Friday, July 15, 2005

REV: The Bolshoi in New York

Bolshoi's Mission: Broaden Its Ballets
By ANNA KISSELGOFF, July 15, 2005, New York Times

FOR legions of admirers, the Bolshoi Ballet has never been simply first-rate. With dancing that exudes power and passion, it has always been a company distinct from any other.

The wonder is that even a recent parade of artistic directors (6 in 10 years) has not affected the troupe's grand, dynamic style. When the Bolshoi returns to New York on Monday for the first time since 2000, a spanking new generation of soloists and a superb corps will be on view at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Nonetheless, a frequent changeover at the top suggests (rightly) that the ballet behemoth from Moscow has been floundering in search of a direction. Alexei Ratmansky is the latest artistic director to face the company's basic quandary: how to introduce new work yet preserve the signature style and heritage of what Muscovites consider a national theater. A soft-spoken 36-year-old dancer and choreographer, Mr. Ratmansky has worked in Kiev, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Winnipeg and San Francisco. Even now, he is on leave from the Royal Danish Ballet, which he joined as a dancer in 1997.

Never a member of the Bolshoi, he was as surprised as anyone when Anatoly Iksanov, the Bolshoi Theater's general director, asked him to become the ballet's director in January 2004.

Born in Leningrad in 1968, Mr. Ratmansky studied at the Bolshoi ballet school, class of '86, along with Vladimir Malakhov, one of his four roommates. Like Mr. Malakhov, now director of the Berlin Ballet and a star at American Ballet Theater, Mr. Ratmansky was not taken into the Bolshoi Ballet by Yuri Grigorovich, the company's director from 1964 to 1995. After dancing with the Kiev Ballet for six years, Mr. Ratmansky and his wife, Tatyana, also a dancer in the company, left for Canada.

There is no doubt that a Russian-born and acclaimed Russian-trained choreographer who occasionally choreographed for the Kirov and the Bolshoi but had experience abroad appealed to Russian cultural authorities, who had been busy dismissing former Bolshoi dancers as artistic directors. "Sometimes the fact that I am an outsider helps me a lot," Mr. Ratmansky said in a recent interview in New York. Fluent in English, he also noted that not everyone inside the company was as welcoming. There is resentment from the older generation of coaches and some of the older dancers, he added. "For them, I am someone from Denmark, and where is that?" he said.

Yet as is evident in the company's two-week season at the Met (part of a four-city tour), Mr. Ratmansky has hardly thrown out the productions of his predecessors. Aleksei Fadeyechev (artistic director from 1998 to 2000 under the general director Vladimir Vasiliev, a ballet superstar of Rudolf Nureyev's generation) is represented by his especially vibrant staging of "Don Quixote," a showcase for the character dancing in which the Bolshoi is unsurpassed. Mr. Grigorovich's epic gladiator ballet "Spartacus," also being presented, has always been a hit with Americans, even if dancers of the heroic mold, like Mr. Vasiliev, had become scarce by the 1980's.

An Opium-Fueled Dream
Mr. Ratmansky suggested that the audience keep an eye out for Aleksandr Vorobyev, a new young dancer in "Spartacus." But generally, the original Bolshoi male dancer with a barrel chest and muscular thighs has given way to men with a more classical physique, like Andrei Uvarov, Sergei Filin, Dmitri Gudanov and stars like the idiosyncratic Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

Unsurprisingly, they are used in ballets like the two classically based United States premieres. One is "The Pharaoh's Daughter," a new version of an 1862 ballet by Marius Petipa about an Englishman, Lord Wilson, whose opium dream in Egypt leads him to imagine that he must rescue Aspicia, a pharaoh's daughter, from a marriage with a Nubian king. When she jumps into the Nile, a divertissement for three other rivers (embodied by ballerinas) provides plenty of dancing. The Nile king returns her to Wilson, who unfortunately wakes up to reality.

The current choreography by Pierre Lacotte, a Frenchman who specializes in reconstructions, was staged under Boris Akimov (2000-4), Mr. Ratmansky's predecessor. It is the kind of full-scale spectacle that the Metropolitan hopes will sell tickets. Théophile Gautier, the idea man behind "Giselle," wrote the novel ("The Romance of the Mummy") on which "The Pharaoh's Daughter" is based.

One Aspicia is Svetlana Zakharova, who transferred to the Bolshoi from the Kirov in 2003. The Kiev-schooled ballerina is well known for her extreme leg extensions and contemporary classical style.

Anna Antonicheva, Svetlana Lunkina and Maria Aleksandrova, the new golden girl, are among the home-grown ballerinas to watch.

What Pravda Denounced
The second novelty, "The Bright Stream," could not be more different. Mr. Akimov was still artistic director when Mr. Ratmansky, who had choreographed short works at the Bolshoi for Nina Ananiashvili (still on the Bolshoi roster but now artistic director of the Georgian Ballet), was asked to do a new piece. He chose Dmitri Shostakovich's score for a ballet that was sharply denounced by Pravda. The original 1935 choreography was by Fyodor Lopukhov, one of George Balanchine's mentors. It was a lighthearted tale of dancers and musicians visiting a collective farm to celebrate a harvest. The ballet was denounced as a "fraud," falsely portraying the reality of the time. Mr. Ratmansky kept the original scenario for his own choreography.

The French-farce style of the characters, who flirt and disguise themselves to teach philandering husbands a lesson, delighted Paris audiences last year. Yet the ballet's depiction of farm life was condemned as trivial in the 1930's, when the Soviet Union's new policy of Socialist Realism went into effect.

Mr. Ratmansky said he choreographed "The Bright Stream" in view of next year's Shostakovich centennial and rightly points out that Soviet films of the 1920's and early 30's had a similarly comic, optimistic streak. A few months ago, he rechoreographed "Bolt," from 1931, another Lopukhov-Shostakovich ballet. His Shostakovich triptych will be completed with a revival of "The Golden Age," a 1930 ballet redone by Mr. Grigorovich and seen in 1987 in New York.

Mr. Ratmansky's "Bolt" was not considered as successful as "The Bright Stream." Some Russian critics complained even in the past that the "epic" tradition of the Bolshoi (big ballets, powerful technique and above all, dramatic expressiveness) was eroding. According to this view, apparently shared by some in the company, Mr. Ratmansky is continuing this process by introducing minor ballets or chamber ballets.

Making Room for a Cancan
Among the Ratmansky choices that encountered resistance were three works by Léonide Massine, who joined Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1914 after graduating from the Bolshoi school. Eventually Massine became the most famous ballet choreographer in the 1930's and 40's in the United States and Europe. Admittedly, two of the ballets on the triple bill, "Le Tricorne" and "Gaité Parisienne," have difficult styles to capture. But the Joffrey Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet under Nureyev's direction proved that "Les Présages," the third work, had an impressive sweep as an allegorical symphonic ballet.

Mr. Ratmansky replied to his critics in a program note: " 'In my opinion, the Bolshoi theater is not the right place for Massine's ballets.' I am quoting one of our leading soloists."

Mr. Ratmansky then suggests that the soloist's objections are that the ballets will flop because Massine is unknown in Russia; that one-act ballets are not for the Bolshoi; and that the theater's sacred walls should not enclose a cancan on stage.

Rejecting these reasons and especially the view that the Bolshoi is too hallowed a ground for certain ballets or operas, Mr. Ratmansky defends Massine's credentials: "He makes use of and develops the best traditions of Russian, or rather of Moscow Imperial Ballet," along with the experimental.

An Émigré Heritage
Here, Mr. Ratmansky reveals a novel mission: to take back to Moscow a heritage represented by émigré Russians of the past and the present. Yuri Possokhov, a former Bolshoi star now with the San Francisco Ballet, will create a new "Cinderella" for the Bolshoi. Viktor Plotnikov, a Ukrainian with the Boston Ballet, choreographed for one of the Bolshoi-sponsored workshops organized by Mr. Ratmansky.

Mr. Ratmansky also hopes to bring back selected ballets from the Soviet era. Because the Bolshoi theater closed this month for renovations that are scheduled to end in 2008, the company will not restage "Flames of Paris," a well-known 1932 ballet about the French Revolution.

In the meantime the company will perform in its neighboring new second theater, at other sites and on tour. Along the way, Mr. Ratmansky hopes that Christopher Wheeldon of New York City Ballet will create a new work. Mr. Wheeldon backed out of Mr. Akimov's invitation to choreograph a new "Cinderella" a few years ago.

Loyal to his training, Mr. Ratmansky has only high praise for his main teachers at the Bolshoi school, Aleksandra Markeyeva and Pyotr Pestov. They instilled in him some of the qualities he finds lacking in Bolshoi dancing today. "Pestov paid attention to transitional steps," and Ms. Markeyeva "made you feel each position and put emotion in static positions," he said.
The Kiev Ballet's Legacy

Mr. Ratmansky was brought up in Kiev, where his mother was a psychologist and his father, a former champion gymnast, an engineer. After finishing at the Bolshoi school, Mr. Ratmansky studied choreography at the State Institute of Theater Arts, known as Gitis, and joined the Kiev Ballet.

"Valery Kovtun was a brilliant director of the Kiev Ballet when I was there," he said. "It was extremely important for me. I learned all the classical roles and choreographed miniatures for informal showings. I won a Ukrainian competition with my choreography and then the Diaghilev Competition in Moscow."

While on tour in Canada in 1992, the Ratmanskys asked John Meehan, then artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, if they could join. They stayed for three years, a period in which Mr. Ratmansky danced everything from Antony Tudor to Twyla Tharp before returning to the Kiev Ballet in 1995.

"Maybe my luck was that I didn't go to the Bolshoi," he said. "I was able to look at dance from different angles. At the Kiev Ballet I choreographed Stravinsky's 'Fairy's Kiss.' "
A Home in Denmark

Mr. Ratmansky has also created works for Ms. Ananiashvili's touring group, which performed them at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 1999.

Along the way, Mr. Ratmansky said, he and his wife felt they should settle abroad again, "find a place, work in the theater and have a baby." Their son, Vasily, is now 7.

When both auditioned for Maina Gielgud, then director of the Royal Danish Ballet, they knew they had found a home, and under subsequent directors, Mr. Ratmansky developed as a dancer and choreographer.

"The mime in Bournonville's ballets in Denmark was something I didn't know in Russia," he said. "Eventually, I danced James in 'La Sylphide.' " Today, the Royal Danish Ballet's "Nutcracker" is Mr. Ratmansky's version.

Bolshoi Meets Balanchine
Valery Gergiev invited him to choreograph at the Kirov in 1998, which led to "Bright Stream" at the Bolshoi. Acclaim greeted his "Carnival of the Animals" (2003) for the San Francisco Ballet.

Recently Mr. Ratmansky choreographed "Firebird" for the Royal Swedish Ballet and in 2002 he took part in the New York City Ballet's Choreographic Institute, where obviously no one knew he would be the Bolshoi's artistic director one day.

It is his job, Mr. Ratamansky believes, to open up the dancers to new genres, while preserving the distinctive Bolshoi style. He has invited Balanchine alumni like Violette Verdy and Adam Lüders to teach. John Clifford came to stage a Balanchine ballet and taught a class. Was there resistance? "Oh yeah," Mr. Ratmansky said.

In his view, every positive aspect of the Bolshoi has its negative side. "The style of many dancers today is shaped mostly by Grigorovich's ballets, and they don't know the stylistic differences for other ballets," he said. "The Bolshoi style has accents on the big stuff, bright colors, a joy of dance. But the emotions have to be seen as true, not overdone."

Asked to define the difference between the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi today, Mr. Ratmansky said the Kirov was focusing on Balanchine ballets and big reconstructions of 19th-century classics, although it also presented works by Western choreographers like William Forsythe.

By contrast, in recent years the Bolshoi has concentrated on ballets "created specially for the company," he said. "It's a good way to build a repertory."


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