This March marked a sumptuous Russian ballet feast in our city as not only were we graced with the presence of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Hong Kong Arts Festival (which I hope to write a blog about soon), but we were also lucky enough to have the world-renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who is one of the most accomplished and probably the most prolific of all ballet choreographers of our time.
Ratmansky was rehearsing with dancers of The Hong Kong Ballet for two weeks in March on the one-act ballet he choreographed, “Le Carnival des Animaux,” with music by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
I was so excited when The Hong Kong Ballet announced a Meet-the-Artist session with Ratmansky. I have watched a few of his ballets both live, and on the big and small screens. I have always admired his talent in creating movements that flow so well with the most intricate music, sometimes even saving a piece of “boring” music (sorry, just my subjective opinion) through the mesmerizing quality of his dance steps.
The host of the evening was Joseph Morrissey, Director of Artistic Planning & Touring of The Hong Kong Ballet. I was impressed by his confidence and the depth of knowledge he has, coming up with well-researched questions for Ratmansky. We got a chance to see a rare video of the choreographer as a young principal dancer in Ukranian National Ballet. He danced as James in La Sylphide, and as he watched this old footage, he was smiling with a slight shake of his head, commenting on how the tempo was all “wrong.” It was how the Soviet school interpreted Bournonville, and being behind the Iron Curtain, the dancers didn’t know any better.
But he soon learned Bournonville in its authenticity when he joined the Royal Danish Ballet after he spent some years at Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada—the first stop in his migration to the West.
Ratmansky has a very down-to-earth and humble style—never for one second did he project an arrogant air, which one may expect from someone of his fame. For me, it was tremendously satisfying to see and listen to this choreographic genius talk about his eventful and rich life journey, and the progression of his prolific career.
I was especially intrigued by his story about how he lost the chance to choreograph the “Nutcracker” for the Mariinsky Theater Ballet, only to have found a chance to do so at the Royal Danish Ballet where he was a principal dancer (see related article below). It was also very interesting to hear that he had lived in Copenhagen for five years (just across the border when I lived for five years) before finally deciding to give up the “good life” and work for the Bolshoi. It was not an easy decision for him, as he and his wife had settled well in this Nordic country, their son being born there and even mastered Danish. But Ratmansky took the leap across the pond again, started working earnestly on choreographing new works and eventually became the Artistic Director of the Bolshoi for five years. Under his leadership, the company introduced a great number of new ballets and became a dynamic player in the world of ballet once again.
Later on, in 2009, Ratmansky joined the American Ballet Theater as an artist in residence. He told the audience how leaving the Bolshoi and joining the ABT gave him the biggest creative liberty in his career. Without having to spend half of his time working with the administrative aspects of a huge ballet company, where intrigues and complaints were inevitable, he was now free to focus on creating new works. Since then, he has been having a hell of a good time while working almost non-stop, with companies from all over the United States and around the world approaching him to commission new works.
Even on his breaks, he works hard on reconstructing Petipa and Ivanov’s classical ballets from the archive of Stepanov dance notation scores at Harvard University. The recently staged “Sleeping Beauty” of the ABT was a result of his painstaking work, done together with his wife Tatiana, who was a former ballerina at the same three ballet companies where Alexei danced. The couple would be studying the Stepanov scores, deciphering the lost language of this specific branch of dance notation, figuring out the inconsistencies and omissions… it is truly a labor of love in progress.
Ratmansky revealed that many of the steps prescribed by Petipa were a far cry from what we are seeing today. For example, he meant for the arabesque to be at a modest elevation, not higher than 90 degrees, which is the opposite of today’s penchant for extremely high elevation. He explained that when Petipa designed the steps, all of them were meant to create a certain artistic unity, which, unfortunately, has been destroyed in today’s renditions of his works through the extreme athleticism and the extra show-off steps that went way beyond what the original musical scores would allow. This is the reason why he has started to reconstruct the Petipa classics like the recent one he did for the ABT. He has a desire to continue this endeavor, which means a great many surprises and feasts for us balletomanes in the years to come.
On a personal note, Ratmansky told us that he has not had so much time to spend with his son over the years, but whenever they had a chance to spend a holiday together, the time was enjoyably and intensely spent. His 17-year-old son was with him and his wife in Hong Kong and loved what this exotic city had to offer.
Ratmansky was joined by Madeleine Onne, the Artistic Director of The Hong Kong Ballet, after the Q&A session. They reminisced on how they met in Stockholm a long time ago and how life has brought them back together again on the current collaboration. Unfortunately, the session did not allow time for the audience members to ask questions. If I had a chance, I would ask him: How do you choose music for your ballets? In a way, he addressed the issue earlier on by expressing his love for music with depth and a certain darkness, best exemplified by the music of his favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.
On social media, dancers of The Hong Kong Ballet have expressed how wonderful it was to work with Ratmansky.
In the second half of the evening, we were fortunate to see Ratmansky coach a group of dancers in an on-stage rehearsal of Le Carnival des Animaux. It was an eye-opener. Here is an excerpt of the rehearsal. Enjoy!