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Back In The USSR

The Bright Stream
American Ballet Theatre

Anna Karenina; The Little Humpbacked Horse
Mariinsky Ballet, Metropolitan Opera House

Incredibly, the hit of the New York dance season this spring was The Bright Stream, a restaging of a Soviet “tractor-ballet” from 1935, about a Caucasian collective farm complete with hammer, sickle, and happy farmers making merry in a sunlit workers’ paradise. The ballet comes to us directly from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, where it was first restaged in 2003 with new choreography by the Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It was performed here by New York’s own American Ballet Theatre, where Ratmansky is currently choreographer in residence.

There is nothing uplifting about the ballet’s origins. The Bright Stream was originally performed during Stalin’s reign of terror, and when it opened in Moscow, the Great Leader hated it. Pravda published a scathing attack, excoriating the ballet’s creators for their depiction of socialist peasants as “sugary ‘paysans’ from a pre-revolutionary chocolate box” and for their lack of suitably authentic folk dances. And so the ballet was axed and its choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov, marginalized. Dmitri Shostakovich, its composer, had already been reprimanded for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and prudently turned his talents in other directions. The librettist (with Lopukhov) was Adrian Piotrovsky, who eventually ended up in the gulag.

In the years to come, The Bright Stream was lost and its choreography forgotten. But the hour of its repression only loomed larger as time went on: the ballet came to stand in Russian memory as the point at which things went terribly wrong for dance, when the artistic experimentation of the 1920s gave way to the crushing repression and socialist realist requirements that would dominate ballet for decades to come. What, then, is the appeal of The Bright Stream today? Why revive a bad memoryand why has this old Soviet dance from the darkest of days inspired rave reviews and attracted sold-out houses in 2011 in Manhattan?

The answer is Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky is the great Russian hope in the dance world, hailed almost universally as the most significant figure since Balanchine. At forty-three, he boasts a large body of work. He has created ballets for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and many of the major European opera houses, as well as for the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theatres. Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic for The New York Times, recently went so far as to suggest that Ratmansky is “quietly changing the course of ballet in the West,” and many others would agree. But is Ratmansky really that good? Could going back to old Soviet dances such as The Bright Stream really open new paths for the future of ballet?

Ratmansky’s biography is impressive. Born in Leningrad in 1968, he spent his formative years in the Soviet Union and was trained at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet School. When he graduated in 1986, he joined the Shevchenko Theater of Opera and Ballet in Kiev, where he danced on and off for a decade; and at the same time he studied choreography at the State Institute of Theatre Arts—the premier training ground for Soviet choreographers—and began making dances. Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed, he turned West. In 1992, he joined the Canadian Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and in 1997 he moved on to the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, where he danced a wide repertory of works by Western European and American choreographers, including Balanchine and Robbins, Maurice Béjart, Mats Ek, and Jiří Kylián.

Already his life and his career seemed to span geography and time: East and West, communist and post-communist eras. He appeared ideally situated to bridge the gaps. In 2004, Ratmansky returned to Moscow as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. It was a tough job. The company had fallen from its cold war heights, and its style, once so supremely confident and bravura, had all of the rigidities and the wounded pride of an empire in decline: hardened and grandiose, empty at the core, a kind of Potemkin Village of dance. Ratmansky set out to strengthen, to modernize—and to Westernize. He expanded the repertory and created new ballets. Perhaps most important of all, he introduced new ways of dancing.

That is harder than it might sound. One afternoon in Moscow in 2004, I watched Ratmansky coach a stiff and rather old-fashioned Bolshoi dancer with weak, choppy transitions and gorgeous but lifelessly static poses. He worked long and hard to make her move in a more fluid and grounded European style—less big, less brash, less self-important. Her extreme difficulty in imitating his movements was a reminder of just how stylistically distinct Russia and the West still were, and also a sign of the challenges that Ratmansky faced: even at this basic physical level, building bridges would mean overcoming decades of entrenched habit and ways of thinking.

At the Bolshoi, Ratmansky became a voice from the West—but he also made himself a voice of the past. Thankfully, this did not mean jumping back to the seemingly glamorous (and less historically tainted) world of Marius Petipa and the old Imperial court, as was fashionable in Russia at the time. Instead, Ratmansky took on the communist era’s most celebrated and notorious ballet productions: The Bright Stream was followed by The Bolt, originally performed in 1931 (about industrial sabotage, also with music by Shostakovich), and The Flames of Paris (celebrating the French Revolution), dating from 1932.

In choosing these ballets, Ratmansky was identifying himself with a particular moment in Soviet ballet history, and perhaps (in the case of The Bright Stream and The Bolt) with a particular choreographer: Lopukhov. After the revolution in 1917, dancers and ballet masters had plunged into a contentious and wide-ranging debate over how to remake ballet in the image of the new socialist state. Lopukhov was a radical and a leader in pushing dance in new directions, although he was careful to resist the callall too loudly advocated in some circlesto completely sever ties to an outmoded aristocratic and Imperial tradition.

It was Lopukhov who, in 1923, choreographed the first “symphonic” ballet, The Magnificence of the Universe, which inspired the young George Balanchine, and by the 1930s he was moving ever more deeply into vaudeville, gymnastics, and the circus artshis way of undermining classical pieties and bringing ballet closer to the street and “the people.” Although his career was subsequently derailed by Stalin, he kept quietly working and teaching until his death in 1973, discreetly mentoring several generations of dancers and choreographers in Leningrad. At momentsduring the war and again during the Thawit seemed Lopukhov might return to the lead, but this never quite happened. Instead he became a quiet hero in the underground culture of dancea ballet master who stood for a lost artistic moment and a road abruptly cut off. Ratmansky is back on that road. We might even say he has picked up where Lopukhov left off.

Thus The Bright Stream, a comic ballet in two acts that tells of a Soviet ballet company visiting a collective farm to celebrate the end of the harvest. In spite of its obvious communist theme, the story is conventional enough, and we easily forget the setting amid the spirited flirtations, unrequited love, switched identities, and elaborate ruses to reunite the erstwhile lovers. Ratmansky’s new choreography is very much in Lopukhov’s spirit: ebullient, farcical, witty. He builds an almost carnival-like atmosphere, and by the time we arrive at the old gag of a cross-dressed sylphide pursued by a lovesick man, we hardly care that it has been done before: the revels are too much fun, and we feel we are part of this ragtag troupe of actors and friends on a zany adventure. It all seems spontaneous and improvisedpure, unmediated pleasure.

But wait: what about the hammer and sickle plastered to the proscenium, literally hanging over the proceedings? We hardly notice it—just another decoration. And the black-clad grim reaper who appears menacingly at the end to threaten the festivities? No problem: death gets pulled into the vaudeville of dying sylphs and shots fired and kicked off the stage in a romp. As the dancers come to inhabit the ballet, we are aware of 1935—the hammer and sickle are therebut we do not really mind: Ratmansky has taken over The Bright Stream and made it his own. This is all so finely done that we hardly notice that any lingering sense of the ballet’s ugly history has altogether evaporated, dissolved in charm.

If this sounds like an artistic sleight of hand to make us forget something we should not forget, maybe it is. Ratmansky has simply taken the ballet’s music and libretto and followed it into vaudeville and fun—leaving Stalin out. Lopukhov would surely have approved. Ratmansky casts a spell on the history that took Lopukhov’s ballet down: everything in The Bright Stream, including the ballet itself and the idea of staging it in 2011, is a carnivalesque up-ending. It is also perhaps a play on official Soviet popular culture of the time: movies and musicals, songs and dances all portrayed a flourishing Soviet people (no matter the purges, collectivization, censorship). And now, for Ratmansky, the old symbols are still there, but only to prove that they do not mean much anymore.

At the end of the ballet, the artists pose at the train station as they prepare to leave the collective farm to return to the city. They are waving and smiling—at the farmers, but also at us. Then we notice the backdrop of a New York cityscape growing up amidst the wheat-fields. A hint of a message comes through, as if Ratmansky wants to make a point without quite making it. It is the same point the Soviet original aspired to, but with a new twist: city and country, dancer and worker, past and present—and now New York and Moscow—are all joined in this silly but strangely exhilarating scene.

It is only later, when the fun is over, that we begin to feel that there might be a price to Ratmansky’s light-hearted take on The Bright Stream. In the Soviet Union in 1935, the ballet was political in the most dangerous sense: lives were lost for less. Ratmansky has freed it from this ugly past, but in the process he has also deliberately depoliticized it. There are other ways to retrieve works from Stalin’s era: when William Kentridge restaged Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930) at the Metropolitan Opera last year, he made it more explicitly political and more bitingly satirical, not less. The Bright Stream works more by what it doesn’t say than by what it does. Ratmansky makes his point, but there is also something blanka feeling of blanknessabout picking up a lost trail precisely to erase it before our eyes.

IF THE BRIGHT STREAM largely succeeds, some of Ratmansky’s other efforts to reclaim old Soviet ballets have been more troubled. Consider his restaging of The Little Humpbacked Horse and Anna Karenina, two ballets from the 1960s recently performed in New York by the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet. The Little Humpbacked Horse has a long pedigree: inspired by an old fairy tale that irreverently mocked the czar (who is unceremoniously drowned in a vat of boiling water), it was banned for a time in the early nineteenth century and was first made into a ballet in 1864just three years after the freeing of the serfs, and in the heat of debates between Westernizers and Slavophiles about the future of Russian culture.

At the time, Russian ballet was still very—veryFrench, and under sustained attack by critics with Slavophile sympathies who found it hopelessly foreign and out of touch. They wanted dances that spoke to a more real, Eastern, and peasant Russia. Humpbacked Horse was a conciliatory gesture: it had a Russian theme, Russian folk dances, and a Russian ballerinaalthough as one dancer acidly noted, its choreographer, Arthur Saint-Léon, was French and its composer, Cesare Pugni, an Italian. Still, the ballet became a staple in the Russian repertory, fondly regarded as one of the first truly Russianizing ballets.

In 1955, the ballet was picked up again by the composer Rodion Shchedrin, an influential figure in Party circles and on the Moscow musical scene. He composed new music and the work was restaged as a glittering Soviet ballet, with the Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya in the starring role. Unfortunately, Shchedrin’s score is little more than B-grade movie music, with walloping brass and plenty of bombast. It doesn’t help that in Ratmansky’s new version the plot (never clear to outsiders unfamiliar with the story) is so confusing that his New York press agent surreptitiously distributed a two-page, single-spaced, blow-by-blow of the action, lest critics find themselves at a loss.

Who wouldn’t? The Little Humpbacked Horse is a dizzying parade of character dances and farcical pantomime acts, each one cuter and more vapid than the next. There are occasional glimpses of Bright Stream-style delight, but Shchedrin is no Shostakovich, and even the cleverest of dances cannot breathe life into this pompous score. What on earth made Ratmansky take on such an overwrought musical mess?

And for the second time! The Mariinsky also performed Anna Karenina, with an even more effusive score by Shchedrin, originally created in 1968, again for Plisetskaya (the two were by then married), who choreographed the ballet. Perhaps Ratmanskyspurred by Valery Gergiev, who apparently admires Shchedrinwas mining another historical vein, passing as it were from Shostakovich and Lopukhov to Shchedrin and Plisetskaya, who were also (according to Plisetskaya) trying to carve out their own corner of artistic freedom. Butand it is a big butwe also know that those artists were very much in the grip of the state that Plisetskaya now claims they somewhat opposed. Theirs was not a road cut off; it was a calculated accommodation. In any case, politics aside, the ballets are as artistically dubious today as they were then.

All this is part of the Soviet heritage that is best left behind, and Ratmansky’s wide-eyed effort to make dances to such schmaltz represents a striking lapse in taste and judgment. To be subjected to a week of Shchedrin in New York in 2011 is not just punishing; it is bizarre. Anna Karenina in particular brings to mind the kind of agitprop melodrama the Soviets used to bring to the West in the 1960s and 1970s. We didn’t like it then, and it is even harder to sympathize now.

THESE REALLY ARE dances from another shore. Ratmansky may be showing us his Russia—his Soviet Russia—but this time there is no Lopukhov, no irony, no hinge to flip comedy into farce. Instead we get blandly conventional choreography full of ice-skating lifts and hot embraces—the kind of faceless bravura dancing typical of the worst of the Soviet era. When the doomed Anna finally faces a speeding virtual train and the music crashes in great waves of emotion, we feel nothing but annoyed astonishment: why has Ratmansky uncritically reproduced this kitschy postcard from a best-forgotten past?

Because this is who he is, at least in part. It is tempting to view Ratmansky as a post-1989 international artist, a Soviet-born Russian who has absorbed the West—and not just absorbed, but come over. He is so well-versed in European and American dance modernism that it is easy to see his ballets through the legacy of “our” cold war. But if we look instead at his work from the vantage point of Anna Karenina, we can see that although Ratmansky may be building bridges to the West, his taste and aesthetic are more firmly rooted in Soviet dance traditions than we like to suppose.

More than that: Ratmansky may have too much history. Even his ballets that are not remakes of past works are consistently cluttered with influences, in-jokes, and references to old ballets, to the point where his own voice gets lost—or only comes through in double-negatives, disengaging and undercutting itself at every turn—as if he wanted to erase the past at the very moment he evokes it. Consider Namoura, made last year to music by Edouard Lalo. Here Ratmansky gives us a send-up of the French Romantic ballet, filled with tongue-in-cheek sylphides, mixed with more contemporary references and tropesone dancer performs a (very long) solo while smoking a cigarette, a gimmick that had a certain shock effect in the 1950s but looks a bit ridiculous today. The parts do not add up, and we are left with a confused smattering of tastes and styles: pastiche for the sake of pastiche.

In Concerto DSCH, a fine ballet created in 2008 for the New York City Ballet to music by Shostakovich, Ratmansky takes advantage of the Western modernist heritage the company did so much to define. At first the ballet unfurls with vigor and joy, and we are carried along by the sheer exuberance of pure dance movement. Then suddenly Ratmansky switches course, and the dancers are sitting self-consciously on the stage, like figurines from a would-be Robbins ballet. Then a woman wilts and leans for support and the others join, help, look on. Have we entered a narrative? A Balanchinesque dreamscape? What happened and why? We never quite find outthe moment just passes, and we are left hanging.

A similar gap in meaning and sense occurs in Dumbarton Oaks, to music by Stravinsky. At the start Ratmansky moves the dancers around the stage with his usual panache, but after a while we begin to wonder why he is bothering. It looks good but feels empty, like rearranging the tokens on a board. Then suddenly the dancers gather around to watch and a woman is lifted overhead and carried away in an unspecified but vaguely dramatic sequence, as if she had (maybe) died. What next? Ratmansky drops the thought as soon as he raises it. Once again, the moment passes.

Even if it hadn’t, there is something so contrived about the way this mini-drama is presented—the dancers gather to watch, but we never feel they are part of what is happening. It is as if they are outsiders looking in, even though they are in fact the ballet’s protagonists. Ratmansky does not seem to want us to feel anything directly: instead he makes us feel merely that we are feeling. The performers are not dancing, they are performing dancing. As if to emphasize the point, the ballet ends like a photograph, with the dancers artfully posed in seemingly casual ways. We—and they—are on the outside, watching. No one is invited inside. Is there an inside?

These techniques are familiar post-modern ruses, of course. Instead of telling us what he thinks, Ratmansky tells us what he might think if such-and-such a scenario were allowed to unfold, except that it does not unfold—so no matter. This studied carelessness may work to advantage in The Bright Stream, which makes a virtue of distancing and playful entertainment, but as a general principle it is off-putting. It also exposes Ratmansky’s greatest shortcoming: when he wants to be serious, he doesn’t quite know how. Even his most lively and engaging ballets rarely have significant solos or pas de deux. He knows how to arrange groups beautifully, but when faced with flesh-and-blood individuals or moments of real intimacy, he goes blank. Rather than shifting from a public to a private encounterfrom the plural to the singularhe lapses into inarticulate stereotypes, and the dances take on a dispiritingly anonymous feel.

This is even true in his remakes of narrative ballets such as The Nutcracker and Cinderella, in which the tension between groups and individuals, spectacle and intimacy are built-in. Ratmansky takes a Bright Stream tack on these old works and stages them as lively vaudevilles, with lots of cutely entertaining character dances, but when he comes to the pas de deux, which are musically grand and suffused with emotion, the choreographic clichés mount, and our eyes glaze overmore distancing, more detachment.

Indeed, if you look closely, there is not much innovative or substantial dancing—and certainly no new ways of moving—in any of Ratmansky’s work. His emphasis on caricature and pantomime and farce does not require much from the classical idiom. Love, romance, dreams, and the inner life—more artistically demanding themes—are not his subjects; and when they are, as in Anna Karenina, he falters, and falls back on facile forms and old habits.

IT IS HARD not to notice that all of this is a mirror image of Soviet ballet, which all but banned pantomime (a vestige of the Imperial court ballet) and farce (too tricky for the censors). Add to this that Soviet dancers—whatever their limits, and there were many—passionately believed in what they were doing, so that even the worst melodramas were at least convincingly performed. Ratmansky, by contrast, un-believes everything he touches. In the process he steers ballet away from the high-modernist course that he presumably admires, while reproducing, without any apparent selfawareness, the Soviet pieties he purports at other times to mock. The best that can be said is that Ratmansky is directing ballet toward commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, and comic opera. This is fine and can be entertaining, but it has nothing to do with great ballet choreography.

Yet it should be possible to use the one to get to the other—to move from farce and fun back to something more serious and whole. In another key, this is what the Hungarian director Tamas Ascher—like Ratmansky, born and raised under communism—did in a recent production of Uncle Vanya with the Sydney Theater Company at the Kennedy Center. Ascher transposes Chekhov’s play from its original late-nineteenth-century provincial setting to the years after World War II, around 1950. We almost don’t realize it: we are still in the timeless gray and rural Russian provinces, but Yelena (Cate Blanchett) wears fashionable “New Look” dresses and Dr. Astrov sports a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle.

Blanchett plays the role like a Hollywood actress, as if she had been swept into an old musical comedy; or perhaps as if she had swept this timeless Russian estate into a musical comedy. At first this is disconcerting (is Yelena really so self-consciously “acting”?) until we recall that in the Soviet Union at the time, Hollywood-style film musicals were wildly popular escapist entertainments. Stalin himself was an avid fan. Ascher lets us know what he is doing from the start: before the play even begins, and again at moments throughout, an old radio plays tinny operatic and vaudeville tunes. And so the drama unfolds as a series of almost vaudevillian acts—“Scenes from Country Life”—full of physical comedy and farce, often pushed to the brink of the absurd. We laugh when we ought to cry, and each scene has its own crazy and absorbing logic: Chekhov gone Beckett, with touches of Buster Keaton and Billy Wilder.

A key moment comes late in the play, as the ongoing and frustrated love between Astrov and Yelena flames and fails in an awkward kiss, and they agree finally to end their fantasy and let each other go. In a rare moment of quiet intimacy—no farce, no acting, all defenses down—Astrov tells Yelena she should leave the estate, that it is time they both exit the drama they have enacted there. “So go,” he says, “Finita la commedia.”

At this moment the spell of the play is broken, and everything these extraordinary actors have done rushes into focus: we see that the vast and failed ambitions of these provincial people, their grandiosity and frailty and delusions, are all part of an absurd and sometimes tragic human comedy. This is not a play within a play, but a play as a play: Chekhov’s naturalism turned through the prism of artifice and the absurd, and all the more sadly real—tragic even—because of it. When Sonja gives her final poignant reflection on all that is and must be and the radiant future they will all have in the hereafter, we see—for a fleeting moment—that their delusions and her devout beliefs were also perhaps the delusions of communism. We are in the court of the red czar: Chekhov’s fin-de-siècle is Ascher’s postwar, and Sonja’s religious faith echoes forward to the socialist paradise. Or at least it might. None of this is explicit: this is theater as physical comedy—a dance even at points—and it is not said but done.

Finita la commedia: this is the clear assertion of a point of view that Ratmansky achieved in The Bright Stream but is missing in so much of his other work. One almost wishes he had more of a taste for the absurdeven The Bright Stream never goes quite that far. Instead, his work tends to push toward sentimentality or skitter into postmodern disengagement. He does not wish to be pinned to a style, a position, an argument, even an emotion. Combined with his taste for fragmentation and spectacleeverything external, nothing internalthis leaves him closer to nihilism than to the absurd.

Ratmansky’s ballets are like negative images: we can see the picture only for what it is not. This is appropriate in The Bright Stream, because Ratmansky is cleverly de-ideologizing a once highly charged ideological work, and “not seeing” is part of the point. The problem is that “not seeing” easily slides into the choreographic equivalent of the view from nowhere. This is a diminished vantage point, full of ambition but without human traction. We always feel with Ratmansky that we are seeing something, but that it is too fragmented or far away or locked in old conventions to touch a place inside. But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps Ratmansky really believes that it is enough for ballets to be entertaining divertissements of pastiche and kitsch. Perhaps he is just a good vaudevillian, and we should be content with his gaiety and his fun.

But The Bright Stream suggests otherwise. It broke through to something more complicated and promising. And if history is part of Ratmansky’s problem, it could also be a part of the solution. He knows more than perhaps any other living ballet choreographer about ballet’s past and styles, and if he could distinguish his own voice from the whispers of days gone by and really tell us what he thinksno farce, no acting, all defenses downwho knows what he might produce. Let’s hope The Bright Stream is a beginning, and not a middle or an end. But if the view from nowhere is where ballet is headed, I for one would rather stay home. Finita la commedia 

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.