ROLLING ON THE RIVER
A GOURMET GALLIVANT ON THE MURRAY
ALEXEI Ratmansky sits on a little stool, swaying slightly to a phantom tune only he can hear. His eyes are closed and he sits in a pose of intense concentration. Thirty or so dancers, a ballet mistress and a company pianist wait patiently around him in a sunny rehearsal room at the Australian Ballet’s Melbourne headquarters.
Others watch the famous visitor from outside, faces pressed against the glass. Queensland Ballet director Li Cunxin, a surprise guest at this morning’s rehearsals for the national company’s new $1.6 million
Cinderella, maintains a respectful silence as Ratmansky hunts down inspiration in some vast mental library.
It’s a neat disappearing trick, this. One minute the world’s most celebrated dancemaker is shadowing the dancers on light feet. The next he’s disappeared down some kind of creative rabbit hole.
Then, just like that, the trance is broken. Ratmansky, 47, a stocky figure with a small cropped bullet head, a professor’s grave face and slightly protuberant eyes, leaps to his feet.
‘‘ OK,’’ he says mildly in soft, Russian-inflected English. ‘‘ Let us start that sequence again.’’
During the next hour he works the group gently but mercilessly as he calibrates everything from angle of neck to curve of little finger; the dancers strain to adapt their refined thoroughbred bodies to his idiosyncratic style. From time to time he stops rehearsal to do that disappearing trick on his stool, or dissect Prokofiev’s melancholy score with pianist Emma Lippa in a mix of Russian and English.
‘‘ It’s fascinating watching him,’’ the Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister says. ‘‘ They say Mr Balanchine changed the face of ballet in the 20th century because he was a teacher who then choreographed all kinds of stuff. I get the same feeling with Alexei . . . it’s like watching a masterclass in ballet.’’
‘‘ He has an amazing attention to detail,’’ says principal Adam Bull. ‘‘ He moves so quickly so you have no time to let your attention slip ... every rehearsal has been really intense and challenging.’’
With his phlegmatic manner, owlish gaze and air of neat precision, Ratmansky brings to mind an academic or accountant rather than a Russian ballet maestro. A dance history buff, avid reader and Shostakovich geek, he’s known to be ‘‘ allergic’’ to displays of temperament and ego (though he’s no shrinking violet when it comes to standing up to physical threats, as his bold tenure at the Bolshoi Ballet testifies).
Still, it’s difficult to visualise this laconic, slightly potbellied, bespectacled Russian father of one — a former artistic director of the troubled Bolshoi and present artist-inresidence at the American Ballet Theatre — as the great white hope of classical ballet, but this is how he’s widely regarded by the international dance world.
‘‘ Russia never had anybody better,’’ says the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, a friend and admirer who has thrown glitzy Manhattan parties in his honour. To The New York Times he’s ‘‘ the most gifted choreographer specialising in classical ballet today’’, while the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, Kevin McKenzie, likens him to a ‘‘ visual musician, a Toscanini’’.
A newly minted piece by Ratmansky — lauded for rejuvenating the classical ballet idiom — has become a hot commodity these days. It’s little wonder McAllister can scarcely contain his glee at snaring the world’s most influential — and arguably busiest — dancemaker at the height of his powers (he first staged the ballet Scuola di ballo here with the Australian Ballet in 2009).
Ratmansky has made all manner of works, from abstract ballets to pieces for opera, but he’s perhaps best known for his sparkling rebooted versions of big ballet classics from
The Nutcracker to Romeo and Juliet. His new Cinderella follows a slapstick, uneven version he did for the Mariinsky Ballet back in 2002 as a raw, relatively unknown young choreographer tackling his first three-act ballet; and he tells me he was pleased to accept McAllister’s offer because it gave him a chance to fix the flaws he now rues in this still highly popular work (‘‘it was my first and very stressful because there was very little time’’).
Cinderella has a long history of incarnations in dance. The first notable ballet staging was in1893 but the landmark version is considered to be Prokofiev’s 1945 Bolshoi Theatre production in Moscow featuring Rostislav Zakharov’s choreography and the great Galina Ulanova in the central role. Ratmansky’s new version, set in 1930s Russia and with surrealist overtones, lies somewhere between the dark grittiness of the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 tale and Charles Perrault’s frothy 1697 confection.
A deeply musical dancemaker, narrative integrity for Ratmansky is tied intimately to the music, and Prokofiev’s darkly complex score, written intermittently across four years (1940-44) during a time of deep turmoil in Russia, doesn’t support a sugary, Disneyfied telling of the story, he believes. He nods when Prokofiev’s description of Cinderella ‘‘ as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us’’ is raised. ‘‘ Yes, it is true. Why do we care about princesses now? We are all equal now, more or less — even royalty.’’
There’s an electric energy in the air whenever a ballet company builds a big new work from scratch, and you sense it in all corners of the company on this bright, blue-sky Melbourne morning. In the wardrobe department, milliners work on a trio of pastel ‘‘ shoe hats’’ inspired by Elsa Schiaparelli and 25 costumiers are hard at work crafting 275 costumes based on 40 designs by Frenchman Jerome Kaplan, from sumptuous gold ballgowns to lime-green balloon skirts. At the company’s $10m Altona production centre, everything from tall red human-hair wigs to massive green pillars and giant metronomes with staring eyes are being given finishing touches for this week’s opening night.
Ratmansky is the man at the centre of this activity. When we first sit down to chat before rehearsal, he’s a little awkward. ‘‘ It’s hard for me to talk about choreography because it’s about steps,’’ he begins, miming two walking fingers, then shrugs sheepishly. Nevertheless we end up covering a surprisingly wide range of topics, from the crisis facing classical ballet (he has said that sometimes the ‘‘ classics look too dead to me, and that is sad. I tell my