This year marks the tenth anniversary of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s association with American Ballet Theatre. As the company’s artist in residence, the Russian born MacArthur Fellow has created 16 ballets for the company. Guided by his deep appreciation for music and by an absorbing interest in ballet history, Ratmansky’s ballets run a broad stylistic gamut, from the Shostakovich Trilogy’s flirtation with the Soviet era, to the intimate Seven Sonatas, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s Chopin ballets, his pop-surrealist confection Whipped Cream, and the florid folklorisms of The Golden Cockerel. Such breadth alone makes Ratmansky a natural fit for ABT, whose founders envisioned the company as a living museum of dance, “a system which can comprehend the collection and display of masterpieces of all times, places, and creators.”
Eight of Ratmansky’s ballets for ABT enjoy historical precedents: a score, a libretto, written notations. His Facebook feed is the Library of Alexandria of rare archival ballet photographs. Yet history is also a point of departure for this choreographer, whose own personal creations delight with their sense of warm humanity and thoughtful complexity, such as in Serenade after Plato’s Symposium or Souvenir d’un lieu cher. More than any other choreographer working today, Ratmansky is transforming ballet’s past into ballet’s future. In the process, he is also changing the face of ABT.
Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie notes that when the opportunity to hire Ratmansky presented itself roughly a decade ago, he was grappling with how to balance out ABT’s history with the need to move forward. “Everyone was asking the question, where do you see ballet going?” he says. Ratmansky proposed the ballet On the Dnieper (reprised this season), a one–act with music by Prokofiev that originally premiered at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1932. He opted to restore the libretto, discarded by choreographer Serge Lifar, in which a soldier on leave comes home to find he no longer loves his betrothed.
McKenzie recalls that it was Ratmansky’s manner of describing the story that convinced him on the spot, before a single step had been choreographed, that he had made the right choice in hiring him. “I thought, my God, he’s describing a Tudor ballet,” he explains. (Choreographer Antony Tudor, whose work with ABT from its beginnings in the 1940s through the late 1970s forms part of the Company’s DNA, was known for creating meticulously crafted character studies out of gesture and movement.) McKenzie notes that Ratmansky shares with Tudor an emphasis on detail, a sense that “you didn’t just put your hand out; you are extending your hand out with a finger in a particular position that said something very different than if that finger were in a different position.” McKenzie knew at that point that Ratmansky would “put a mark on the dancers’ ability to be literally Ballet Theatre dancers.”
Ratmansky says that the trust McKenzie gave him from the beginning has been crucial. “I don’t take it for granted, that there is someone who, despite the successful works or unsuccessful works, trusts you and believes in you.” At ABT, Ratmansky has the freedom to take risks, as with his ongoing project of reconstructing late-19th-century classical ballets of the imperial Russian era. He and his wife, Tatiana, spent months at the Harvard Library learning to decode the written notations of these works housed in the University’s Theatre Collection. In 2015, a new, historically informed version of The Sleeping Beauty resulted for ABT. For ballet fans, this was the equivalent of discovering a lost alternative version of Beethoven’s Ninth. Formerly familiar dance phrases now beguiled with softer contours and limpid, finely detailed footwork, revealing afresh the textures of Tchaikovsky’s score. Ratmansky’s restoration of pantomime scenes lent additional coherence and charm to the story, as when the wicked fairy Carabosse appears as an invited guest at Princess Aurora’s wedding. Ratmansky has continued his reconstruction work internationally, staging such canonical works as Swan Lake, La Bayadère, and Paquita from notations; the witty, radiant Harlequinade (2018) is his most recent Petipa renovation for ABT.
But the reconstructions are not dry historical curiosities to be put under glass and forgotten. They directly inform Ratmansky’s own choreography. Ratmansky describes The Seasons, his new ballet for ABT this spring, set to Alexander Glazunov’s score, as “an exploration of if I can apply the rules and the tools that I’ve discovered during my reconstruction project with today’s technique for ballet.” A typical Ratmansky dance phrase requires a fully integrated use of the body and special attention to the phrasing or dynamics of each step. His ability to see the many expressive nuances of movement in turn demands an extraordinary level of focus from the dancers. McKenzie observes, “Part of his genius is that the more he sees, the more he sees. So as a performer, the more you show him, the more you have to show him.” Ratmansky views part of his role as Artist in Residence as nurturing talent: “That’s an extraordinary feeling, that you can contribute to the growth of the dancers.” With ten years at ABT, Ratmansky is helping to shape a new generation of performers. Corps de ballet member Tyler Maloney, who as a student at the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School premiered the role of the Nutcracker Boy in Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker, recalls how he and Soloist Catherine Hurlin—then also a student at the school—spent two months with Ratmansky creating their dramatic scene before the Snowflakes’ waltz. “He was so meticulous on how he wanted something done, on how we brought ourselves as individuals,” Maloney says. Maloney recently premiered the role of Harlequin in Ratmansky’s Harlequinade in Orange County, California, for which Ratmansky coached him personally. “I’m so grateful to him because he’s been the fire pushing me since I joined [ABT],” Maloney says.
McKenzie concludes that ultimately, Ratmansky “has turned the perception that Ballet Theatre is a producing company of great works that everybody else does, to a creative company of original work.” What is next for ABT’s artist in residence? Ratmansky offers that he is working his way through a list of Russian music. “It’s very much a part of my upbringing. Not just understanding the development of Russian music in my head, but the feel of it in my body, so to speak.” This is in keeping with a broader thematic trend in Ratmansky’s work centering on explorations of Russian, Ukranian, and Soviet culture, as with his Songs of Bukovina, set to Ukranian folk songs by contemporary composer Leonid Desyatnikov, or his Shostakovich ballets for ABT, The Bright Stream (originally a 1935 Soviet socialist realist ballet reprised by Ratmansky first for the Bolshoi in 2005), and the three ballets comprising the masterful Shostakovich Trilogy: Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto #1.
In 1967, dance critic Arlene Croce famously declared that every ballet she had seen to Shostakovich had been bad. Yet Ratmansky seems to have been inspired by what others found perplexing: the zany shifts of mood, the flashing hints of irony. We can only imagine which composer, which score, which genre of ballet Ratmansky will allow us to see with fresh eyes next.
Carrie Gaiser Casey PhD is a dance historian and former dancer who writes about ballet.