By Jane Rosenberg
Where in Los Angeles can you see a Shakespearian, gender bending romantic comedy of mistaken identities, replete with a milkmaid cavorting with a tractor driver, a dog riding a bicycle, a swaggering accordionist, an-anxious-to-be younger-than-she-is flirt, and Death wielding a scythe, all set in a collective farm in the steppes of the North Caucasus? It’s on view at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and it’s the astonishing ballet entitled The Bright Stream by the Russian choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky.
After premiering with the Bolshoi Ballet, where Ratmansky was the artistic director for a number of years, The Bright Stream became part of the America Ballet Theatre‘s repertory in January of 2011. We have the good fortune to have it on view at the Music Center through Sunday, July 17. Brave the freeways despite the 405 closure, and drive to the Dorothy Chandler; because if you see only one ballet this year, this should be it.
The original ballet, composed by Dimitri Shostakovich and choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov, premiered in Stalinist Russia in 1935. A light-hearted romp, it was one of a genre of “tractor ballets” extolling the virtues of Soviet agriculture. Too irreverent for Stalin’s taste and purposes, The Bright Stream was cancelled: the choreographer lost his job, the librettist, Adrian Piotrovsky, was exiled to the Gulag, and Shostakovich never composed another ballet score. And what a score it is: breezy, syncopated rhythms, jazzy waltzes, poignant adagios. No wonder Ratmansky wanted to restore this lost ballet. The music alone made me want to jump out of my seat and dance. All that was left of the original choreography were Lopukhov’s notes. So much the better, as it left Ratmansky on his own to unleash his own choreographic wonders.
Those wonders are based on the academic vocabulary of dance. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who see the venerable dictionary of ballet steps as old-fashioned and prefer a postmodern interpretation of ballet, Ratmansky embraces them. I imagine he thinks of them as his paint, paper, and paint brushes – fundamental tools of his art form. And with these materials – the pas de bourrées, glissades, piqués, etc. he creates ballets that embody the beauty of classical dance but are surprisingly contemporary and idiosyncratic.
Although the farm collectives were disastrous to the Russian peasants, the ballet presents a comical version of their lives. We enter a topsy-turvy world of joyful contradictions: sophisticated city folk romping with farmworkers; rich, elderly Dacha dwellers flirting with and partnered by youthful entertainers; a pas de deux with a man with a bicycle; and finally a male dancer on point disguised as a Romantic ballerina à la Giselle. The plot is a frothy mass of flirtations and gender crossing disguises. What shines through is the unique characterization of each and every soloist through the beautifully realized choreography.
Paloma Herrera as Zina, the local amusements organizer, at once lovelorn, tender, funny, and defiant, has an ability to convey misery and grit with her beautifully articulated feet and undulating torso. Marcelo Gomes as Pyotr, her womanizing husband, brought bravado to the role with his masterful dancing and flawless fouettés. Gillian Murphy as the ballerina and Cory Stearns as the ballet dancer were a remarkable pair: Stearns on point in drag was hilarious and dazzling – his characterization right up there with the likes of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like it Hot.” And Murphy, likewise in drag, gave a splendid imitation of the ballet dancer. In a simple yet audacious stroke of inspiration, Ratmansky had her dance the exact choreography given to Stearns at the ballet’s opening and she did it with spot-on male swagger.
Charm exuding from every glance and step, Maria Riccetto was delightful as the schoolgirl, as was Craig Salstein as the accordion player who romances her unsuccessfully but endears us to him in the process. It was a delight to see Martine Van Hamel, who I remember so vividly in the roles of Myrta, Queen of the Willis, and Odette/Odile in her ABT principal days, dance the role of Anxious-to-be-younger-than-she-is Dacha Dweller with such verve and humor. Partnering her in the role of her roguish husband, Victor Barbee danced with finesse, flawless comic timing, and strength.
Highlanders, fieldworkers, peasant girls, old men – the ABT corps de ballet – danced as a true ensemble, making us believe in the life lived on stage, drawing us into Shostakovich’s and Ratmansky’s world. The Act 1 waltz with its lush beauty is the type of music usually reserved for palace ballrooms and danced by the nobility. In The Bright Stream it was performed by the corps – a hodgepodge of workers and peasants – and the irony was sublime. Instead of a grand ballroom, we’re in a plowed field furnished with a tractor, lined with sunflowers, and the waltz was danced, not by the aristocracy but by the working class.
Transported by this exhilarating ballet, I found myself comparing Ratmansky to other brilliant choreographers: Nijinsky and Fokine for their Russian souls; Bournonville for his folk-style subjects and classic vocabulary of steps; Frederick Ashton for his tender story ballets full of goodwill and insightful interpretations of literary sources; Balanchine for his musicality and ability to show the female dancer in all her beauty; Robbins for his contemporary settings and humor merged with classic form. And though all these influences are there in Ratmansky’s work, it is uniquely his own, leading us to believe that he might, someday, take his place among these masters of dance.
Photos courtesy of the American Ballet Theatre by Rosalie O’Connor.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets and SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.