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Modest Maestro— Alexie Ratmansky Talks With Joan Acocella

by Lori Ortiz
October 4, 2008
Cedar Lake
547 West 26th Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)
New York, NY 10001
(212) 486-722

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The New Yorker Festival
"Writers and Their Subjects"
The New Yorker Festival quelled a little of the curiosity around the unexpected news that Alexie Ratmansky just accepted a post as American Ballet Theatre's Artist-in-Residence. The wunderkind Bolshoi Ballet Artistic Director and choreographer talked in a soft, erudite voice and near-perfect English, with veteran New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella at the Cedar Lake Acura Theatre on October 4th. But the timing was wrong for new information. Since he hasn't started at ABT yet, there wasn't much he could say about it.

Only Joan Acocella sat on the dais with him, but Ratmansky was politically correct. At least one New York City Ballet representative was among the audience. Nothing was divulged about NYCB Artistic Director Peter Martins's offer. To recap, some months ago it seemed certain that the Russian choreographer would fill Christopher Wheeldon's vacated Resident Choreographer position. Meanwhile, like the Wells Fargo wagon, another offer emerged. Some weeks later, Ratmansky was on board ABT.

He only restated that as AiR he would have more freedom to honor his commitments already in place with the Kirov, Bolshoi, and others. The ABT position would be less demanding of his time. It makes sense. He said that he loves the dancers and has great respect for Martins.

Heads turned when Ratmansky revisioned Stalin era ballets at the Bolshoi. He hasn't officially ended his four-year tenure there and couldn't be too candid about it at this time. However, the way he and Acocella brought out some of the history was very worthwhile.

Russian ballet dancers are not just taught the steps but also to put something of themselves into it, to personalize it. They are encouraged to "take the trouble to think about the dance," said Ratmansky. It would be unfortunate to read bias into this. The Russians rightly call the abovementioned personalization "artistic." He compared this to our "dramatic." Drama is certainly an ABT forte, hence the 'Theatre' in its name.

"Facey," he said, is the English, Russian ballet word used to describe American or any ballet dancer who expresses too much of the emotion or drama in facial expression, and not enough using other parts of the dancing body.

Who are today's Bolshoi audiences? The tourists want to see a girl in a tutu. The Intelligentsia isn't interested, and balletomanes can no longer afford it, Ratmansky told us. In the 20s and 30s, the young, all types of artists and intellectuals thought it important. Clearly Ratmansky has aspirations for ballet beyond choreography, about audience building. Acocella responded with, "It will come again."

30s ballets had a strong socialist message. Ratmansky brought them back after being invited by the Bolshoi to mount "The Bright Stream" in 2003. "I wouldn't have done this somewhere else," he said. For example, "The Bolt" is about industrialization and the threat of sabotage. "The machine breaks down and they restore it, then celebrate," he summarized. This interested Ratmansky because the aesthetic isn't satirical. But there are critics who believe the era should be buried along with the murdered.

Ratmansky opened up the Bolshoi, bringing coaches and ballets from elsewhere. He set a Twyla Tharp work on them. But the ballerinas were resistant to change. He is proud of the fact that many of the young dancers emerged, eager to perform. They were fine with his experiments.

Acocella, in her way, neatly wrapped up Ratmansky's career and why people are interested in it. He was born in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. He grew up in Kiev and moved to Moscow, away from his parents at age ten, to train. He then danced with the National Opera of the Ukraine. He flew West, having seen the companies that Moscow hosted after 1985, and worked with The Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He went to Copenhagen and danced lead Bournonville roles in the Royal Danish Ballet. And then full circle to the Bolshoi. A few months after "The Bright Stream" he was made Artistic Director, at the bright-eyed age of 35.

"Home is where the studio is," he said. Here he's considered ballet's second coming. But he doesn't let that go to his head. He's taking his time. He doesn't yet know what will come from his ABT residency and isn't going into it with a grand plan. "Balanchine's first ballets were masterpieces. I have a feeling he knew exactly what he was going to do. Otherwise, you have to combine things," Ratmansky offered. Also he sees that audiences want more emotional contact.

The gold curtain is closed till June, when he will present his first ABT premiere. He will work with ballet music that's not well known— and that's all he could divulge.

Meanwhile, Ratmansky has an upcoming NYCB commission in the works.

The talk generated educated buzz. I would add some questions: is he more at home with the ABT style? Is that company more malleable? ABT is very Vaganova and NYCB is Balanchine's neoclassicism. See the City Ballet dancer's hyperextended hands that give them extra ballon. ABT fingers are gently curved.

And: Would it be more difficult for Ratmansky to see his own developing aesthetic at NYCB? Balanchine was in love with his new home in New York. He wanted to make "American" ballets, with the help of Kirstein and Robbins. Ratmansky has no such ambition to do that, nor does he presume to follow in Balanchine's footsteps. That he can leave to Christopher Wheeldon, who comes from City Ballet.
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