Academic journal article The Hudson Review

A New American

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

A New American

Article excerpt

Alexei Ratmansky immigrated to the United States from Russia in 2008; he became a citizen in 2015. You wouldn't really call him an American unless you understood how American ballet has always been under the spell of Russian ballet. First, Marius Petipa, who dominated the nineteenth-century Imperial repertory and whose classics Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and many lesser-known story ballets are still being reproduced and refashioned as the test of a ballet company's mastery. Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century spawned a generation of expatriates who carried Russian aesthetics into European modernism and throughout the world. The Diaghilev offshoots, the variously and confusingly named Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of Serge Denham and Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes, carried that repertory into the 1940s. Enthusiasm for Scheherazade and Firebird and the symphonic ballets of Léonide Massine created a core ballet audience in this country. George Balanchine came to New York via St. Petersburg and the Ballets Russes in 1934 and started a school and company. As he developed his own choreography, he resorted to the old classics only occasionally (Nutcracker, Coppélia), but he preserved them as living metaphor in countless new ballets and often reworked or streamlined them to suit the New York City Ballet audience (Baiser de la Fée, Swan Lake, Firebird, Don Quixote). He was getting started on a fulllength Sleeping Beauty at the end of his life; it was completed by his successor, Peter Martins. Along the way there were the Soviets, who installed acrobatics and mass characterization into the technical lexicon for today's hybrid forms of contemporary ballet.

Ratmansky carries on this lineage and extends it. His ballets are crammed with steps, with action, with musicality and also with human expressiveness. He hasn't succumbed to contemporary notions that subordinate the classical conventions to physical distortion and theatrical staging. He works in more styles and attitudes than a single dance company could contain. Fortunately, he's had the chance to stage his ideas on a dozen different companies; as the hot artist in ballet right now, he's taking advantage of the moment. By some miracle, his unprecedented productivity hasn't resulted in automatism.

I've been wanting to write about this prodigy ever since I first encountered his work, in Le Carnaval des Animaux, in San Francisco in 2003. Then Russian Seasons for New York City Ballet, in 2006, when he was still artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. These were as different from each other as if they'd been made by different people. All I remember about Le Carnaval now is that I thought it was delightful, a comic ballet with serious overtones. Russian Seasons was unique: an ensemble piece that featured solo dancers without setting them apart as superior beings. Since then there have been other dances of his, all fascinating. But I've never seen any of them enough times to figure out what makes them so. Now, twenty years after leaving New York, I regret that I haven't been on the scene to get to know his work well.

Two performances by American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in May gave me a glimpse of six Ratmansky works I hadn't seen before. No more than a glimpse. Here I'll insert a plea that video recordings be made available for study. ABT didn't provide them on request; neither did New York City Ballet when I was last trying to account for my inadequate understanding of a Ratmansky work. In response to the sample I was able to access this time, I'll have to skim the surface of what I know is a deeper well of information. I was unable to be in New York for repeat performances of the two repertory programs discussed below, or for his 2015 Sleeping Beauty, which was to close the two-month season, or the remake of the Michel Fokine Coq d'Or (1914). Now retitled The Golden Cockerel, it was first created at the end of the soon-exhausted string of exotic ballets that made the Ballets Russes a sensation with the audience in Paris and London and was the last that Fokine made for Diaghilev. …

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