Ratmansky's On the Dnieper
American Ballet Theater
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 1 - 6, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Michael Popkin
When ABT announced last year that it was adding Alexei Ratmansky to its masthead as resident choreographer (styled "artist in residence" in the current Playbill), many wondered what kind of fit this would be. Ratmansky is known for serious artistry, while ABT makes its living presenting standard ballet hits in a circus-like atmosphere that features dancers over artistic content. The premiere of Ratmansky's On the Dnieper last week answered the question in a most positive way: the ballet is brilliant, the equal of any new work presented in New York in a decade.
Like Ratmansky's 2003 The Bright Stream (a Bolshoi production that toured here that or the following summer), On the Dnieper is a contemporary reworking of a Soviet-era ballet. In The Bright Stream the plot was "love on a collective farm," but with a kind of late eighteenth century pastoral thematic touch - as in a ballet like Jean Dauberval's La Fille Mal Gardee, love triangles get sorted out and all ends happily. On the Dnieper is a darker tale: a young soldier named Sergei returns home, falls in love with the betrothed of another man, forsakes his own fiancee, and causes discord in the village.
The ballet's theme in a general sense thus turns on the tense relationship between individual happiness and desire on the one hand and the habits and culture of village peasant life on the other. The group - represented by the corps de ballet and the soloists who play the villagers and the friends and parents of the protagonists - is always present in this ballet, looking on as the love triangles unfold and taking part in the action by turns.
What must be understood, though, is how Ratmansky dramatizes this in the specific terms of Russian history and its communist era ideology and conflicts. Sergei is not just a generic Russian soldier returning home after a war, but represents The New Soviet Man returning to a peasant village whose traditional social structure is intact; as such, he is far too sexy for the other village boys to compete with or for the village girls to resist. He is also, socially speaking, the grain of social leaven that cannot help but work in the loaf. In his opening scene solo, Sergei is happy and rhapsodic at his return, turning in attitude on high demi-pointe, his arms upraised, embracing the landscape and finally falling on his back on the earth of Mother Russia. At first, the village boys admire him and he tries to fit into their phalanx in a labored, squatting group dance in which they lift him repeatedly above their heads. But as time goes on and it becomes clear that the village beauty Olga, betrothed to a local peasant lout (danced in the two casts I saw by David Hallberg and Alexander Hammoudi) prefers Sergei to her fiancee, they turn on him and in the end beat him savagely. The inevitable class struggle is underway; things cannot remain the same and it is only when Sergei and Olga leave the village behind them (perhaps even as a social stage and structure) that a new future becomes possible.
All this is staged and lit in the most beautiful fashion imaginable. The designs by Simon Pastukh utilize a small group of Kabuki-like cherry trees and a number of picket fences of various heights, which are rearranged periodically by the corps to create scenes which evoke, successively, a village street, a square, an alley or (when the fences are placed on a diagonal to divide the stage) the edge of the village and the fields beyond. The lighting, by Brad Fields, makes the blossoming spring a virtual reality; particularly the second half of the ballet where the tragedy and transcendent denouement (as Sergei's fiancee renounces him in favor of Olga and the couple leaves the village) take place in theatrical moonlight. In forty-five years of watching both opera and ballet at the Met, I have never seen its sometimes awkwardly deep stage used more effectively.
Meanwhile, amongst ABT's fans and critics, another kind of class struggle was going on. Though ABT at a stroke regained its artistic credibility with the addition of Ratmansky, the reception of the ballet in the auditorium was tepid and the audience clearly didn't know what to make of it; watching the rush to the doors and hearing the lukewarm applause at the curtain, I had the impression they would have much preferred another chance to to see a bare-chested Ali turning multiple pirouettes.
More curious is the case of the critics, who have generally complained of the work's "thematic emptiness" but who should have known better. The ballet is anything but empty of theme. Had it been brought here and danced by the Bolshoi, Ratmansky's Soviet era themes would have been recognized and appreciated. Danced by ABT, the critical audience apparently couldn't absorb and contextualize it. The great irony of this small masterpiece is that it was produced here in New York by an American company.
Copyright 2009 Michael Popkin
Photographs by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy of American Ballet Theater