ROLLING ON THE RIVER

A GOURMET GAL­LI­VANT ON THE MUR­RAY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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