Photo Credit Johan Molenaar
Alexei Ratmansky, one of the greatest living ballet choreographers, is leaving the American Ballet Theater after 13 years as its artist in residence. Graham Watts interviewed the well-known choreographer in London during a brief stopover in his travels between Europe and North America.
The first part of the interview concentrates on his early life, his career as a dancer, beginnings as a choreographer and his sense of belonging. This second part concentrates on his career as a world-leading choreographer.
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Recognition! Alexei was only 30 when he won his first Golden Mask Award for his ballet Dreams of Japan
Alexei was only 30 – and still a dancer – when he won his first Golden Mask Award for his ballet Dreams of Japan, which he made, alongside another work (Charms of Mannerism), for Nina Ananiashvili in Georgia, in 1998. It was a big breakthrough at a comparatively young age. “Actually, it was Nina’s invitation that was the breakthrough, rather than the award,” he explained. “She wasn’t from my circle. I didn’t know her before. Nina had seen my work in a gala and after the performance she came backstage and invited me to choreograph a ballet for her. Because of her fame, these ballets were noticed and they were successful. The Bolshoi went on tour to St Petersburg and even though these ballets were not part of their rep, they included it in the programme, which was quite amazing. And that’s how the Mariinsky (then still the Kirov Ballet) saw it and they then invited me to choreograph for a triple bill.”
This was quickly followed by his first three-act ballet, Cinderella, made for the Kirov in 2002 and the invitation to reinvent The Bright Stream for the Bolshoi (2003). Throughout this time, Alexei was continuing his career as a dancer. “That was difficult,” he recalled, “because when choreographing full length ballets, it’s almost impossible to do anything else because all your concentration is taken up with creation and rehearsals. In my last year as a dancer at Royal Danish Ballet I only participated in two programmes over the whole season so I realized that I had to stop dancing if I wanted to continue to choreograph.”
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Bolshoi Directorship! I spent a lot of time examining Soviet propaganda of the past era, and I thought of it as a thing of the past
Alexei’s career went beyond choreography very quickly because after the success of The Bright Stream, and aged just 36, he was invited to become director of the Bolshoi. I asked him if his feelings were of fear or excitement in taking up the post and – after a lengthy pause – he replied: “I’m struggling to bring my mind back to those times. I just don’t want to talk about it. It’s like The Bright Stream – I don’t know if I want to see this ballet again! I don’t know if it will ever be performed again. When I made The Bright Stream I spent a lot of time examining Soviet propaganda of that era (the original ballet was choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov in 1935) and I thought of it as a thing of the past but what happened in February tells us that this propaganda style is still very much alive and taking the minds of the Russian people.” Alexei deflects any further questions about his life and work in Russia. “To be able to function now, I have to shut out this side of my history. One day I might be able to glue together my identity again and come to peace with that Russian part of my life.”
His comment about whether The Bright Stream would ever be performed again proved portentous since very soon after our chat came the news that Alexei’s name had been removed as the choreographer of ballets in the repertoires of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies. “It hurts but it didn’t come as a surprise,” he told The Washington Post soon after his name was cancelled from the Russian company websites.
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America! After leaving the Bolshoi in 2008, Alexei was invited to join New York City Ballet (NYCB) by Peter Martens
After leaving the Bolshoi in 2008, Alexei was invited to join New York City Ballet (NYCB) by Peter Martens but the logistics didn’t work out and the offer was withdrawn. But, Alexei’s disappointment didn’t last for long. “The day after the conversation with Peter, the Hand of Fate intervened and I got a call from Kevin McKenzie inviting me to join American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as a choreographer and I gladly accepted.”
A short while after our interview – in late December – Alexei announced that he will be leaving ABT in June 2023 but nonetheless this has proved to be his longest-lasting role, partly because Alexei has had the freedom to make ballets elsewhere (such as Romeo and Juliet in Canada and Paquita in Munich). It seems clear that he prefers the opportunity to pick and chose where to make work rather than be limited to just one company, which one suspects was the show-stopping issue with NYCB. “Kevin has been wonderfully supportive and it is important to have the base, to have the dancers that you know and he also gave me the freedom. It’s a luxury to both have a home and the freedom to go to other places. I feel that I learn from the dancers that I work with and I’m always excited to work with any new company because every company has its own style and way of working and you discover new things that you can use.”
He also loves to revisit work. “I’m happy to restage ballets that I have done before, changing little things, adjusting it for the new company. That is a fun process. There are some ballets that I will always change if I have a chance and there are other ballets that I will leave well alone.”
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Globetrotting! I saw a beautiful church in Melbourne and opened the door and there was the Ukrainian flag
At the time of our interview, Alexei had been in San Francisco, Munich, Dresden, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, The Hague, Amsterdam, Madrid, Seattle and London in recent months. I asked if he had encountered the same anger against the Russian invasion in all these places. “It was very strong in the first couple of months and then it has faded,” he responded. “I saw a beautiful church in Melbourne and opened the door and there was the Ukrainian flag. That’s very touching. I’m afraid that the war is going to continue and so I do feel that it is important for us to keep pointing attention to the horror of what is going on. The news agenda is switching to something else after all these months but the horrible reality is not going away. The more support Ukraine gets and the more arms that it receives the better the chances are that it will win.”
He is also concerned about the impact on Ukrainian culture. “Another thing that worries me greatly is that the majority of ballet students have left Ukraine and they are studying somewhere else now and it is possible that they won’t come back. And I am sure that this is the same in all forms of the arts and sciences. It means that when peace comes we will need to build all over again from scratch.”
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Reconstruction through Notation! The first time I worked with the notations was in 2008. I realised how much better the notated choreography is
After focusing on reigniting ballets from the Soviet era (The Bright Stream, The Bolt and Flames of Paris), Alexei has moved on to reconstruct several nineteenth-century ballets, including Paquita (2014), The Sleeping Beauty (2015) and Giselle (2019). I asked about what drives him to reconstruct these ballets and whether reconstruction is the right term.“It is reconstructing the notations because the steps are written down,” he replied. “The choreography of these ballets was notated during Petipa’s lifetime in the Stepanov system of notation, carried out by Nikolai Sergeyev and his team. There are thousands of pages of notations. I wouldn’t dare to call it the original choreography because we simply don’t know. But, it’s the closest we can get to the original choreography. To reconstruct these steps you also need many other materials such as production books, reviews and images. You also need to check all later productions, particularly British and Russian, and also Cuban and at ABT; any of the places where émigré Russians worked. You need to track the traces of original choreography and compare it to the notations. It’s an absolutely fascinating process.”
“The first time I worked with the notations was in 2008,” he continued, “when Yuri Burlaka and I did Le Corsaire at the Bolshoi. I realised how much better the notated choreography is; how much more logical, musical and interesting it is. What we see today, most of the time, is the product of many dancers’ choreography because there are skills that dancers want to show off and they change things – they want to leave the leg higher and do a split and then when they do a double tour en l’air they need to rest a little bit before the next step so they cut something out. I can give many, many examples of these kinds of changes, which lose the original logic and musicality. So, I was not satisfied – I didn’t believe that it was any longer Petipa’s or Ivanov’s choreography. And the notations gave me the answer. I understood why this step is there and how it uses a particular musical accent. I believe in the notations and the original choreography and I’m going to continue working at this. It is a matter of professional pride to restore the original steps and it gives me so much food for thought. I use the steps that I find in the notations in my own choreography. In all honesty my vocabulary has been extended because of these studies.”
After seeing Alexei’s Romeo and Juliet by the National Ballet of Canada, the veteran dance critic, Alastair Macaulay wrote that Alexei is ‘the most gifted choreographer specializing in classical ballet today’. I asked Alexei if it was a big responsibility to pass on classical ballet in a better state than he found it. “I do feel a certain responsibility for introducing this newly-found logic of taking classical ballets closer to their original state with proof on paper through notations and I do hope that the audience and the dancers like it and they feel what I feel. Because I believe that the changes that have been made over the years has been a huge disservice to Petipa’s choreographies. The extreme splits and the adding of endless pirouettes and cutting choreography for transitions is not great. We are seeing a collective choreography that is now more like circus. We are not seeing the work of the masters and it needs to be cleaned.”
Russian Culture! Tchaikovsky or Chekhov have nothing to do with Putin. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that Swan Lake was used as a political tool for Russia
Given this predilection for restoring Russian classical ballet, I asked Alexei if he felt that Putin’s war would lead to a backlash against Russian Culture.“This is not an easy question,” was his immediate response. “My first reaction is that Russia is successfully cancelling its own culture in its own country. So many artists who are against the war have been cancelled. They’re not allowed to perform. They have just disappeared from cultural life in Russia. Of course, it’s not something new to Russia because many important Soviet artists were killed, imprisoned or exiled because of the regime. And unfortunately it is coming back. As for the acceptance of Russian culture in the west, well on the one hand, Tchaikovsky or Chekhov have nothing to do with Putin. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that Swan Lake was used as a political tool for Russia. It’s very difficult and it needs discussion and an exchange of opinions but I don’t see how Russian repertory can be seen in Ukraine for some time to come.”
About the author:
Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He has written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and contributed chapters about the work of Akram Khan to the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet and on Shobana Jeyasingh for the third edition of Routledge’s Fifty Contemporary Choreographers. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics’ Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance, The Place and for Balletristic in Kyiv. He was nominated for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.