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.