High Jinks at the Ballet: “The Bright Stream” Returns to A.B.T.
The ballet season in New York is in full swing; at this point, there is no hope of keeping up with the many dance options around town. New York City Ballet, usually the last bastion of abstract ballets–no plot, just dance–is throwing down the gauntlet to the more theatrically-inclined American Ballet Theatre by putting on a few storybook evenings of its own. Last week it was “Double Feature,” an homage to silent films by the Broadway veteran Susan Stroman. (Next week, the company brings back Balanchine’s magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” just weeks before A.B.T. presents Frederick Ashton’s equally delightful version of the play, “The Dream.”)
Unfortunately “Double Feature,” though competently made–almost astonishingly so, in fact—is not half the fun it should be, despite the jazzy music (the first section is set to orchestrations of Irving Berlin songs, the second to Walter Donaldson tunes). The stories–a melodrama followed by a caper– are so dutifully told, so oversimplified, that they feel as if they had been made for people with no patience for complexity. You cannot fail to follow the action, but the plots are so generic that there is no feeling of suspense or surprise or joy. Worse yet, the actual dancing–of which there is not that much–has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on. The dances are simply pleasant interruptions in the storytelling, meant to show off how good the dancers are. And they are very, very good. The cast I saw–Maria Kowroski, little Callie Reiff from the School of American Ballet, Ashley Bouder, Joaquin de Luz, and Tiler Peck, to name just a few–all performed with admirable conviction. (The steps, they could dance in their sleep.) Megan Fairchild, as the simpleminded stepsister in the tearjerker (“The Blue Necklace”) pretty much stole the show with her pie-eyed antics and dangling arms. She’s a remarkable comedienne, that one.
Lack of specificity is not a criticism one can make of “The Bright Stream,” over at American Ballet Theatre. Of course, Alexei Ratmansky, the choreographer, didn’t have to come up with the story. That was done for him in 1935 by Adrian Ivanovich Piotrovsky, the Soviet ballet dramaturge who created the ballet with Fyodor Lopukhov (choreographer) and Dmitri Shostakovich (composer) for the Maly Theatre in Leningrad. “The Bright Stream” is essentially a farce masking as Socialist Realist art, which is perhaps why Stalin didn’t like it and had it banned from the stage. After this, the ballet was lost until Ratmansky decided to create his own version, in 2004, for the Bolshoi. (You can read more about this here: http://www.playbillarts.com/features/article/8573.html) But the level of detail, the dexterity with which Ratmansky weaves stories into stories and creates movement that seems to effortlessly reflect and illustrate each situation, is all his own. The result is a ballet that is both delightful and humane, and a veritable fountain of ideas. The dancers, in turn, take to it with enthusiasm. Each time I’ve seen it performed, the whole company looks energized, or, as my neighbor said to me last night: happy.
This is true from the very first moment, when the heroine–Zina, a former ballet student who works on a collective farm in the Caucasus–appears onstage, reading a book, whiling away the afternoon. (On May 29, the role of Zina was danced, touchingly and limpidly, by Paloma Herrera.) The first dance is simply this: a woman lost in her book, her reverie accompanied by a quiet clarinet melody. As she holds the tome before her, she wanders around the stage, bourrées backward pensively, and does a languid arabesque, then lies down on the ground and kicks her feet behind her distractedly. Ratmansky establishes that she is an intelligent woman, a reader, and a bit of a dreamer. We can feel her thinking. Then, Ratmansky introduces a second character, her handsome husband Pyotr (Marcelo Gomes), who teases her and tries to pull the book away so he can kiss her. Again, with a few strokes we know just who he is: roguish, not too bright, a charmer. But an element of conflict has crept in: they’re mismatched, but she loves him. (Out of this conflict flows the rest of the plot, which is basically a story of frustrated betrayal.) Soon after, a pair of performers (Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg) arrive by train from the big city to entertain the farm-workers during their harvest festival. It turns out that one of them, the Ballerina (un-named), is an old friend of Zina’s from ballet-school days. The two have a little conversation in mime. What is remarkable is that one can practically hear them talking: “Do you live here?” “Are you married?” “Do you have kids?” “What do you do?” “I’m a dancer!” Ratmansky has a way with mime; the dialogue is absolutely clear, and feels natural, un-emphatic, as if people always spoke this way. The two women dance together, remembering old classroom exercises, repeating them one after the other. Their bodies are in sync, a perfect metaphor for their friendship. (Murphy and Herrera were well-matched in this cast; they are both beautiful women, un-mannered dancers, strong technicians.) The professional Ballerina corrects Zina’s posture and the position of her foot as she does a series of fouetté turns, that well-known test of technical skill. (This is the first of many affectionate ballet in-jokes). It’s a clever way to sneak in some virtuoso steps, sure, but it succeeds on every level; Herrera’s turns are flawless and beautiful, and at the same the usual declarative emphasis–here come the turns!–has been cheerfully dispensed with.
And so it goes. The ballet is chock-a-block with such funny, imaginative moments: a mock battle, set to rollicking percussion, is like something out of a Soviet newsreel. And then–pow!–the Ballerina flies in from the wings in a series of rocket-like grand jetés. She’s been transformed into a Soviet she-woman, hands clasped into heroic fists. (Gillian Murphy’s jumps caused general admiration, with good reason.) Later, a randy accordionist performs a Rudolph Valentino-like seduction dance, the better to entice a young schoolgirl into his arms. (Craig Salstein was born to dance this role; his sexy syncopations and hammy expressions have finally found their perfect outlet. And Maria Riccetto, usually so prim and careful, transformed herself into a mischievous, giggling schoolgirl.) Later, after a duel (faked), the Grim Reaper appears, with his scythe, and joins the fun.
And then there is the cross-dressing. In the second act, as part of a harebrained scheme meant to teach all philanderers a lesson (including Zina’s husband, who lusts after the Ballerina), Murphy and Hallberg trade places. She dances a vigorous male solo in trousers, and he cavorts in a Sylph costume, doing dainty jumps, skipping about, and balancing in arabesque on pointe like a pro. Again, it’s the specificity that makes it funny; Ratmansky is poking fun at both the languorous poses of the ladies in Fokine’s “Les Sylphides” and the drama of the nineteenth-century ballet “La Sylphide.” In the latter, a fairy sees her beloved’s wedding ring and steals it. Here, instead, the ring reveals her swain’s duplicity–what? he’s already married!–and inspires a melodramatic bout of fainting. The whole scene is inevitably funny–Hallberg, who is six foot two, looks just enormous in his diaphanous white tutu–and also technically challenging, with pirouettes on pointe, jumps small and large, and awkward partnering.
But what I find most striking in “The Bright Stream,” despite the vaudevillian artifice, is its underlying warmth and humanity. Zina suffers, and her friends rally around her. The Ballerina, nominally her rival, becomes instead her greatest ally in teaching Pyotr the lesson he deserves. There is solidarity and friendship between the characters, not qualities one often sees at the ballet. And the women are interesting. During the climactic pas de deux for Zina and her husband, Ratmansky gives Zina steps that express an enormous range of emotion: anger, disappointment, love, and courage. Zina is by far the most interesting character in the ballet–when Pyotr apologizes to her in the final scene, it matters, even though we know that in no time he’ll be chasing after the next pretty girl that comes along.
American Ballet Theatre has a winner on its hands.
“The Bright Stream” continues through June 2, and ABT will perform at the Metropolitan Opera House through July 7.
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