Ratmansky Fever at the Mariinsky Ballet
Suddenly, there are Ratmansky ballets popping up all over town. That’s Alexei Ratmansky, the Russian choreographer who is now the resident artist at American Ballet Theatre. In December, there was his imaginative new “Nutcracker” for American Ballet Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed by the company première of “The Bright Stream” (which he originally made for the Bolshoi in 2003). Then, we got to see his somewhat undercooked new work for the mixed repertory bill at the Metropolitan Opera House. And now, the great Mariinsky Ballet, which is in town through July 16, has brought two evening-length story ballets by Ratmansky, “Anna Karenina” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” both with music by the Russian composer Rodion Schedrin (husband of the legendary Maya Plisetskaya), both mounted by the company in the last two years. We are certainly getting a sense of this choreographer’s range and his craft, and, more importantly his approach to telling stories. It seems amazing to think that just a few seasons ago, telling stories at the ballet was begin to seem like a hopelessly outmoded idea.
Before Ratmansky’s arrival on the New York scene in 2006 to create “Russian Seasons” for New York City Ballet, story ballets—and their much-reviled language, balletic mime– seemed to be on their way out. People would snicker about the long mime sequences in “Giselle”, and dancemakers seemed at pains to avoid anything but the most abbreviated mime. ABT’s recent production of “Cinderella” by James Kudelka, which débuted in 2006, is a perfect example: a story ballet seemingly unable to tell a story. Now, Pacific Northwest has staged a new version of “Giselle,” with a greater emphasis on mime. City Ballet revived Peter Martins’ charming one-act story ballet “The Magic Flute,” which is full of secondary character roles. It seems like more and more young choreographers are willing to give the idea of telling a story, rather than creating images and patterns to music, a try. For Ratmansky, there is always a story, even when there is no obvious storyline: “Russian Seasons,” for example, is plotless, and yet it evokes a whole range of stories and situations, encompassing the many hues and moods of daily life, and even an intimation of death. Death is everywhere in Ratmansky’s ballets—the grim reaper even shows up for a spin in “The Bright Stream”. It may be one of the reasons why they generally have such a profound inner life.
In addition to “Anna Karenina” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” the Mariinsky will be performing a mixed bill, consisting of Balanchine’s luminous “Symphony in C” (with music by Bizet), and Alberto Alonso’s “Carmen Suite,” orchestrated with themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” by Schedrin. In other words this tour, led by the Mariinsky’s musical director, Valery Gergiev, is as much about the music of Schedrin as it is about the company’s famed ballerinas. The first performances of the week were devoted to alternating performances of Tolstoy’s love story and the Russian fairytale. “Anna Karenina” (which Ratmansky set on the Mariinsky in 2010, based on an earlier version he had created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2004) and “The Little Humpbacked Horse” (from 2009) could not be more different from each other, despite the fact that they share a composer and a choreographer. One is comic, the other tragic, one is full of fantastical beings, the other focuses on very human weaknesses. Even so, they share a few underlying elements which point to Ratmansky’s strengths as a storyteller and choreographer, and perhaps also to a few of his weaknesses, like a certain penchant for choreographic busy-ness that can detract from the emotional line of a scene. One of the two—“The Little Humpbacked Horse”–is a far superior work: whimsical, lively, exploding with ideas, deeply humane, and filled with love for Russian folklore its fantastical cast of characters: of firebirds, foolish/wise boys (Ivan reminded me ever so much of the character from “Peter and the Wolf”), gypsies, wet-nurses (remember “Petrouchka”?) and irascible tsars. The other work, “Anna Karenina” is a noble failure, straight-jacketed by a formless score (originally composed as film music) and an over-simplified concept (by Marin Tulinius) that strips away too much of the novel’s underlying themes. Perhaps (surely) “Anna Karenina” is far too complex to be made into a ballet. Gone (or reduced to almost nothing) are the parallel love story of Kitty and Levin, the contrast between urban life and the life of the land, the themes of jealousy and religion. This may be inevitable, but it has the unfortunate effect of reducing this rich, complex novel into the story of an ill-fated love affair, perilously close to “Lady of the Camellias.” Here, consumption (a malady of the French) is replaced by the magnificent power of trains (a much more Russian concept).
On the subject of trains, one of the attractions of this production is a gorgeous train car (designed, like the costumes by Michael Mel bye) that travels in an arc around the stage, so that we get to see it from the outside—with its steamed-up windows illuminated—as well as from the inside, as passengers sleep, read, and converse onboard. Trains are indeed a leitmotiv in Tolstoy’s novel, and this, at least, has not been lost, though the first train-related disaster, the death of a rail worker in the opening scene, does not carry the weight it should. The accident is later replayed in Vronsky’s dream, an eerie introduction to Anna’s breathless arrival at his quarters for their first tryst. The final scene of the ballet, in which the distraught Anna throws herself in front of an oncoming train, is truly chilling; in the middle of a thrashing solo, she begins to walk slowly, steadily, forward, closer and closer. We see the light of the train behind her. She turns around and is engulfed by the smoke of the train, as the light becomes brighter and brighter. I’ll not soon forget Ulyana Lopatkina’s or Ekaterina Kondaurova’s eyes (on July 13 and 14) as they walked inexorably forward, so close one could almost touch them.
There were other moments that came alive—especially the scene at the races, in which much of the action takes place beyond a wall of bodies, a typical Ratmansky effect—but for the most part, the ballet proceeds without distinction from Anna and Vronsky’s first meeting at the station to the end of the affair. Worse, there’s too much repetition: we get two fights between the lovers, and two desperate solos for Anna toward the end. They begin to blend together. This has a lot to do with the music—which, having been written for the movies, is more like aural wallpaper than a framework for the action—and with the stripping away of subplots, which leaves the central characters overly isolated from the people around them.
Both of the ballerinas I saw in the role Anna (Lopatkina and Kondaurova) were perfect exemplars of the Mariinsky style: elegant, refined, technically powerful, willowy, long-armed beauties. Lopatkina, the more senior of the two, is an “Honored Artist of Russia” and “People’s Artist of Russia”; she is regal and poised to the point of remoteness. Her icy demeanor seems at odds with the warm, turbulent nature of Anna, and she has a particular quality which makes it look like she is always dancing alone, even in a pas de deux. Her lines are exquisite, especially her arms and hands, which seem suspended in space, completely weightless, growing and expanding into the air around her. But there is nothing touching about her. Kondaurova was more human, warmer, more vulnerable, but also less clean in her dancing, especially as the choreography grew more desperate. Neither had an especially strong rapport with her partner. Lopatkina’s Vronsky was danced by Yuri Smekalov, a former Eifman dancer and a divo in his own right. He smouldered and leaped with gusto, every inch the passionate but callow lothario. Kondaurova danced with Andrei Yermakov, who is quite young, and seemed at times a little bit strained by the partnering. He acquitted himself well in Vronksy’s solos, which have a lot of turns with one beautifully tapered leg extended to the side, but he didn’t radiate much personality. It must be said that in this ballet, Vronsky is a bit of a non-entity.
Oddly enough, it is in the small details that this ballet escapes its almost formulaic quality. Things that stayed with me: Anna’s touching relationship with her son, in various scenes. (Both boys I saw, Roman Surkov and Timur Dunaev, were excellent actors, at such a young age.) The presence of a beggar in every tableau, as a reminder of the other side of Russian life while the aristocrats dance and go to the races. The Tsar’s ceremonial behavior at the races, which was straight out of Russian newsreels. And most of all, the doddering devotion of the Karenin’s elderly servant, Kapitonych, who seems to weep every time he sees Anna; and at one point, he even put his cheek on her hand. This almost brought tears to my eyes. The role of the servant was played, brilliantly, by Vladimir Ponomarev, who has been with the Mariinsky since the sixties.
Ponomarev was also memorable in the cartoonish role of the father in “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” a ballet that ranks among Ratmansky’s best, along with “The Bright Stream” and “Russian Seasons.” What makes it so good? It shares with these ballets a kind of generosity of spirit, a capacity for inclusion that leaves the viewer with the impression of experiencing a whole world within a ballet. The ballet is based on a Russian folk tale filled with magic and adventure. The hero, young Ivan, sets out to catch the person or animal who is destroying his father’s crops, and instead ends up traveling, with his faithful friend (the humpbacked horse) to the end of the earth, where the firebirds live, to find a princess and bring her back to the tsar. Later he is sent on yet another voyage, to the bottom of the sea, to find a jewel for the princess’s wedding ring. In a final coup, with the help of the magic horse he survives a vat of boiling water and is transformed into a handsome prince. The tsar is not so lucky, and dies a painful death, boiled alive. Order is restored, and Ivan marries the princess and everyone is happy again.
The story may sound silly, but it has the cruel logic of fairytales, in which a man can be boiled to death—quite graphically I might add—simply because he is no longer useful. The Tsar is old and the people need a new prince. As the synopsis says, “life is hard without a Tsar, they need a new one!” Life is cruel. What is so liberating about this structure is that it is built out of vignettes and tableaux: a gypsy dance, an underwater scene, the dance of the firebirds. Ratmansky is able to give free reign to his imagination, and focus on the details of each dance, without having to worry too much about an arc. In the raucous gypsy scene, the women do a percussive zapateo and a temptress becomes embroiled in scene of jealousy between two lovers. The mermaids and mermen who live beneath the waves –men and women wear the same costumes, with long, flowing, diaphanous skirts—sway and flutter, their chests undulating in the currents, their fingers trembling like fins. In another irresistible scene, a group of exquisitely beautiful, motherly wet-nurses perform lyrical Russian dance, arm in arm, tilting their heads from side to side like the maidens in Fokine’s “Firebird.” Then, they proceed to feed the elderly but child-like Tsar (played with amazing wit by Andrei Ivanov) his dinner, one bite at a time, distracting him with little ruses, tickling him, and reading to him until he falls asleep.
The solos for Ivan, the Humpbacked Horse, and the princess were also wonderfully textured. The magic horse, played by Vasily Tkachenko at the performance I saw (on July 13), was playful, goofy, and touchingly ungainly. Yevgenia Obraztsova, as the princess, danced a wonderful solo in which she exuded sheer boredom: she dangled her arms, caressed her braid, and went around the stage doing little jumps in which she tucked both feet under her as if trying desperately to find something, anything, to amuse herself. Ivan’s dances were tossed off with insouciant ease by Vladimir Shklyarov, a charmer if there ever was one. The role is intensely virtuosic—a series of eight tours en l’air comes to mind—but is delivered as if it were nothing, just the high jinks of an excitable boy. In a typical moment, when he meets the princess, he bows deeply—down to the floor—but then immediately pulls her braid. Nonplussed, she yanks it back. It’s nice to see this elegant, stylish company perform with such a relaxed, casual attitude.
Here, Schedrin’s music worked beautifully. From the evidence of these two ballets, he is not a particularly original composer, but is able to work very effectively in the styles of others. This score, which dates from 1960, is full of echoes of Prokofiev’s “Prodigal Son,” “On the Dnieper,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” with some Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Copeland thrown in. Each dance has a clear shape, energy, color, and danceable rhythms. It may not stick with you when you leave the theatre, but it works, admirably well. And god, how this orchestra plays. May it be a lesson to every mediocre ballet orchestra that crosses our stages! Under Gergiev’s baton, in particular, the sounds coming from the pit were resonant and full; they made you sit up in your seat and pay attention. With playing like this, the dancing is twice as alive. I must say, I’m looking forward to hearing them play Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C major tonight (July 15).
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