Alexei Ratmansky is a MacArthur Fellow, artist in residence at the American Ballet Theatre, and one of the most innovative choreographers working today. We spoke with him about the history of modern ballet, why dance will always be part of human life, and what it was like to stage the so-called “Billionaire’s Ballet” — Whipped Cream by Richard Strauss.
Octavian Report: How did you get interested in the ballet? How did you become a choreographer?
Alexei Ratmansky: I guess my story is very similar to others’. I started just dancing around to the radio. Friends of our family suggested bringing me to the ballet school. I would always perform for friends.
OR: Were you from a ballet family?
Ratmansky: Nothing of the kind. My mother is a doctor, and my father is an engineer. The ballet in Russia at that time — the 1970’s — provided a secure future. Ballet companies went on tour, and you could buy things abroad. My parents didn't think of that, however. They just wanted me to find the right thing to do. A respectable career. A job in art.
OR: Were they supportive of ballet?
Ratmansky: Ballet was on TV every week. I remember playing outside in the streets and my mother calling, "Come home, there is ballet on TV." And I thought: Why do I need to see ballet? I didn't know much about it. I just wanted to dance.
OR: What do you think the future of ballet is in the U.S.?
Ratmansky: I think it's hard for ballet to compete with media, with new developments. But it's going to always occupy an important place, as dancing is such an organic thing for humans to do. And ballet is a sophisticated system. Now we have the results of a couple of centuries of development, and it's a very complex and beautiful system.
It's hard for me to make a prognosis. I know that girls will always be willing to wear a tutu and be en pointe. For the boys, it's a bit more difficult, I think. But if we put a bit more effort into advertising and saying ballet can be perfectly accepting of dancers from any race or background or class, I think that's going to help.
OR: Why do you think there are so few contemporary composers working in a more traditional classical format?
Ratmansky: That’s a huge question. I don't think I have enough vocabulary to answer about music. But ballet, like classical music or classical painting, is a classical art which is not necessarily connected to our everyday life. It talks about ideals.
OR: Visual records now exist of ballet, but is there a way to know what its performance looked like before the era of photography and video?
Ratmansky: Dance started being notated in the late Renaissance. Baroque dances are written down, and we can follow the floor plans and we can do the steps. We sort of know the steps, how they are described. But again, the movements of the human body and ballet especially are so complex, it's so difficult to write them down in two dimensions. So a lot of things are missing. We need to take into consideration, when reconstructing an old dance, the fashions and the style of everything. It's a complex issue.
The earliest ballets on film are from the late 1890’s. But the thing is that we watch with different eyes now, and it looks funny. Of course it wasn't funny at the time. It was considered beautiful or attractive. So it's hard for us to imagine what it was. If we try to reconstruct what we see in the early films, it looks like a caricature. So something essential is missing. Nevertheless the basic principles of ballet — like turning out, pointing the foot, stretching the knee — the geometry stays the same, regardless of changes in life.
OR: What drew you to Richard Strauss and Whipped Cream?
Ratmansky: I always loved Strauss’s music. It's extremely difficult to get the rights to stage a ballet to Strauss music unless that music was written for the ballet. There are famous stories about this — in Hamburg, John Neumeier staged a certain piece of Strauss and didn't get permission, so the ballet was performed without the music. One of Balanchine’s ballets to Strauss — Vienna Waltzes, if I'm not mistaken — was not allowed to be performed in Paris. Crazy stuff. Back in Kiev, I choreographed a couple of pieces secretly without even trying to get permission. We didn't know anything about authors' rights in the 90’s.
What drew me to Whipped Cream is its title, which is crazy good. Some people at ABT were trying to convince me it's not a good title, that I should change it to something else. But I was very firm. I think the title was part of its success.
And then there was the struggle to find the right designer. I visited and met with and looked at dozens of different people until I randomly looked at my shelf and saw a book of Mark Ryden’s work that I bought back in Japan 10 years ago — and that was it.
When we contacted him, his agent said, "Mark has no interest in designing for ballet." Luckily, when we were able to contact him directly, he said, "Of course, I would love to do that."
This connection with Strauss and Mark seemed so right from the beginning that I had no doubt that something good going to come out of it.
OR: How long was the process of choreography?
Ratmansky: A year and a half, two years. Mark is very organized, and he went into the tiniest details of staging. It was his first time in the theater. ABT provided him with assistance to help him translate his images into set designs. He was accommodating in asking questions and never insisting on something that ABT people would say was impossible to achieve. Working with Mark was a pleasure from the first day. He is a crazy creative guy.
OR: What's different about the choreography from the original?
Ratmansky: I had no idea about the original choreography. I'd been informed by one of the ballet critics that there are notations of the original but — as with my work on The Cossacks, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake — I didn't think these notations were going to help me at all. I knew I was going to do new stuff.
OR: When you do something like Sleeping Beauty, do you feel like an obligation to hew close to the original?
Ratmansky: I do feel an obligation to Marius Petipa, who originally choreographed Sleeping Beauty and who worked closely with Tchaikovsky — as these two were geniuses in their art. I have no desire to compete with that. Just to ensure that their original intentions come through would be good enough.
OR: Who are your favorite choreographers?
Ratmansky: I have many favorites, but my gods are Balanchine and Petipa.
OR: What do you think makes a great ballet? What needs to come together?
Ratmansky: If only I knew the secret! The recipes for that were established by the great ballets. They often consist of two acts — two very contrasting acts. Like The Cossacks. The first happens inside, in an interior; the second is outside in forests. The first act happens during the day; the second act during the night. The first act is reality; the second act is a dream — or nightmare. If you can find this contrast within one work, it really helps. Or Swan Lake, where the main female character comprises two mirror images of one person: the White Swan is a symbol of purity and good and the Black Swan a symbol of the opposite. The lead male character needs to make a choice between them. That is an amazingly well-constructed setup.
I doubt ballet can really deal with complex psychological or philosophical ideas — we can't show the past and we can't show the future. We can only show what's happening right now. Without the words. We can use gestures, we can use something that people recognize. The simplest example of that would be a hug, a touch of the hand, a gaze into each other's eyes. Simple things like that do not need explanation to tell the story. But we can touch very difficult matters — sophisticated matters that can't be put in words. That's possible. Because we can create images that would force the audience member to develop his own story from them.
Our subjects are limited. That's why fairy tales and myths go well with ballet. That's why today's topics are so difficult for classical ballet to touch. That's why people think it's not relevant, it's dated. But it is not, because it can talk about universal and timeless subjects.
OR: What do you think of the Ballets Russes?
Ratmansky: I think the main thing is that they established the ballet as a modern art. To do that they went further and further away from the classical ballet, the classical image.
It's interesting that we think of them as a collection of superstars of incredible theatrical power. The company was quite weak in terms of classical technique. For its first few seasons when they had dancers from the Bolshoi, they were really strong. Later it was just a group of amateur dancers and a couple of superstars. They wouldn't be able to dance technically difficult stuff. But involving the most important designers and composers of the time — that of course brought ballet to the center of artistic life.
OR: Ballet is obviously quite collaborative — what are the challenges inherent in that? Which element is most important: the music, the production design, the dancing itself, or all of it?
Ratmansky: We know about great ballets that don't have great music. There are great ballets with no story at all. Can a performance have success without great dancers? I guess so, if the concept is really strong, if the images that are presented are really strong and stay in the memory. Without great choreography — yes. If the production has a performer of genius and everybody comes to see his or her interpretation. A mediocre choreographer’s work could look like something special when danced by a great performer.
Ideally we have great design, great choreography, great dancers and great music. But only a couple of titles that would fit into that category.
OR: What's your next project?
Ratmansky: A reconstruction of a 1900 ballet by Petipa, one of his last. Two acts. Harlequinade. It's from the Imperial Era, it's based on commedia dell’arte characters. It has very pretty score by Drigo. It premiers in the spring season at ABT. I'll be also mounting an old production of mine at the Bolshoi in November.
OR: Why the Harlequinade?
Ratmansky: The classical repertory is very narrow. It comes from opera or drama. It's about a dozen titles, so every new ballet that can be reconstructed is a big thing for ballet professionals. And this ballet exists in two versions nowadays. One is Balanchine's version, but that’s a completely new piece, it has nothing to do with Petipa’s steps even though he follows the story and uses the same music. And in Russia there is a one-act version of it. There are notations for it. I collected all the materials and I feel like it could do well. It could be another title in the classical canon. I think it's a very important work.
OR: Why do you think so many modern artists were drawn to the commedia dell’arte?
Ratmansky: There are so many great artists who stand in this territory. While these are archetypal characters, they certainly give an amazing freedom to the performers. Being in this very set structure of characters they can still bring their own understanding of it. Archetypal characters: the eternal lovers; Pierrot, the sufferer who never succeeds in what he wants; Colombine, who is down to earth and plays with men and always wins at the end. And her father. We could go on and on. These characters are important.
OR: Was there a tension, in the early days of ballet, between this more casual style and the very formal Paris opera style?
Ratmansky: I think definitely. Commedia dell’arte characters struggled in court scenes because it was street art. It was so popular. Eventually it made its way to the court performances and was popular since then. The performers developed their technique on the street; it then made its way to the stage. It was a way to refresh and push forward the technique of dancers.
OR: Do you like doing modern choreography?
Ratmansky: You know, when I started to choreograph it was end of 1980’s, the beginning of the 1990’s. The fall of the Iron Curtain, in other words, when we started to receive information, films, tapes. The company I worked with started to tour and it was an eye-opening experience. So I wanted to copy all of what I had seen. I was trying to be edgy and interesting — trying hard. At some point, I realized: classical steps, that's what I am. This is my school and I'm good at it. When I try to do modern, it's an imitation. When I do classical, that's who I am.
I started to feel comfortable with that. I admire brave modern stuff and I always try to see what's new. But I feel comfortable with the way I am.
OR: What was the impact, in your opinion, of the Russian Revolution on Russian ballet?
Ratmansky: The majority of ballet professionals left. The little group that remained were working hard trying to save dance. We all are so devoted to our art, those that really take it seriously. So they were trying to save it. And then they found on the other side of the ramp that there was a completely new audience — simple people who didn't care for sophistication or a grace or an aristocratic canon of beauty. It didn't mean anything to them. They wanted energy, athleticism. I think, consciously or not, the style of performing changed. And then there were clever and inspired people practicing the other arts in Russia. Painting and theater — especially theater! — and literature. These people were so inspired by the new possibilities. Fyodor Lopukhov, the brother of Lidia Lopukhova (the wife of John Maynard Keynes), started to build a new technique based on the old Russian school, which was in its own right an inheritor of the French, Italian, and Danish schools.
That's how the Soviet style of dancing evolved. By the end of 1930’s, it had become something completely different from what existed before the Revolution. From what White Russian emigrés were trying to preserve in Europe and America. This was a very positive result — for technique, it opened new doors. All the virtuoso multiple turns in the air, all the acrobatic partnering — they all come from the that. The records of athleticism that you associate with, for example, the Bolshoi style of dancing and dancers like Vladimir Vasiliyev, Maya Plisetskaya, or Leonid Lavrovsky.
But it was good for the rest of the world, too. Think of all the Russian emigrés who created masterworks in America. Like Balanchine. Balanchine greatly admired Kasyan Goleizovsky, but Goleizovsky never made it out of Russia. He was a genius, in my opinion, but he didn't produce anything lasting — almost nothing of his has survived. He is not known. If Balanchine had stayed in Russia, who knows what would have become of him?
OR: Which choreographers are doing interesting work now?
Ratmansky: There are many I admire. I always look to what Christopher Wheeldon or Justin Peck or Benjamin Millepied or Crystal Pite are doing. I admire Mark Morris. I love Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. John Neumeier. William Forsythe would be another idol. And Pierre Lacotte, the classicist in France.
OR: Where do you see ABT going?
Ratmansky: A couple of years ago the focus of ABT — and of Kevin McKenzie the artistic director — switched from aiming to present guest stars from all over the world to growing the local talent within the company. Now we see a very strong group of young dancers coming up and proving themselves in the big world. Some of them are not ready yet; some of them have made amazing breakthroughs. But it's a challenging process: ABT was always famous for major world stars — and for drawing thousands of people to see them who didn't care much about what was going on around the stars.
Now it's more about the growth from within. I think it's very healthy but at the same time it's not easily accepted by all the ABT fans or audiences.
OR: Outside of ballet what inspires you?
Ratmansky: Working so intensely on my own projects unfortunately leaves me so little time to read or look around. I feel really bad about that. But doing reconstructions and new works really needs much more concentration. I feel that my previous phase in development as an artist was really trying to observe everything and now I am meditating on what I have already seen. I'm very interested in Russian choreography and always try to see what comes out. I like to see how the classical arts progress today. In dance, my interest is ballet; in ballet I look for dancing choreography. I like to see real dancing. We started the conversation with that: that it's a very organic, natural thing for humans to do. It's very ancient. It's one of the most of ancient arts. The impulse for dance is very simple. It's either joy or some symbolic rituals to connect with the spirits or the universe.
So when choreographers or those who create dance performances forget about this original impulse for dance, I think it starts to look like something inorganic. Something forced. And when suddenly it's just dancing for joy, that is itself a joy to see. I love that and I look for that quality.
Alexei Ratmansky is Artist in Residence at American Ballet Theatre.