Dansomanie : entretiens : Alexeï Ratmansky
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Alexeï Ratmansky, Artistic Director, Bolshoi Ballet


For Dansomanie Alexeï Ratmansky evokes the major Soviet-era ballets 



Since 2004, Alexeï Ratmansky has been Artistic Director of the Bolshoi, one of the world's great classical troupes. Mr. Ratmansky in this interview for Dansomanie, discusses the choregraphy left to us by the USSR, its strengths, and its weaknesses. Soviet choreography is little known in Western Europe, and Alexeï Ratmansky has chosen to revive works with real artistic value: The Bright Stream and The Bolt, to scores by Dimitri Shostakovitch, both back in the Bolshoi repertoire :


Alexeï Ratmansky, Artistic Director, Bolshoi Ballet



You've choreographed many works for different troupes in the past few years.  But for the Bolshoi, you've chosen to reconstruct ballets from the Soviet repertoire, such as The Bright Stream or The Bolt.  What attracted you to that particular repertoire?

After the Soviet regime fell, there was a feeling that « we don’t need that past, we want to be away from it ».  But then the general mood changed, there were stage revivals, people wanted to see the old movies.  There is something special about the time, not only bad memories, but some very good ones, you know.  And much great choreography was done during that period, so that today, with the lack of new ideas, it can be a source of inspiration to reconstruct lost works.  There are many treasures in Soviet choreography.



But that repertoire is little-known in the West.  What can you tell us, briefly, about its major works and choreographers?

In my opinion, the most interesting period was the 1920s, when many different, stylistically different, choreographers worked in Russia like Lopukhov, Goleizovsky, or Leonid Jakobson who was then starting his career.  And some lesser-known names.  Politically, only one style was approved in the early 30’s, the «dram-ballet».  This had a very detailed libretto - usually drafted alongside the drama director - and had to be a historical ballet, preferably with a happy end.  There were a great many details, and a lot of good « mise en scène »; but sometimes, the drama overwhelmed the actual dancing.  In the dram-ballet, we find choreographers like Zakharov and Lavrovsky, or Vainonen who in my opinion was the most talented of that generation.  That’s how I developed an interest in reviving his Flames of Paris as well as other works, which is probably a project for the future




So do you see the Soviet repertoire as a cultural heritage to be preserved?

I would point to ballets worthy of being reconstructed or revived, like Laurencia by Chabukhiani, The Flames of Paris and others.

There were many such works, because the plan was to build a new repertoire.  The Tchaïkovsky, Glazunov and some Minkus ballets had been saved, but two-thirds of the imperial repertoire was lost, as it was thought less interesting to a new audience of workers.  They were trying really hard to build up a new repertoire.



Are there works from that time that were best forgotten or discarded?

Of course! There was a lot of rubbish, political rubbish. But the interesting thing is that the school remained so strong, and that there were talented dancers, and very talented choreographers, who wanted to make good ballets. And despite the political pressure, they were still producing good works.



Does Soviet style differ from Russian style?

Very different ! Not only because most of the imperial dancers and choreographers left, but also because a new society, a new country was formed, with new ideas around. Sport became fashionable, as did acrobatics … and in many fields of art, there were these healthy, sportive, very dynamic movements. There was Vaganova, in charge of female dancing, and Lopukhov with his experiments on partnering. It was they who were responsible for forming Soviet style. There were outstanding dancers like Messerer, Chabukhiani, Yesmolayev, who were fantastic virtuosi. They invented a movements, actually, like double tour en l'air from different angles ... And there were outstanding partners like Gusev or Chavrov, who could hold the ballerina on one hand, upside down, or have her jump across the stage and fly into her partner's arms. So there was a lot of experimenting, formal experimenting.



Did all this happen around the Bolshoi alone? Not the Mariinsky?

At the the Mariinsky too. Some people were of course transfered from Leningrad to Moscow, because Moscow was the centre, with the Kremlin. But most of the ideas actually came from Leningrad because the heart of the Russian school was there, historically.



How do you prepare your reconstructions ?  Where do you find documents?  Do you talk with dancers from that time?  Have you film records?

For The Bright Stream, we used all the material available to us. Unfortunately, not a single step had been written down, no steps at all, although there were photographs, reviews, memoirs. So I had to do completely new choreography, while the libretto remained unchanged. As for future plans, such as, perhaps, The Flames of Paris, we will look back into the original steps. Actually, this ballet stayed in the repertoire until the early 70’s, and many of its dancers are still with us, coaching for example. They are not very old! So it’s a real possibility.



You have said that none of the original steps remained for The Bright Stream.  In your reconstructions, is your main concern with authenticity, or do you adapt to today's audience?

I doubt that anyone has a recipe for how best to do historical works. All I can relate, is my own experience with The Bright Stream and with The Bolt. With The Bright Stream, we wanted to recreate the atmosphere.  I choreographed the steps, which are stylized. Of course I looked at dancers, at documents, at the movies from the thirties. But with The Bolt, it was another story, because the libretto is so rooted in the time, in the politics of the day, the late twenties, that simply to follow the libretto would have been inappropriate. For example, that section in the original Bolt, that poked fun at the Church, at priests, I wouldn't do that now, because the times and the mentality have changed.



But in The Bright Stream, there is parody ...  was it exactly what was intended in the original?

Yes, there was indeed a parody. Listen to Chostakovitch’s music, and you'll hear a chicken clucking - it’s parodic!

Clichés of soviet propaganda, clichés of imperial ballet – he has many targets – he makes fun, clearly, of Minkus, Pugni, Drigo and other ballet composers. It’s complicated. It does seem, so far as I can gather from various sources, that the Leningrad version of The Bright Stream was, compared to the original, far more biting. On staging it at the Bolshoi, they tried to abrade away the angles, and actually, I'm not sure they succeeded...



Did you start out with an idea of which dancers you wanted for the reconstructions?

I knew that the characters had to be very individual, and clearly differentiated, so I looked for personalities. Alexandrova, who created her part, was ideal. I wanted her for the ballet. Lunkina was not there at the time, she was off on maternity leave, and that was another very fine dancer (Inna Petrova, editor's note). Sergei Filin was the first choice for the ballet.



How do you work with the dancers ?  Are you very directive or do you allow them some leeway?

I think I was very specific about the steps, and once they had got the idea of what it would be like, they began to improvise - and some of that, we kept!

Comedy is very hard - both the mise en scène and the timing have to be so exact. So I had to be quite strict. Most of it has been notated..



The Bolshoi is about to present a new version of Le Corsaire.  What will be new about it?

Le Corsaire is planned for late June 2007. It’s one of the few classical ballets the Bolshoi does NOT have in the repertoire, there is a lot of dancing, and of course all the Petipa sections, which makes it a jewel..

Although it will be different from the Mariinsky's version, I imagine the "heritage" parts will be the same. We will try to exploit all the historical material available, of which there is much, from archives at St Petersburg, and at Harvard, where the Stepanov notation is all preserved. There is a lot of literature, because Le Corsaire was very popular, and Petipa himself made 8 different versions, adding ever-more dancers, and replacing older passages. And some choreographers have added their own steps. In the current Mariinsky and ABT versions, I believe, there is a good deal of important mise en scène lacking, so the story makes little sense. The original libretto DOES make sense though, so we want to try to follow it carefully!



Will you use more pantomime?

Pantomime is something that I experienced as a dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet, because they are so great. All Bournonville repertoire is based on acting and mime, and they are great masters .



What do you think of other historical  reconstructions, like those of Pierre Lacotte or Sergei Vikharev?

I love what Lacotte did for the Bolshoi. You can’t call it a reconstruction but it’s a very, very fine production. I can’t think of any other choreographer in the world who can do soli, duos, ensembles, pas d’action …

There is little mime, but perhaps that could be added. In the beginning, it was difficult for the dancers, but now they love doing it. [Pharao's Daughter].



Is it so very different from the Bolshoi style?

Very, but also very expensive as a performance. [By that I mean that it demands not money, but huge resources]. 



And what about Vikharev?  His main concern is with authenticity

I have great respect for him, for the amount of work he has done together with his troupe.

The problem remains that there are many ways to interpret notation, depending on who is reading. Because it’s not like the notes on a musical score! So I wouldn’t call it "authentic" Petipa, but rather Vikharev’s view of the notation. But it’s great that he went back to the original structure of The Sleeping Beauty, because during the Soviet era, it was changed so much.



Alexeï Ratmansky - Propos recueillis par B. Jarrasse

Interviewed on  August 16th. 2006 - English revision by Katharine Kanter


© Alexeï Ratmansky – Dansomanie