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The Bolshoi in Paris:

An Interview With Alexei Ratmansky

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 24 February 2004The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world's great companies, although it was not always evident from the uneven programmes shown in Paris which disappointed many. The quality of what was seen did not match the legend.

It was less the heavy-handedness of Yuri Grigorovich's production of Swan Lake, with its sad decor, but more because of the way it was danced both by the corps de ballet and by the principals themselves, in this case Nadejda Gracheva partnered by Rouslan Skvortsov, doubtless admirable in more inspiring works, but who showed a total absence of emotional intensity. Where is the style, artistry and the lyricism of this famous troupe, hitherto known for its great dancers and dramatically expressive style? Where is the passion ? Above all, what has happened to the men? The virtues of senior principals Sergei Filin and Nikolai Tsiskardze have been loudly sung by the critics, but one of them was sick, and the other injured. Is there no one else?

The current company is only emerging from years of internal crisis which ended in the firing of Yuri Grigorovitch who dominated everyone and everything for thirty years. It was also around this time that the Bolshoi lost several of its big stars, including Irek Mukhamedov, who joined the Royal Ballet in 1990. The great dancer Vladimir Vasiliev, better remembered for his interpretation of Spartacus than for reshaping the direction of the lacklustre troupe, took on a thankless task, to be replaced three years ago by the celebrated teacher, Boris Akimov. But it wasn't until after a series of meaningless tableaux, which constituted the second programme, La Fille du Pharaon, that people suddenly sat up in their seats.

With relief, the French public discovered The Bright Stream, a most surprising ballet, full of fun, yet at the same time revealing the fine schooling of the dancers as they revelled in the difficulties of the brilliant choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, up until recently principal dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet.


The Bright Stream was first staged in 1935, but then withdrawn from the repertoire because of its disrespect for the formal academic traditions, while the composer, Shostakovich, persecuted during the Stalin years, was not allowed to write another score. Keeping to Lopukhov's tale of the meeting of three dancers who meet a group of peasants from a collective farm and where everyone falls in love with everyone else, reminiscent of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, Ratmansky has adroitly created a completely new and enjoyable work which has galvanised the troupe.

Bright Stream / Le Clair Ruisseau
Le Clair Ruisseau (Bright Stream)
Chorégraphie : Alexeï Ratmanski
© Photo: Icare



Thirty-five-year-old Alexei Ratmansky's appointment as artistic director of the Bolshoi is therefore less of a surprise than it might seem. Already an esteemed choreographer in Moscow, where he was born, he trained at the Bolshoi School and then joined the Ballet of Kiev, where he had a thorough grounding in the classics, before leaving Russia in 1992 to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. After dancing both Neumeier and Balanchine, the Bournonville style was learnt at the Royal Danish Ballet, when, simultaneously to his career as a dancer there, he began staging works at the Bolshoi.

"Since creating an evening of works for the Ballet of Kiev, I made three ballets for Nina Ananiashvili* as well as Turandot's Dream to music by Hindemith, and The Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet of Denmark", he told me between rehearsals, relaxing in the cafeteria of the Palais Garnier. "This was followed by Cinderella for the Kirov and The Firebird for the Royal Swedish Ballet".

"I'm a classical choreographer; that's my background", he said, "although the experience I gained working with people like Neumeier, Twyla Tharp, Béjart, Mats Ek and Nacho Duato is invaluable". He graciously acknowledges the Bolshoi's debt to Yuri Grigorovitch, praising the latter's The Stoneflower, 1957, and Legend of Love, 1961, two admirable ballets choreographed for the Kirov and re-staged for the Bolshoi soon after Grigorovich became director there. Ratmansky also pointed out that the Bolshoi possessed all the classics in Grigorovch's versions and that he planned to revitalise these works by rehearsing them differently, and by developing the emotional side. Certainly, a state of what might be called creative boredom has set it, for the very same soloists who passed unnoticed in "Swan Lake" and La Fille du Pharaon, shone in Ratmansky's own choreography. Maria Alexandrova, for example radiated as the classical dancer in The Bright Stream, because she was given a strong dramatic role with superb choreography.

Maria Alexandrova - Ian Godovski
Maria Alexandrova - Ian Godovski
Le Clair Ruisseau (Bright Stream)
Chorégraphie : Alexeï Ratmanski
© Photo: Icare


"I've got many plans" Ratmansky told me, " but right now, the possibilities are quite limited because productions are put on almost every night in the old Bolshoi theatre as well as on the new stage next door, constructed as a temporary measure while renovation work is carried out in the main theatre. Moreover, that will close in April for a while, so life will be more complicated." Determined to make the most of the three year contract he has been given, he added that any openings he got would be used to mount new works. "Of course the classics are important, but that's all the company has danced for many years and they are ready for a change. They have had too much pressure on them, and it would do them good to dance William Forsythe. I saw them dance Declan Donnellan's amazing new production of Romeo and Juliet, with choreography by Radu Poklitaru in Moscow recently, and realised just how ready they are for change. The ballet, revolutionary for the company has neither pointe shoes nor lyrical declarations of love, and you can't get further away from the Bolshoi stereotype than this.


"But although I've been asked to do one ballet a season, I don't want to fill the repertoire with my own works but rather invite choreographers to Russia as well as encourage young Russian talent. Young people are making ballets here and I want to give them their chance. I intend the Bolshoi to be the centre of everything that happens, with choreographic competitions and workshops.

"I want to go forward with modern works; it's something I learned in Denmark and Canada, where I worked with Evelyn Hart, a passionately emotional ballerina. The Bolshoi dancers are great in dramatic ballets with difficult, challenging choreography. I also like story ballets, as do the public, and feel the time of purely abstract works has had its day."

Inna Petrova - Iouri Klevtsov
Inna Petrova - Iouri Klevtsov
Le Clair Ruisseau (Bright Stream)
Chorégraphie : Alexeï Ratmanski
© Photo: Icare

Talking about the Bolshoi's programme next season, he mentioned that a Neumeier work was being programmed for December, followed by a Leonide Massine evening. "Massine was born in Moscow and was a dancer with our company before joining Diaghilev in France. He carried on the Bolshoi tradition of character dancing, mime, comedy and melodrama, all features of our style, and so it's logical for us to present Le Tricorne, Gaité Parisienne, and Les Présages.

""It will be the centennial of Shostakovich in 2006, and his three ballets, The Golden Age, Bolt, and The Bright Stream are planned, as well as several reconstructions. No choice has been made yet, but Laurencia or The Flammes of Paris, a rich theatrical piece with plenty of lively folk dancing as well as pure classical pas de deux and virtuoso numbers for our men are distinct possibilities.

Neither does Alexei Ratmansky exclude the possibility of resurrecting the old-fashioned, and in Western Europe, the somewhat maligned The Red Poppy (1927), or Mirandolina(1949), explaining that they were strong story ballets with good music, containing many choreographic diamonds.

What, on the other hand is very new is his project to invite guest teachers to Moscow, because, although one of the strengths of the Bolshoi lies in their teachers, many of whom are legends**, he considered it was time for the company to work with teachers from outside . In Paris they were having class with Eric Camillo, and for the first time in their history, teachers like Violette Verdy would be going to Moscow to coach Balanchine's works. Several exchanges of teachers were being planned between the Paris Opéra and Moscow, so that not only would the Bolshoi benefit, but also Paris, with the advent of such prestigious coaches as Ekaterina Maximova.

With a company of 220 dancers, who, it must be said have spent most, if not all of their lives dancing Grigorovich's works, Ratmansky is fully aware of all the problems that lie ahead. "While the company needs new horizons and fresh ideas, all changes must be done carefully", he commented. "Everything takes time, but now the repertoire is opening up and dancers' salaries are comparable to elsewhere. In three years time, and maybe before, I think we'll be able to see the results of my work."

Certainly, Alexei Ratmansky, aware of the Bolshoi's fairly conservative audience in Russia, is not out to revolutionise the company, but rather to bring it the fresh air and that virile virtuosity missing in recent years. We wish him well.


* Nina Ananiashvili, one of the troupe's greatest stars

** For example, Marina Semonova, who studied under Vaganova, one of the most important teachers in the history of ballet, and who, in turn, taught Plisetskaya and Bessmertnova




Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times. Ms. Boccadoro is also the dance editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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