hands as if to capture his world between them. But Sergei can’t seem to fit back into the town’s rhythms. He falls in and out of unison with the town boys, constantly distracted by Olga’s presence. One can’t help but think of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have become strangers to their families and can no longer remember who they were before they left.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the ballet was Olga’s fiancé, danced on the first night by David Hallberg. If the other characters are one-dimensional, he is even more so, yet Ratmansky gives him two of the ballet’s most vivid moments. The first is toward the beginning of the betrothal party: he tries to draw Olga into a dance. He circles around her and touches her shoulders, but she moves away; then he tries to turn her toward him, but still she looks away. So he reaches his arm longingly across the front of her body and takes her hand and pulls her into a pas de deux, trying to compel her to dance with him through the sheer ardor of his love; she relents, but there is no joy in her. The spectacle of this forced duet, a foreshadowing of Juliet’s with Paris in Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet, is appalling. Then, at the end of the party, the fiancé stands alone in the center of the stage and explodes with frustration: he turns on his own axis and jumps with one long leg out to the side, then does a series of small leaps in a circle, jumps from side to side and hops backward, kicking one leg forward over and over. He swings his arms uncontrollably. He stares at the ground, then at the audience. The stage fills with his disappointment. 
”Why is this happening to me?” he is saying, and we feel it in our bones.

Ratmansky clearly saw a wildness in Hallberg–usually a gentle, noble dancer–that he wanted to set free, and did. Even if he had succeeded only in this–and On the Dnieper has much more to offer–it would have been enough to justify his new position at ABT. It is a company with fabulous dancers but without a unified artistic vision. Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director, knows this, and recognizes the enormous possibilities that come with Ratmansky’s presence. “I hope he can be a beacon to help me spur and focus creativity within the ranks of ABT dancers,” he told me. Ratmansky’s contract is for five years, with the understanding that he will make one work for ABT each year, while at the same time pursuing his busy freelance career. Let’s hope he’s not too busy. His next ballet for the company (scheduled to premiere October 7) will be set to Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, and given the musical selection, it will probably have no plot. He is also scheduled to make a new ballet for the New York City Ballet in the spring. He will spend more or less twenty weeks a year with ABT’s dancers, dreaming up projects, perhaps staging some of his previous ballets (including, let’s hope, The Bright Stream or Flames of Paris), maybe teaching company class from time to time. At least for now, ballet lovers can sleep a little bit more soundly.

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