The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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