RATMANSKY REVOLUTIONISED THE BOLSHOI’S REPERTOIRE
14-year-old son that I’m happy he doesn’t do ballet because men in tights are so weird’’) and his challenging tenure at the Bolshoi, where he tells me with characteristic mildness that he felt physically threatened.
He is at his most animated when conversation shifts towards the nuts and bolts of his craft, from ballet history and music to the reconstructions of old works (the Mariinsky Ballet’s 1999 attempt to present a historically accurate version of Marius Petipa’s 1890 classic Sleeping Beauty — four hours long — was ‘‘ very interesting’’ he says gravely).
Dance critic Marina Harss asked recently: ‘‘ Is the best behind us? Are we destined to a horizon of diminishing returns, of endless repetition of ‘ classics’ interspersed with shortlived novelties and intriguing experiments leading nowhere?’’ Ratmansky doesn’t believe so. Yes, there are too many stale versions of 19th-century classics, but ballet will live and prosper if it embraces change. ‘‘ I use classical vocabulary but I like to approach it with today’s eyes. Classical language is more or less a dead language but can it speak to today’s audience if we change it a little bit? Yes, if we put it in different surroundings or if we perhaps take a little bit from modern dance, some acting perhaps, so to try to balance things so it doesn’t look dead or dated.’’
Born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1968, Alexei Osipovich Ratmansky grew up in a cultured household. His father, a former champion gymnast, was an aeronautical engineer; his mother, a psychiatrist. At 10 he started training at the Bolshoi Ballet school under Pyotr Pestov and Anna Markeyeva. He graduated in 1986 but was not accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet corps; his classmate, future international ballet star Vladimir Malakhov, was also rejected.
Ratmansky realised early he would never be ‘‘ the best dancer in the room. So I thought, OK, where can I succeed? And no one was doing choreography around me.’’ He started making small works in his mid-teens and continued choreographing while dancing at the National Ballet of Ukraine in Kiev (where he met his wife, Tatiana Kilivniuk), the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.
He attracted notice for his inventive restagings of traditional ballet classics such as his 2001 Nutcracker for the Royal Danish Ballet and his Mariinsky Cinderella, but his big breakthrough came with his dynamic, funny version of Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003. To Ratmansky’s own shock, this success led to an invitation to become the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, the crown jewel of Russian ballet, at 36.
In five years there, Ratmansky revolutionised the Bolshoi’s repertoire with contemporary choreography; unearthed young superstar couple Natalie Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev; and introduced scores of new ballets. Under his directorship the clunky, creaking ballet company, factionally divided and in decline since the 90s, was given a dynamic makeover, a triumph marred by vicious internal dissent from followers of autocratic Bolshoi choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, and led by flamboyant principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze. A long-time critic of Ratmansky, Tsiskaridze orchestrated such a bitter internal revolt that Ratmansky resigned at the end of 2008. He was lucky to escape when he did. In January this year, his successor Sergei Filin had acid thrown on his face; Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko is facing trial for the attack.
Earlier this year, Baryshnikov recalled he ‘‘ was elated when Ratmansky took over [the] company. I said something smart is happening in Russia . . . And then I was very happy that he was out.’’
Surprisingly, when asked about his Bolshoi years Ratmansky sounds more nostalgic than bitter: ‘‘ I think only now I start to realise that I could have learned so much there. At the time I thought, ‘ Oh, this is so old-fashioned, I need to shake it up and change it’ and I was like, ‘ Guys, why can’t you understand you need to be clean, to be on the music, not play with the audience’, all this stuff, because I was really trying to get rid of what I hated about the style. But maybe I shouldn’t have done it, how do you say . . .’’ He struggles for the word. Too fast? ‘‘ No, in fact, I was slow — given the chance, I’d actually be much more tough.’’ So he was too soft? ‘‘ Correct,’’ he says briskly. ‘‘ But at the same time I could have paid more attention to the good side, the heritage. They really take a role and make it their own, the Bolshoi dancers.’’
Still, he’s not blind to the company’s many faults, as evident in the bucket of vitriol he poured over the Bolshoi on his Facebook page earlier this year. ‘‘ What happened with Sergei Filin was not accidental,’’ he wrote. ‘‘ The Bolshoi has many ills. It’s a disgusting cesspool, of those developing friendships with the artists, the speculators and scalpers, the halfcrazy fans ready to bite the throats of the rivals of their favourites . . . This is all one snowball caused by the lack of any ethics at the theatre.’’
He nods when I ask if he agrees with the views of the Bolshoi’s new general manager Vladimir Urin that the Bolshoi suffers from ‘‘ star disease’’. ‘‘ Yes. The Bolshoi dancers were unnecessarily resistant to my ideas. They thought, he, Ratmansky, was not even accepted into the Bolshoi, how dare he come in and change things. But I was the choreographer. If you don’t accept the director being authoritative, OK, but the choreographer has the right to say, I want it this way.’’
Did he expect things would get so bad that Filin would be attacked? ‘‘ Oh no, that was a shock. But yeah, I knew it could happen.’’ Did he ever feel physically fearful for his life? He pauses, then nods. ‘‘ There were moments which were not pleasant.’’ In the years since he left the Bolshoi, Ratmansky has built a busy life in Manhattan with Tatiana and their teenage son Vasily, relishing his freedom from Moscow’s claustrophobic public life and politics, as well as the stability of his long contract with American Ballet Theatre (the company, incidentally, will make its first tour to Australia next year). Critics have praised his diverse output — a lavish Nutcracker, the brilliantly abstract Seven Sonatas, a lauded new Romeo and Juliet, this year’s 24 Preludes for the Royal Ballet and his Shostakovich Trilogy for the ABT, among a sea of new work, including his upcoming version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the ABT — as the output of a ‘‘ master magician’’. He does unexpected things, certainly, with the classical ballet idiom, injecting it with playfulness, folksy elements, a sharp modernity, even a startling inelegance at times that earns the ire of the rare dissenter; McAllister says he’s brilliantly distinctive in the way he humanises his dancers.
A natural storyteller, Ratmansky has benefited from a worldwide shift from abstract work to story ballets in uncertain economic times. Interestingly, as it’s been noted, he stepped into the void left by a ballet freeze that saw all the great choreographers of the midcentury — George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton — die between 1983 and 1988. Is he really the saviour of ballet, as he is billed? McAllister says cautiously that like Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe in an earlier generation, he and fellow choreographic star Christopher Wheeldon will inspire new blood: every generation has its masters.
Ratmansky has no time for hagiography: he tells me he is humble about his place in ballet. He reportedly relies heavily on Tatiana to tell him if a work is boring or stale, and suffers from self-doubt (underneath his calm exterior he’s ‘‘ incredibly hard on himself’’, McAllister says). Dancers enjoy his calm manner; Vasiliev and Osipova said in London last month, ‘‘ We love Alexei . . . he never screams!’’ He takes pleasure in the simple basics of his craft, in being able to indulge his deep musicality (he is particularly enthralled by Shostakovich’s theatricality). He has a passion for ballet history and loves sleuthing through archives, tracking down original notations or old scores: his face lights up with rare animation when he speaks of working on historical reconstructions such as Le Corsaire with Yuri Burlaka or working off Fyodor Lopukhov’s ‘‘ brilliant’’ neglected libretto when restaging The Bright Stream.
Like Baryshnikov, he finds himself energised by New York life. ‘‘ My wife and son are happy [there],’’ he says simply. ‘‘ I like the work ethic, I like the athleticism of the dancers, I like that many Russians and other important choreographers have worked [there].’’
Is it true he’d like to do a Broadway show? He laughs. ‘‘ Sure, I would love to, but I don’t know if I’m qualified enough. I’d love to try.’’ His eyes glitter but then there’s a sudden swoop into Russian fatalism.
‘‘ But maybe I’m trying too many things. Forsythe told me once, ‘ Do what you do best.’ But I’m still not sure what I’m best at, so I try different things.’’
Alexei Ratmansky rehearses in Melbourne, main picture, opposite page, and above; wardrobe preparation, opposite page, below left and centre; Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello as Cinderella and the prince, below right