Letters from London by Graham Watts! The making of a choreographer. The renowned and lauded choreographer Alexei Ratmansky

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

by Graham Watts
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Credit Photo: Johan Molenaar 

Alexei Ratmansky has been a tireless and outspoken opponent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He adapted his production of Giselle – initially and ironically created on the Bolshoi, in 2019 – for the United Ukrainian Ballet, a scratch company of some 70 refugee dancers from all over Ukraine, now based in The Hague; and he choreographed Wartime Elegy for Pacific Northwest Ballet as a direct response to the invasion.

Created on the music of Ukrainian composer, Valentin Silvestrov with projections of art by Ukrainian painters (Matvei Vaisberg and Maria Prymachenko), it was described by the Seattle Times as a ‘love letter to the Ukrainian people.’  The Ukrainian flag has never been far from Alexei’s hands during recent months and I opened our conversation by paying tribute to his outstanding leadership in standing with Ukraine and Ukrainian people.

This first part of the interview concentrates on his early life, his career as a dancer, beginnings as a choreographer and his sense of belonging.  Inevitably, we also spoke about the war in Ukraine and his outspoken criticisms of the Russian aggression. The second part of the interview, that will be focused on his career as a world-leading choreographer,
will be published soon. Stay tuned!

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Alexei Ratmansky’s early years. Alexei began by explaining why he is so proudly Ukrainian

“My mum is from St Petersburg and she travelled back there to give birth to both my sister and I but I grew up in Kyiv until I was ten, which is when I entered the Bolshoi School.” Alexei has no strong ballet roots, although his mother took ballet classes when she was young and his father was a gymnast; but Alexei was always dancing as a child.  “My parents thought that ballet was a respectful career, which would allow me to travel at a time when that was generally not possible in the Soviet system.”

It is surprising to discover that Alexei had no formal dance training before being admitted to the Bolshoi School.  “It was only a year or two after I joined the school that I started to really love ballet,” he explained. One of the first performances Alexei experienced as a student was Don Quixote with Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova.  “That was very impressive,” he recalled, adding, “not the performance itself but the audience reaction, which was wild, like half an hour of screaming and flowers being thrown from the audience”!

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Dancing in Kyiv! Alexei joined the Ukrainian National Ballet in Kyiv, where he danced for six years

After graduation, Alexei joined the Ukrainian National Ballet in Kyiv, where he danced for six years after a kickstart.    “I joined the company in the year of the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and so the beginning of my season was a bit messy because my parents insisted that I spend the summer somewhere else (Chernobyl is less than 140km from Kyiv).  I was supposed to start work on 1 August but arrived a month late!   By that time the company was on tour and a small group had remained to perform in Kyiv, which I joined.  Because so many dancers were on tour I was immediately given the peasant pas de deux in Giselle and the pas de trois in Swan Lake.  When the other dancers came back they were surprised that this new guy had taken their roles and there was a bit of tension!”

Alexei has very fond memories of those years in Kyiv.  “It is one of the most beautiful opera houses, built at the end of the nineteenth century and the Ukrainian Company has been performing there since before the Russian Revolution.  My first director was a brilliant dancer and choreographer, Valery Kovtun, who had danced with Maya Plisetskaya.  He and his wife, Tatiana Tayakina were the stars of the Kyiv Ballet.  Valery was my mentor and I danced with Tatiana.  They were a big influence on my early development as a dancer.”

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Alexei was one of the first dancers to leave Ukraine for the west

In 1992, having danced all of the principal roles in the repertoire that he wanted to perform; Alexei was one of the first dancers to leave Ukraine for the west.  “We didn’t have premieres of major new work in those days and I didn’t see any enriching new opportunities in Kyiv.   So, the only chance for me to find new rep was to move somewhere else.”     Just being able to move was a shock.  “I simply signed a contract and was allowed to go.  It was a completely different world to what we had known before.”

‘Somewhere else’ was Winnipeg, in Canada.  “The Royal Winnipeg Ballet had a genius ballerina, Evelyn Hart.  She was very special in so many ways: her musicality, intelligence and the courage of her interpretations.  Evelyn was an extraordinary artist.  In Winnipeg, I discovered for the first time a freedom to interpret in my own way on stage.  There were rules, of course, but you were free to break them.  That was a big eye-opener for me.”

The director in Winnipeg, John Meehan, gave Alexei many chances: “for the first time, I danced work by Tudor, Balanchine and Neumeier,” he explained.  “The biggest revelation for me was the Balanchine classes when people came to stage his works.   I found them absolutely fascinating.  I was heavily built with big muscles and I always wanted to elongate my lines.   The balance between very slow and very fast in the Balanchine classes allowed me to learn how to move without using my muscles all the time.  Suddenly, in just a week or two, I found the elongation that I had been seeking for years.”

After three years in Canada, Alexei returned to Kyiv.  “As soon as I arrived, people told me that my body had changed and it proved to me that Balanchine was very good for me”!   That realisation led Alexei to seek a position in New York City Ballet.  “That was the place that I wanted to dance but I auditioned twice without success.”

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In 1997, Alexei and his wife, Tatiana, left Ukraine again to join Royal Danish Ballet

“I was looking for where I could gain more knowledge and Copenhagen was a dream place for me because it had a  classical, nineteenth century tradition that was not Russian!”  I asked if he found the lightness and bounce of the Bournonville technique easy to master, especially given his heavier build.  “It was difficult,” he admitted, “but I loved the style and Tatiana and I were eager to learn it.  The biggest influence on me was the way the Royal Danish dancers acted through the use of mime.  I remember watching Giselle in the first months after we arrived and my eye was not taken by the dancing of the principals but by a pair of character artists, performing in the background as an old couple.   I couldn’t take my eyes off them because of the way they created a complete realistic world on stage with minimal opportunities.  They were not taking the spotlight but their story within a story was more interesting than anything that the principals or soloists were doing.   It was the moment that I realised that mime, if done well, could be as impressive and beautiful as any dancing.”

I asked Alexei if it bothered him that, having trained at the Bolshoi School, he never danced with the company.  “I remember being upset at my graduation when I was not invited to join the Bolshoi company since that had been my goal as a student,” he explained.  “But I soon realised that it happened for a reason and it gave me a chance to learn different dance styles and to look at my Bolshoi training from a distance.  In Canada, I had to change myself and I struggled from the beginning because it wasn’t easy.  At first I was resistant – I thought whocould teach me when I’m from the Bolshoi. I thought I knew better than them,  And then, when I was cast in the Balanchine ballets, I realised that I couldn’t do it well with my Bolshoi training.  I needed to move faster with different musicality.  And the same happened in Denmark.  I had to learn and adjust, to find a way to fit.  When I was dancing Bournonville it always felt as if it was not my first language.  I always had corrections from the Bournonville teachers – you need to play less with your hands; you need to look more relaxed; don’t force it and so on.”

“I was eager to share all the knowledge that I had gained from Canada and Denmark with the Bolshoi when I became director.  And, it wasn’t a surprise to me that the dancers were resistant because they thought – like I had done – we don’t need to learn any of that, we’re from the Bolshoi.”

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Choreographic beginnings. Alexei began to choreograph after returning to Kyiv from Canada

“In the context of my dance career, I would say that I wanted to choreograph from Day 2, not Day 1.   As a student – I was 13 or 14 when this started – when we were having lessons on musical theory or history and the teacher would play music, I would always imagine movement as I listened.  It was like I had a little TV in my head and I would have dancers doing steps and I found it to be very entertaining.  So whenever I heard music I would imagine choreography.  I then began to choreograph for my classmates in school and we did little performances although I was never encouraged and no-one paid much attention to what I was doing.   But, it didn’t matter to me because it was interesting.”

Another vivid memory was having Vladimir Malakhov by his side in class.  “I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be Malakhov.  I will never jump that high and I will never have his line.  I think that was the moment that I realised my future as a choreographer.”

In his first year in the company in Kyiv, Alexei choreographed for some of his colleagues.  “We never performed any of this work but I remember spending a lot of time in the studio with the dancers, even back then.”   This experimentation continued in Winnipeg with some workshop performances.  “That was the first time that my choreography was performed on stage with an audience and when I returned to Kyiv I choreographed a duet for Tatiana and I to perform in galas and earn some extra money.  That was my first proper choreography and I continued to make small gala pieces for us to perform.”

Alexei described to me the “storage room” in his mind that catalogues and references both the choreography he learned from others whilst dancing and his own creations.  The “room” includes the influences from his dance career and the choreographers that he came to know subsequently.  He name checks Béjart, Forsythe and Kylián alongside Balanchine and Ashton as major influences.

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Sense of Belonging. Every second Russian has family in Ukraine and vice-versa.  The connection between the countries is so tight

The American dance writer, Marina Harss, wrote about Alexei’s sense of belonging and quoted him as saying: “I was the boy from Kyiv when I studied in Moscow and when I danced in Kyiv; I was the foreigner from Moscow.”  Referring to this description, Alexei agreed that the war had intensified his sense of belonging to Ukraine.  “The first place that I didn’t feel a foreigner was New York.  It felt like it didn’t matter where you came from.  You just needed to deliver. My professional training was Russian and much of my choreography has used Russian music or Russian themes; and then 24thFebruary happened. The months since then have been a huge change for me and I probably need more time to be able to speak about it calmly.  It’s really a struggle because it is hard to understand how Russia can have committed this crime of attacking Ukraine because every second Russian has family in Ukraine and vice-versa.  The connection between the countries is so tight and, of course, the history, the religion, the language, the writing of Russia comes from Kyiv.  It is like Russia is raping its own mother.”

I asked Alexei if he could imagine going back to Russia.  “It’s hard to process that at the moment,” he replied, adding “I need to put things in perspective.  There are many things that are much worse than people no longer being able to visit Russia.  People are dying every day and that’s what matters.  It has to stop.  And then we can resolve other issues.”

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The second part of the interview, that will be focused on his career as a world-leading choreographer,  will be published soon. Stay tuned!

About Alexei Ratmansky

Ratmansky was born in St Petersburg and trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow and had a distinguished career as a dancer and choreographer prior to his time with ABT. He was principal dancer with the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet. He has also choreographed for a number of other companies, including the Bolshoi Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet, New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, La Scala Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, The Australian Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Berlin Staatsballet, Bayerische Staatsballett Munich, Ballet Semperoper Dresden, Zurich Ballet, State Ballet of Georgia, and National Ballet of Ukraine. From 2004 to 2008 he was the director of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Alexei Ratmansky, artist in residence at American Ballet Theater, was preparing a new ballet at the Bolshoi in Moscow when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made his announcement that he had launched an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. Mr. Ratmansky, who grew up in Kyiv and danced there early in his career, immediately decided to leave Moscow, and with the help of the Bolshoi, made arrangements to travel home to New York via Warsaw, along with the rest of his international creative team.


About the author, Graham Watts

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.

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