The Bright Stream: A Dancing Collective

Classic Arts Features   The Bright Stream: A Dancing Collective
 
It is difficult to understand how a ballet as lighthearted as The BrightStream could have such a fraught past life. The ballet premiered in Leningrad in 1935 to great acclaim, after which it was viciouslyattacked by Stalin and in the official newspaper Pravda. What was the crime?


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Because of this, it quickly closed and was lost to the dusty recesses of ballet history, along with countless other ideologically unacceptable works, until Alexei Ratmansky revived it and re-choreographed it for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003. Dmitri Shostakovich, who composed the delightful music to which it is set, was sternly admonished by the official critics; this, his third ballet, would be his last. The choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov, was denounced, and temporarily lost his job; and two years later, the man who had helped to write the libretto was arrested and sent to a gulag.

What was their crime? "Balletic falsehood," according to Pravda; in other words, this was not a realistic depiction of the life of Soviet peasants, but a mockery, a trivialization of the ideals of the Revolution. In a way, they were right. The Bright Stream, which is set during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Caucasus and has a cast of characters that includes milkmaids, dancers in drag, a tractor driver, and a doddering "inspector of quality," is not meant to be taken too seriously. The ostensible "message" of the ballet is the enthusiasm of "the people" for the birth of a productive new society in which decadent behavior (i.e. infidelity) is scorned. But despite the hammer and sickle that appear above the stage it is quite obvious from the beginning that such elevated ideals are merely the pretext for a funny story about romantic goings-on on a farm in late summer when a troupe of attractive ballet dancers comes to perform at the harvest festival. The result is a romantic farce worthy of Marivaux, with secret rendezvous, mistaken identities, and a dancer who disguises himself as a dog in order to defend a virtuous young schoolgirl. As Roman Zhurbin: a dancer in ABT's corps de ballet who plays the role of the farm's "inspector of quality" with a special flair: says, laughing, "there's really no dark side."

So, what drew Ratmansky to this cheery, almost frivolous tale? First of all, as he argues, though the plot may be slight, it is also well-constructed, compact, and full of fun, a "classic vaudeville" with myriad subplots and diversions that lead to a tidy, joyous finale. But even more, there is the music. The choreographer describes it as "one of the most danceable, lovely scores ever written." From the opening bars of its propulsive overture: a rip-roaring crescendo that brings to mind newsreels from the period and images of machines working at full tilt: it delights with its energy, wit, and a kind of infectious joie de vivre. But as always with Shostakovich, this most tormented of composers, there is an edge: Does he really believe in what his own music is saying? Stalin was right to be uneasy. As Ratmansky notes, "with Shostakovich, there is always something hidden underneath the surface."

It is precisely this ambiguity, this energy undercut by an insidious vein of irony (and a little sadness), that Ratmansky responds to. His recent ballet for New York City Ballet, Concerto DSCH, set to Shostakovich's upbeat second piano concerto, has the same mix of heroics and heartbreak, but without the plot. Ratmansky has a decided affinity with the composer: his first attempts at choreography were set to his music, and during his tenure as director of the Bolshoi (2004-2009), he created a new staging of Shostakovich's second ballet, Bolt, and revived the first, The Golden Age, with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich. But the prime example of his assimilation of the tension underlying Shostakovich's music is The Bright Stream. The situations and characters are played for laughs: especially in the second act cross-dressing scenes: but there is a fundamental humanity that is never far below the surface. Take the bumbling "dacha dwellers," two comic characters who spend most of the ballet trying to arrange illicit trysts with the visiting artists: they are ridiculous, but touching too. This quality is highlighted by placing the female dacha dweller en pointe, where she totters awkwardly. And then there is Zina, the heroine; her suffering at her husband's neglect is the ballet's anchor. The real heart of the story is this: we all deserve to be loved. As Ratmansky says: "It's a serious lesson, the moral of it, the husband who does not appreciate his wife. He looks around, but she's the real treasure." Maybe it's not so silly after all.

This interest in communicating real, human emotion comes through in the many mimed sequences, which are as detailed and elaborate as spoken dialogue. Every character, no matter how small, is carefully calibrated, and the dancers are encouraged to discover their own nuances of interpretation and to feed off of each other. As Isabella Boylston, one of the dancers performing the role of the high-flying Ballerina, points out: "Alexei [Ratmansky] is very specific and he has a lot to say. He wants it to be as real as possible, and he encourages you to draw from your own experiences or imagine what it would feel like in real life." He also pushes them to dance on a heroic scale, to dig into their plies and use their backs and shoulders and launch themselves into their jumps with explosive force. There is no holding back: "The movement is very full," Zhurbin says, "he wants that fire." As a result, not only do the characters come alive, both in their characterization and their dancing, but the dancers' own personalities shine through, making each cast unique. But there is something more. The story is the same, but the accent is different. The combined efforts of the dancers create the sense of a unified community working toward a common goal, much like the characters they depict in The Bright Stream. They are a dancing collective, stepping boldly into the future, and they seem to be enjoying themselves.

* Marina Harss writes about dance for "Goings On About Town" and The Faster Times.

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