Between Two Worlds
With commissions streaming in, Alexei Ratmansky often juggles projects with several ballet companies at once. His combination of rich musicality, emotional tone, and whimsical humor has attracted artistic directors all over the world. He’s made more than 25 ballets for at least 10 companies, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, the Kirov, San Francisco Ballet (the first company to bring him to the U.S.), State Ballet of Georgia, and, of course, the Bolshoi—winning many prizes along the way.
Ratmansky studied at the Bolshoi Ballet School with famed teacher Pyotr Pestov (“Teacher’s Wisdom,” Oct. 2009). After graduating in 1986, he danced with Kiev Ballet, and was a principal at the Royal Winnipeg and Royal Danish Ballets. As artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 to 2008, he brought in a number of western choreographers. He also launched the careers of young Bolshoi superstars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev.
Although he often restages old story ballets, he has made brilliant plotless ballets, like last season’s Seven Sonatas for ABT. Whatever the genre, he is committed to exploration in the studio. “If a process feels risky to me,” he said in these pages in 2003, “it feels good.”
Ratmansky, 41, became artist in residence with ABT in January 2009 and has made three ballets for them. Next month his new ballet for NYCB premieres as part of its spring season’s explosion of new work. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Tatiana Kilivniuk, a former dancer with Kiev Ballet with whom he developed his early choreography, and their son Vasily. Dance Magazine’s Wendy Perron met with this modest and thoughtful dancemaker at ABT’s studios in January to discuss his work.
You’ve referred to your time as a student as “the golden era of the Bolshoi.” What was that like?
It was an incredible experience to see Maya Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev, and Maximova, Bessmertnova, Lavrovsky. The aura around them was so strong that I couldn’t analyze what I saw. It was just overwhelming.
When you graduated you were not asked to join the Bolshoi. Were you disappointed?
Yes, I was. What helped me to overcome it is that the best graduate of the class, Vladimir Malakhov, was not accepted either.
When you returned to the Bolshoi as artistic director 18 years later, what did you want to accomplish?
My experience as a spectator during the late ’90s was so different from when I was a student. It was less intense, less inspiring. It was almost boring. Most of the productions were dating from ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. I didn’t feel the dancers were involved in what they were doing. That’s what I wanted to change.
So you brought in Chris Wheeldon and other choreographers. I thought that Bolshoi was for too long a theater of just one style, one choreographer.
The other Bolshoi features were lost, like what we can see in the film with Ulanova doing Giselle. The Gorsky period was a huge, long period of Bolshoi history [approximately 1900–1924]. I wanted to take all those moments of the Bolshoi history and give the dancers the feel of this tradition—not only the 30 years of Grigorovich’s reign.
When you made The Bright Stream in 2003, many people said that it refreshed the Bolshoi. Do you agree?
For me it was a happy experience, first of all discovering this great music by Shostakovich. And I had a great time with the dancers. What critics wrote about it was that it somehow gave a sense of another Bolshoi history, which was probably important at that moment.
But the critics also wrote that it was funny and delightful.
It’s a comedy; this is something that was gone from the Bolshoi’s repertoire—even though the Bolshoi rep was always considered more democratic than the Kirov, less sophisticated, more direct contact with the audience, doing it for the audience. So the authorities thought that this was the right thing for the Bolshoi. Just preserving the Grigorovich works would not lead anywhere.
During your five years as director of the Bolshoi, do you feel you moved the company forward?
Well, one performance goes well, the next one you feel like nothing works. In general the idea of the Bolshoi, even among the most conservative people, has changed a little bit. They saw that there is no harm to invite westerners and do neo-classics, and even—omigod!—some contemporary!
Tell me about Nina Ananiashvili and the role she played in your career. At some point I realized that she was the only really interesting ballerina at the Bolshoi. She gave me the first real commission for her touring group. I was extremely happy. It was a success, then a second ballet I did for her, and a third. I was very grateful to her.
When you start working on a ballet, do you know whether it’s going to be a story ballet?
If I take music that has no story, I will do a more abstract piece. But it’s never abstract; I would always try to squeeze something into it. In the new production of Le Corsaire that we did at the Bolshoi, I had to choreograph some divertissements, which were purely dancing. But in the symphonic music I always hear some kind of—it’s not a story—some colors, nuances, details, or relationships.
In February 2008, it was announced that New York City Ballet offered you a position as choreographer in residence. Why did that not happen?
Everything went well until I mentioned that I have this commission and that commission, and Peter Martins just thought that as a resident choreographer I’ve got to spend more time. And that’s true. The ABT season is much less, and Kevin McKenzie has nothing against me going to different places.
It’s very personal when you start choreographing with the dancers. There has to be some mutual sympathy and human experience. That’s what I treasure the most: trying to establish the relationship with the dancers. The dancers are so different in all the companies, even though it’s very globalized now and many companies are doing the same repertoire. But there are still very distinguishing features of, say, Australian dancers or Russian dancers, between Kirov and Bolshoi, between ABT and NYCB.
What are the differences between NYCB and ABT dancers?
At NYCB there are the ideas of Balanchine: the less presentation the better, and the more honest you are with the steps the better. The dancers are very fast, very sophisticated in their movements. ABT is strong because of its combination of star dancers from different places, and it’s more theatrical. They’re very experienced in classics and with diverse choreographers like Tharp and Tudor. And Baryshnikov’s time was very important in terms of how the style changed. So all that heritage is here with ABT.
Dancers have told me that they love working with you.
That’s great to hear, but I feel equal with them. That maybe was part of the reason it was not so easy at the Bolshoi. The dancers there were so privileged. They were—and even if they weren’t, they considered themselves—the gods.
Yes, even though they could have trouble with government, like Plisetskaya.
Her story was special. Plisetskaya was the one whom I adored watching onstage. The way she nailed every note, every dynamic of the music, the way she moved her back and arms made a huge impression on me. She was the center of everything when she was onstage. Also the lines—the neck and the chin—they were something out of the world. There are a lot of very musical dancers here in New York, especially in NYCB. But she was not only dancing rhythm, she was dancing the orchestra sounds.
What is the music you’re using for the new piece at NYCB?
It’s one of the greatest scores, French music, a ballet score called Namouna, composed by Edouard Lalo. Serge Lifar used parts of it for his Suite en blanc . It’s about a man who’s in search of this certain Namouna, and she comes to him in different forms, sometimes she’s a gypsy, sometimes she’s with a cigarette.
Does one woman play all these parts?
No, different women. I have Wendy Whelan, Jenifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, Megan Fairchild, Abi Stafford. Also Daniel Ulbricht and Robert Fairchild. I had great fun doing it.
And what about The Nutcracker for ABT in December?
Will it be a Russian Nutcracker or an American Nutcracker? It probably will be somewhere in between, like I am—hanging between the traditions and styles and expectations. My main concern is to listen to the music because the score is so great. You can’t jump over Tchaikovsky.
So, what part of you is Russian and what part of you is American? My school, the base, is Russian, the best possible school—at least that’s what we were taught. I thought that by using what I’ve learned in Canada and Denmark, I can make the Russian school better. We Russians shouldn’t be afraid of absorbing things, of mixing. The Russian school is already a combination of different traditions: French, Danish, and Swedish.
I can’t go back to phrasings so dull as sometimes the Russians’ are, or the transitions so messy, or contact with the audience so obvious, or bows taking such a long time. Also, if you think of Balanchine, or Massine, or Nijinsky, they are Russians but what they’ve done, they did in the West. If they stayed in Russia, they wouldn’t be themselves.
I adore the spirit in American students. The dedication of American dancers, their speed, their willingness to give 200 percent to what they do. It’s an American quality that I’m looking for everywhere now.
You made a solo for Baryshnikov. What was it like to work with him?
He was not feeling well, so he marked a lot of things. But when I saw what he had done with what I gave him, that was really amazing—his ability to shape everything in an amazing way! We all know that. He is the most intellectual classical dancer I’ve ever seen.
When you look back on your work, do you have a favorite piece?
I have good feelings about the pieces that were the most challenging for me to make: Pierrot Lunaire, On the Dnieper, Seven Sonatas.
Pierrot Lunaire difficult to make? Because the music, the Schoenberg, is not good for dancing.
So why did you choose it?
Because I liked it! I wanted to hear it more and more and to be involved with it. I also wanted to challenge Diana Vishneva. It was interesting because she was like, “No, no, no—anything, but not that music!” I said, “Trust me, you gonna love this music.” And she did.
What do you look for in dancers?
An individual quality of movement, which is rare, very rare. Musicality is equally important. It’s hard for me to work with dancers who can’t hear the dynamics of the phrase and play with it. Also the involvement, the attack, the willingness to explore every movement. You can never be perfect. Every movement could be done in a hundred different ways.
Photo of Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes in rehearsal for
On the Dnieper by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT