Alexei Ratmansky at The New Yorker Festival

On Saturday afternoon, The New Yorker Festival presented a discussion between dance critic Joan Acocella and Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky at Cedar Lake’s theater in Chelsea. Ratmansky is currently the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director, and he’s created works for several companies around the world, including his recent Concerto DSCH for New York City Ballet. He’s received a lot of attention over the past few weeks since signing a contract to join American Ballet Theatre as artist in residence in 2009, which I wrote about here.

The discussion covered a range of topics, including his struggles to introduce new works to the Bolshoi, the difference between Russian and American dance audiences, choreographing in the shadow of George Balanchine, and his decision to join ABT. The audience was also treated to some video excerpts from Ratmansky’s Middle Duet, Russian Seasons, and The Bolt. Unfortunately, Ms. Acocella was very forceful and dogmatic, while Mr. Ratmansky was soft-spoken and reserved – not the best combination of personalities for a discussion in which the audience was eager to hear more from him and less from her. However, he made some interesting points throughout the talk, which I’ll summarize below.

When asked to describe what it’s like to choreograph after the death of Mr. Balanchine, Ratmansky said that there is a clear divide for him between the Russian style and neoclassicism. Russian audiences appreciate and expect to see more story ballets (“They want to see the girl in a tutu”), which they believe are superior to the abstract, plot-less ballets for which Balanchine is known. But Ratmansky clearly values Balanchine’s style, stating that when Balanchine asked a dancer to lean off balance or turn in, “it was a revolution”.

Ms. Acocella asked Ratmansky why so many Bolshoi dancers have said nasty things about him. In an attempt to introduce new work to the Bolshoi, he brought in contemporary choreographers including Twyla Tharp and Christopher Wheeldon, even though most of the dancers were satisfied with performing the same repertoire. Ratmansky thought that Tharp’s In the Upper Room would speak to Russians, but as is the case with any ballet, some people will love it and some will hate it. Ultimately, Ratmansky felt that he had to make his own decisions about what to bring to the Bolshoi.

Regarding his decision to work with ABT and not with NYCB, Ratmansky simply explained that his contract at ABT provides him with enough free time to work with other companies, whereas he wouldn’t have had this flexibility at NYCB. It was also announced that his first ballet for ABT, premiering in June 2009, will be to a Prokofiev score. One of the most memorable things that Ratmansky said was, “Audiences want more emotional contact”, and that a dance company’s job is to establish “direct communication with the public”. Hopefully his contributions to ABT will meet these criteria.

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One Response to Alexei Ratmansky at The New Yorker Festival

  1. Elizabeth Reed says:

    Thanks for summarizing! It was a special event — I loved that Ms. Acocella contributed the clips she did, and I also, as you say, enjoyed whenever Mr. Ratmansky’s more soft-spoken presentation-style made it through the sieve of Ms. Acocella’s much more spirited one. (They were both terrific — him being thoughtful, her being very evidently enamored of her subject.)

    A few more tidbits I remembered, and a question…

    Mr. Ratmansky spoke about the way that he chooses a dancer. Usually he will watch class to choose a dancer, though he acknowledges what you see in class can be very different from what you see on stage. He said that, after all his experience, he can tell so much of a dancer’s character through just his or her first movements. The minute a dancer presents him or herself on stage, he can see who they are.

    He also said that if he is choreographing a new piece, he will prefer to work with a dancer with a sensibility similar to his own; whereas if he is working with an established piece, it is not as necessary for the personalities to be so compatible, because then the dance is less involved in creating the movement along with him.

    He also spoke about the way he prepares a piece of choreography. First he spends a very long time with the music. He will listen to it over and over again, sometimes with the score of notes in front of him, until he can imagine all the steps in advance.

    Ms. Acocella and Mr. Ratmansky spoke also of the use of different facial expressions in ballet. To a Russian audience member, a very high form of praise is to describe the dancer as “artistic.” Ms. Acocella recalled having heard this description used repeatedly after one Russian ballet she attended. What she finally discerned the meaning to be was that the dancer had expressed a part of his or herself in the dance — something Balanchine would have shunned (she quoted him as having instructed his dancers, “I want you to dance with your feet, and not with your face.”) In Russia, the aesthetic of the ballet is considered to be enhanced when the dancer emotes — facially, and physically — imbuing the dance with the dancer’s own “artistic” skills.

    I loved also when Ms. Acocella did draw out (even to her own surprise!) one of the choices that has made Mr. Ratamansky’s tenure at the Bolshoi particularly contentious — for the big story ballets that audiences of the Bolshoi company demand, with Spartacus as the most popular, Mr. Ratamansky has cast leading roles from dancers outside of the company! Namely, he cast Carlos Acosta (Houston City Ballet) as Spartacus. Understandably, this must have provoked aghast discomfort from the dancers under “life contracts” with the Bolshoi.

    When asked about the changing perceptions of more modern dance styles within Russia, Mr. Ratamansky highlighted that for Russians, the stage of the Bolshoi is like a “church.” There is however, something of which Mr. Ratamansky is very proud, a new crop of young dancers that have come out of the changes he has brought to the repertoire.

    Lastly, I found it very interesting when Ms. Acocella questioned Mr. Ratamansky if his staging of “Bolt” (a ballet from the ’20s in Russia which portrays a sea of orange-clad dancers simultaneously as machines and representative of the “Soviet man”, if this ballet were in any way ironic or satirical. Mr. Ratamansky replied that no — it has been 20 years since the perestroika (economic restructuring within Russia under Gorbachev), and that there was now no reason to be angry. Instead to Mr. Ratamansky — The Bolt represented a particular and essential Soviet aesthetic for a certain kind of ballet. It was essential to him to preserve this style. (He seemed to balance the very political role of curating traditional Russian ballet — a revered staple of Russian nationalism, culture and pride — along with pushing and stretching Russian ballet to continue in its excellence — to introduce competitors like Carlos Acosta wherever he saw performance quality could be enhanced; whenever he had the opportunity to challenge the resident elite of the Bolshoi company.

    Bravo! On both counts — preservation and teaching.

    Lastly — my question! Did Ratmansky say that Balanchine was the first to create the off-balance stance in ballet? I wasn’t sure if he was crediting a specific ballet, or a choreographer. Though, I almost recall instead that he said it came from Mikhail Fokin?

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