Tag Archives: kirov

Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

First off, a quick apology for the lack of writing!  I don’t want to get into it too much because I have far more interesting things to tell you, so I’ll save it for another time.  I’m sure you would all much rather hear about some of the discussion topics from the most recent event in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lecture Series, a conversation with world renowned choreographer and American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky.  The lecture was optionally paired with a dress rehearsal viewing of his Concerto DSCH, which I actually chose to skip because I had dinner plans and also because I’ll be writing a review for Seattle Dances on opening night and when writing I prefer (if possible) to view a complete work for the first time.  Obviously, if it’s a piece I’ve seen before I’m not so concerned, but there’s an exhilaration with getting to see a finished product that simply doesn’t exist in a dress rehearsal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dancers themselves felt the same way…the occasion counts for a lot.

Ratmansky is actually quite unassuming—when the conversation between he and Peter Boal began, I noticed how soft-spoken he is.  I thought I had a voice that doesn’t carry (and often find myself in situations where I think people want me to enunciate when really they just want me to speak louder) but even with a mic it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying, and I was sitting in the second row.  Coincidentally, he was dressed in black with a blue pinstriped shirt, a color scheme that happened to blend in extremely well with the similarly colored royal blue curtain behind him and the shadows between the rippled velvet.  Obviously, that’s not something he planned and it’s not like he can change colors like a chameleon but it did add an air of mystery and elusiveness.  I think that’s cool though, because if you have that kind of aura, people actually take you seriously.  He is however, witty too, just in an understated kind of way.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ratmansky’s history as a dancer, he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, but what was not accepted into the company, a “drama” as he called it that would eventually send him through the ranks of the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.  At some point in Kiev he began choreographing, finding inspiration in music and visualizing movement to it.  A few factors contributed to his journey towards becoming a premiere choreographer; a great love for ballet history, reading in general, and unused scores with a special affinity for composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Though famed Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was the first to ask him to do a ballet for her, it was The Bright Stream that catapulted him into the spotlight and sealed the deal in attaining directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The Bright Stream has a Shostakovich score, the ballet itself having been lost, banned actually in 1936 because the myth goes that Stalin didn’t like it.  A recording of the score was made somewhat recently (I think he mentioned the 90’s) and it wasn’t long after that Ratmansky heard it, was obviously touched by a muse and set about researching/choreographing the ballet.  He actually mentioned later on that at that point there were a few people still alive who may have danced it or knew bits of it, but he made a conscious decision not to seek them out because choreographing an entire ballet around a few remnants just didn’t make sense.  You know that scientifically impossible explanation in Jurassic Park they give when they say they found prehistoric dinosaur DNA in the abdomen of a mosquito in fossil amber and filled the “gaps” with frog DNA in order to recreate dinosaurs?  First of all, this is heinously wrong because reptiles and amphibians are far from the same thing and any salvageable DNA is going to be so deteriorated by fossilization and I don’t know, the millions of years that have passed since the Cretaceous period that genetically engineering a dinosaur (via that method anyway) is impossible.  In that sense, what could Ratmansky realistically do with a handful of phrases, which may not even be remembered with complete accuracy?  I wonder if that’s how the Bolshoi felt about it because while they obviously let him proceed with staging the ballet, he did say that they were skeptical it would be received well by the audience.

However, The Bright Stream was indeed a success as well as Bolt, and of Ratmansky’s tenure as director of the Bolshoi he had to say that it was like going to war (with a virtual horde of around two hundred and twenty dancers, a third of which he said he basically never saw), but when things went well they were absolutely satisfying.  While at the Bolshoi he had the precarious responsibility of guarding a strong ballet tradition while also somehow shaping it, with these new ballets and also with the recognition of certain dancers.  Ratmansky was the one who noticed jumping phenom Natalia Osipova at a graduation performance, and interestingly pointed out some of the controversy surrounding her (her strengths and weaknesses of which she is fully aware of), also noting that she has more popularity in the West.  Apparently, many purists feel that she isn’t classical enough, and doesn’t have a balletic body in the Russian sense.  I don’t think she looks so drastically different from her compatriots, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why her partnership with Ivan Vasiliev stands out—not just because they can jump better than anyone else but he is also known for having an atypical body type so they’re a pair of dancers who surely understand each other.

As with any choreographer, it is pertinent to point out some of Ratmansky’s influences, one of the early ones being watching legendary prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still dancing in her sixties while he was a student at the Bolshoi academy.  He admired the way she used her back, arms, and her fluent lines but most of all her musicality, saying that she made distinctions between dancing to rhythms and then the sounds coming from the orchestra.  As an amusing anecdote, he told a story of partnering her as the faun to her nymph in Afternoon of a Faun, which apparently wasn’t so nerve-wracking an experience as one would expect.  In terms of choreographers, he of course mentioned being introduced to Balanchine in the 80’s by VHS tapes (remember those?), which was kind of an obligatory comment anyway, since Ratmansky was in the house of PNB.  He mentioned three choreographers he is currently infatuated with (perhaps indicating that this is something of a phase); the first of which I didn’t quite catch but I think was Igor Moiseyev, then Rudolf Nureyev and Pierre Lacotte.  He does categorize himself as a classical choreographer, as in ballet with pointe work, and having no interest in barefoot dance, though he did say that there are more interesting things being done with modern ballet these days.

Now, although the question and answer session was at the end, I want to throw this down right now because it pertains to Lacotte.  Ratmansky was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet after all, meaning he danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, so the question came to mind of whether he had a preference for the Bournonville or the Lacotte, a question I managed to ask (after getting over my own stage fright related to public speaking) on Bag Lady Emilia’s behalf…I immediately thought of her because it is one of her favorite topics after all!  Well, Ratmansky actually likes both; he loves Lacotte’s phrasing and attention to details, as well as the use of antiquated steps that no one else uses anymore.  He does of course recognize the authenticity of the Bournonville Sylphide, and said earlier that the Bournonville style is the most ancient and unique with a special method applied to acting, but really sees the two Sylphides as entirely different ballets and doesn’t have a strong preference for one or the other.  In fact, he seemed a little surprised when I told him afterwards that this is a hotly debated topic amongst us balletomanes.  I guess we’re all a little more opinionated or a little more crazy than he knows…but isn’t crazy just a precursor to enthusiastic anyway?  Or should that be the other way around…

Regardless, the other Ratmansky ballets that were deliberated on were his new Nutcracker and Concerto DSCH, since the latter is the piece PNB is performing.  The Nutcracker story was an interesting one, because it was a rather tumultuous journey.  He had wanted to do a new Nutcracker long ago, but the Kirov asked him to work on a version for them and because of difficulties with the designer of the production, after two years he found himself no longer a part of that project.  In 2001 he was asked by Thordal Christensen (artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the time) to salvage their production after their choreographer quit.  It was of course completely different from what he was doing at the Kirov, but it was an opportunity to prove himself.  Ultimately, it left him unsatisfactory and it wasn’t until Kevin McKenzie asked him to do the production that debuted with ABT this past winter that Ratmansky’s Nutcracker was fully realized.  Oddly enough he didn’t talk too much about Concerto DSCH, just a little bit about its debut with New York City Ballet, and also setting it on the dancers of PNB (which was apparently done in three days, thanks to a spectacular ballet mistress).  ‘DSCH’ stands for Shostakovich’s initials in German, and the music (Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102) was a birthday present for his son, written in a time of great hope in the Soviet Union’s history.  After seeing the work myself tonight, I hope to elaborate some thoughts on it, but until then…too bad.

As far as looking towards the future, Ratmansky has several debuts, with Russian Seasons (a three act story ballet) as well as Lost Illusions for the Bolshoi, which he didn’t mention but I did as a part of my second question for him (I had to appear researched after all, even if I myself have never really sat down and watched his choreography!).  I asked him what was beyond that, and though it has been formally announced elsewhere, just to recap he will be doing a new Romeo and Juliet to debut in Toronto, a new Firebird with ABT, but what was most interesting was that his dream is to do more ballets to Shostakovich symphonies, reiterating his passion for that composer’s music.  It seems Ratmansky is the latest in a line of ballet choreographers who derive something special from a particular composer not in collaboration, but well after the composer’s death.  There was Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Chopin, and now it seems Ratmansky and Shostakovich, which I think is absolutely fantastic.  He said that when it’s his choice, music serves as the inspiration for new works and Shostakovich is one of the all-time greats.  When it’s not by choice, it’s somewhat dictated by the needs of companies (ABT in particular) but he’s lucky to be a busy man, even if he admits to biting off more than he can chew.

I wanted to go all “Anderson Cooper” on him and do that thing where AC wrinkles his brow and tilts his head ever so slightly on an angle while asking a series of hard-hitting questions, but I didn’t want to monopolize his time and settled for a humbled handshake and a show of appreciation on my part.  Perhaps more will be revealed about the “quiet guardian” of classical ballet, in the book he plans to write…eventually.

Pinning the Sylph

22 Oct

This entry’s dedicatees are the wonderful Bag Ladies of The Ballet Bag, who have truly helped make my blog the…whatever it is today.  It’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to increase readership and reach new audiences, at a time when I had no idea what I was doing…and look at me now!  Five readers!  Just kidding…I know there are more of you and I appreciate each and every click of a link that brings you here, but to the Bag Ladies go the heartiest thanks.  They were among the first to believe that something worthwhile is written here, and this is but a small token of appreciation.  Much obliged, Ladies…much obliged.

The Bag Ladies requested I do some more “detective work” like I did for the Black Swan grand pas de deux.  If you recall, it was a mess of information on the different variations, where they came from and a ‘where are they now?’ sort of deal.  At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find another ballet mystery I would be able to research, but lo and behold one day it revealed itself to me—Les Sylphides.  In short, Les Sylphides is also a catastrophe.  At least for the Black Swan pas de deux, there was some logic behind substitutions that were made but there’s a lot to the history of Les Sylphides that doesn’t really make sense…like why is it sometimes called Chopiniana?  Tracing the lineage of this ballet is literally like collecting butterflies…we have to gather samples of the same species, note minute differences and determine whether any of it is significant or not.  So join me as I make a fool’s attempt at the Darwinian task of pinning sylphs and mounting them for display (a disturbing image, is it not?).

Library books in tow, my first order of business was analyzing the title.  The story  goes that when Michel Fokine originally choreographed the ballet for a charity performance at the Maryinsky Theatre, the title was indeed Chopiniana.  However, this ballet was set to a completely different selection of Chopin orchestrations by Alexander Glazunov, with the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 (trust me, you’re going to want to know the numbers) being a later addition, and pretty much the only piece from Chopiniana that survives in modern productions of Les Sylphides today.  Wait for it…Chopiniana had an entirely different theme!  Different theme, different music, different title…I’m pretty sure this constitutes a different ballet.  For this reason I would argue that Chopiniana refers to Fokine’s original character ballet, which is most assuredly lost (it is ballet history after all).  However, in his memoirs Fokine does provide some details about Chopiniana, which I shall quote below:

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 -In gorgeous costumes, a large ensemble performed Polish ballroom dances

Nocturne in F Major, Op.15 No.1 –The curtain opens disclosing Chopin sitting at the piano in a monastery on the island of Majorca, where during the night, the ill composer suffers nightmarish hallucinations.  He sees dead monks rising from their graves and slowly approaching him to the accompaniment of a monotonously beaten rain.  Frightened, he rushes away from the piano, trying to seek safety from the horrible visions.  He finds salvation in his Muse.  Again he sits at the piano and finds calm in the sounds of the Nocturne.

Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.50 No.3 –(A wedding in a Polish village)  An unfortunate girl is being married to an elderly man whom she does not love.  In the course of the general dancing, her beloved finds his way to her.  As a result of his passionate pleas, she throws the wedding ring at the unwanted suitor and flees with her beloved.

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Hi, it’s me, Steve here and Fokine doesn’t describe the waltz in the manner that he did the other dances, only that it had Anna Pavlova (in a Taglioni costume, a la La Sylphide) and Michael Oboukhov (in a “very romantic black velvet costume” from the ballet Fairy Doll) dancing a pas de deux with “choreography [that] differed from all other pas de deux in its total absence of spectacular feats.”  Fokine goes on to describe the choreography that had “not a single entrechat, turn in the air or pirouette.  There was a slow turn of the ballerina, holding her partner’s hand, but this could not be classified as a pirouette because the movement was not confined to the turn but was used for a change of position and grouping.”  This sounds about in line with the Waltz we see in Les Sylphides today, but I can’t say for sure if it’s actually the same.

Tarantelle Op.43 –This was performed by Vera Fokina assisted by a large ensemble.  I tried to project the authentic character of the national dances which Vera and I had observed on our trip to Italy, when we studied them in detail on the island of Capri.

As you can see, Chopiniana was a plotless ballet in five tableaux, most of them depicting character dances, except for the Waltz.  So what does this mean?  For now, just remember three things: character dances, Alexander Glazunov orchestration, and it was performed by students at the Maryinsky.

Following is a video recording of the Russian National Orchestra performing Chopiniana, however this footage doesn’t contain the Polonaise and actually the order appears to be messed up (as if this wasn’t all confusing enough already) but for the record, the orchestra is playing Mazurka-Waltz-Tarantelle-Nocturne.  The order I have listed above is the official order of Chopiniana.

Things get messy the following year…in 1908, according to one text I have, Chopiniana was danced again at a Maryinsky benefit, under the title of Dances to Music by Chopin.  In 1909, a new version was performed, entitled Grand Pas to Music by Chopin.  I’m not entirely sure, but by conglomerating information from several books, I believe this would be the same ballet Fokine refers to as Second Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique in his memoirs, and thus the prototype of Les Sylphides. Second Chopiniana had a new set of Chopin pieces for the score, orchestrated by Maurice Keller, while also retaining Glazunov’s orchestrated Waltz.  Fokine mentions a pretty funny story regarding the Waltz, which actually has an Etude in C Sharp Minor as the introduction.  This didn’t go well with one of the Maryinsky singers, Ivan Ershov (also a faculty member of the Conservatory of Music), who overheard it while walking by and threw a hissy fit in the middle of one of Fokine’s rehearsals.

“What are they doing?  What are they doing, these ballet people?” he began to yell in colorful tenor.  “They are combining an Etude with a Waltz!”

I always find it funny when musicians are so disagreeable when it comes to ballet…but even funnier was Fokine’s response:

“Ivan Vasilievich, this was not done by the ballet people.  Your director, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazounov, has combined the Etude and the Waltz.  Go across the street”—the Conservatory of Music was located just across the street from the Maryinsky Theater—“and yell there.  And we will resume our rehearsal as soon as you leave.”

Oh Fokine…you tell him!

Anyway, from what I’m reading, this version actually had Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 too, but as an overture.  Here is the full listing of Chopin pieces used, and if I’m reading his memoirs correctly, the “glorious” cast who performed in the 1908 premiere at the Maryinsky (though don’t quote me on this):

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 (overture)

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

*Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 –Vaslav Nijinsky

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7 –Olga Preobajenska

*Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2 –Anna Pavlova

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Tamara Karsavina

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Now there’s a reason why the Mazurkas are starred.  For the woman’s Mazurka (danced by Pavlova), some productions today use the order goes as it is above, but in others the Mazurka comes after the first Waltz.  I couldn’t find any information as to why this is, and I’ll get to the man’s Mazurka later but I list the order above because the one film I could find of Les Sylphides that actually uses the Polonaise overture is a 1958 film of the Maryinsky.  So I’m assuming, without concrete evidence that the Maryinsky version is closest to what debuted in 1908.

“Second” Chopiniana (in three parts)

So you would think, Les Sylphides pretty much has it together, right?  Silly mortal…you’d be very wrong.  Les Sylphides officially earned its title from Diaghilev, when it premiered in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (much of the cast from above was the same, except with Alexandra Baldina instead of Preobajenska).  Diaghilev purposely named it Les Sylphides to recall Marie Taglioni and La Sylphide, and there were even more changes to the orchestrations.  The newly orchestrated score is credited to Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Taneyev, Anatole Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnine and Nicolas Sokolov.  At this point, I have such a headache trying to sort this out I don’t WANT to know what’s different.  I could spend hours listening to actual scores and seeing if I can decipher any differences in the counter melodies, but I already drove myself to the brink of insanity trying to work on the man’s Mazurka, for you see, some productions use Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 and others use Mazurka in C, Op.67 No.3 and I was trying to find video of it and had a surprisingly difficult time of separating them.  The major companies I could find (Kirov, Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, ABT) all used Op.33 No.3.  The only example I could find of Op.67 No.3 was this excerpt of the poet’s solo:

You could compare them for yourself, but it’s maddening.

Now as for that heinous mess of a score, according to a copy I borrowed of the piano music, this was the order as presented by Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House:

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2

Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Notice the Polonaise is gone and that the placement of the Mazurka in D (the woman’s Mazurka) is also different.  The Prelude serves as a new overture, and the above arrangement can be heard in this performance by The Royal Ballet, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in three parts:

*A Roy Douglas is credited with the arrangement…I’m going to bury my head in the sand for that one.

Well, this isn’t an exhaustive history, but I’m certainly exhausted by thinking about it.  Regardless of the finer details, after watching many (too many) videos of Les Sylphides, what I love about this signature Fokine ballet is how unpretentious it is…it requires the art of subtlety because there are so few virtuosic movements to inspire the typical audience response.  Fokine discusses this in his memoirs, in that he wasn’t looking to please the audience at all, in fact one of his goals with the piece was to prove he understood and could indeed choreograph classical dancing on pointe!  Fokine had some interesting thoughts on Nijinsky dancing the role of the poet, telling him not to admire himself and to simply admire the beauty of the Sylphs around him…but for more on that you’d have to read his memoirs, and speaking of the books that may or may not have been used in research for this post (I honestly can’t remember what bits of information came from what) here’s a list:

The Art of Enchantment, by Nancy Van Norman Baer & others

Birth of Ballets-Russes, by Prince Peter Lieven and translated by L. Zarine

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, by Boris Kochno

Memoirs of a Ballet Master, written by Michel Fokine and translated by Vera Fokina

Michel Fokine, by Dawn Lille Horwitz

And just for giggles, here are other productions of Les Sylphides by the Bolshoi and Kirov that I watched in researching for this entry.  They didn’t really contribute much…but it was either that or hit the books again!

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Bolshoi in three parts:

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Kirov in four parts: