The Bright Stream
American Ballet Center
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
January 21 and 22, 2011
Copyright 2011 by Michael Popkin
Working with Alexei Ratmansky on an extended basis is transforming American Ballet Theater in several ways. The company looks fresh and spontaneous as a whole dancing his ballets: nothing about a performance seems stale or merely rote. Then there's also the dancers as individuals; and Friday night in the premiere of The Bright Stream at the Kennedy Center principal dancers Gillian Murphy, Paloma Herrera, David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes each were brilliant and looked renewed, dancing bigger, more expressively and - in the cases of Murphy and Gomes in particular - with a style that had more grandeur, articulation and amplitude than I recall from either of them before, despite many wonderful performances on both of their parts.
In Act One, Murphy and Herrera were completely charming as the ballerina who visits a communal farm in the Soviet Union circa 1935 (Murphy) and the old friend from ballet school she finds there (Herrera), and their initial duet of jumped turns had an elevation, grace, and above all a sense of ease and relaxation in the air that was lovely. One noticed that Murphy (who was suited by her city woman dress here, as well as her travesty costume in Act Two) seemed more pulled up through her chest and shoulders than previously, more rounded outward from her breastbone, and as a result achieved an expansiveness that was new for her. When she arrived at ABT about fifteen years ago, she was an all-American woman, nearly Balanchine in the way she held herself: a turner with great facility, but a dancer more from the waist down then in her upper body, which she held rather relaxed and slack. Fifteen years of dancing primarily a Petipa based repertory changes a dancer significantly but the adaptation of this placement to Petipa has always been her challenge. Not having seen her in about the year that Ratmansky has been working with her most closely, she seemed very different to me this weekend and more rounded. In a role originally choreographed on the Bolshoi's Maria Alexandrova, the grandeur and amplitude of Murphy's dancing in her upper body left nothing to be desired, and when she raised her arms on high in arabesque at the end of her repeated diagonals in Act One, she seemed to embrace not just the audience and the theater, but the entire universe beyond: a Ballerina indeed.
For his part Gomes - a powerful man who has always looked slightly long in the back and blocky in his upper body - benefited from a similar development in his placement. Pulling himself up and stretching his line across his chest suited him immensely. He had a verticality and elevation that appeared Bolshoi inspired. Not only did this balance his lines by giving him more of a core center but, in a larger sense, the scale of his movement seemed finally to match what has always been his obvious strength. The force of his dancing was in visual accord with its scope.
The Bright Stream, at once a pastoral and a comedy of manners, lies at the intersection of two stage traditions. The basic elements of its plot and character types, abstracted from the time and place of their Soviet-era realization, stretch back to ballets and operas such as Le Marriage de Figaro, The King's Volunteers on Amager, and even Coppelia; but also to classical French stage comedies such as Corneille's Le Menteur, and Moliere's L'Ecole des Femmes. A lecherous or overreaching husband, suitor or boyfriend (or some combination of the above) has to be taught a lesson and get their comeuppance, and this is accomplished by incidents of cross dressing, practical joking and disguise, particularly among the women. (In The Bright Stream the hijinks extend to the secondary characters and also involve ballet in drag). In the end, the offending male learns his lesson after making love to his own wife in disguise; there is an unmasking as the offended wife reveals herself; and all is forgiven but a hint of a dark undertone may persist. The particular originality of The Bright Stream is the realization of these dramatic precedents in context of 1930's Soviet theater (whose typology the ballet also not so subtly mocks and undermines - little wonder that the work landed its librettist in the gulag) with national and character dances adapted accordingly.
It's also the ballet - from 2003 - where Ratmansky first revealed his mature choreographic voice: above all in the extended and extraordinarily beautiful pas de deux in Act Two danced Friday night by Gomes and Herrera. Shostakovich's score here (otherwise somewhat plodding and forced but always serviceable throughout) has its one truly lyrical moment: an extended violin solo, with a clear melody, that eventually morphs into a mini violin concerto as elements of the orchestra join in as accompaniment. The action to this love music is poignant because Gomes' character - the husband who is trying to seduce his wife's friend - thinks he is dancing the duet with the ballerina, but is actually dancing with his wife (Herrera) in disguise. On this ironic and dark matrix (worthy of a comedy by Shakespeare) Ratmansky sets a dance at once deeply lyrical and emotionally complex, and that also reveals what is most individual about his style of composition: the tendency to have his men and women dance in tandem, side by side, at such moments, close to each other, joining for a step or two, then separating again but always to dance within the same physical space and in marked relation to each other, with lifts and dual poses briefly completing the harmony within the flow. A bit of tandem glissade, for example, with both dancers joining hands and executing small beats to the side; and then the man falls just behind, executes a small lift of the woman from the waist, moving her forward a step or two before putting her down; and the phrase will then end as he rejoins her at the side and she executes a deep backbend to the floor, draped over his supporting arm while he holds his other arm outstretched. The moment lasts but a second, however, hardly pauses; and as the music proceeds the dancers are on their way to the next such sequence, the violin melody rising and falling continuously.
Having watched Robert Fairchild and Wendy Whelan in Ratmansky's brilliant concluding pas for them in last year's Namouna at NYCB, and then revisited this work at the Kennedy Center this weekend, it's clear that The Bright Stream is a seminal work for Ratmansky, perhaps the most seminal of all. Much of what we see thereafter in his opus is present here: the broad comedy; the essential humanism; the incorporation of vernacular physical movement with ballet steps; the fascination with the dance and symbolic vocabulary of Soviet era Russia. But certainly no pas de deux that he has subsequently made surpasses this one for its sheer beauty and originality, nor have I ever seen Herrera or Gomes better.