Alexei Ratmansky in Hong Kong

Alexei Ratmansky in Hong Kong

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!

Related article:

Alexei Ratmansky and the New Nutcracker

Related videos:

Behind the Scenes: Alexei Ratmansky

Richard Hudson on ABT’s The Sleeping Beauty

Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

A-Life-in-Motion

The first and only black soloist to ever grace the stage in the American Ballet Theater’s history has come out with her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina.” I pre-ordered it just in time to arrive before my surgery last month and gobbled it up quickly as I lied in my hospital bed, recuperating. It turned out to be a wonderful choice–a fantastically written account of the stormy childhood that Copeland experienced, moving from one stepfather to another, from motel to motel, having hardly enough to eat, and finally stumbling into a ballet class at the age of 13 without really knowing what ballet was all about.

As fate had it, Copeland found herself plunged into the magical world of classical ballet. To her surprise, she was told that she had the natural physique and talent for this “foreign” art form. Within three weeks of training she was en pointe–and doing it well; and within a few short years she started dancing professionally for ABT, her dream company. The road from there on was not all smooth and glittery. Quite the contrary. Reading her struggles was heart-wrenching, to say the least. At the same time it gave me a great sense of encouragement. My struggles could hardly match hers, although it would be unfair to have any kind of comparison as I am not in the professional ballet world–only an amateur adult student. Still, having just had a major surgery, not knowing when my body would be back in shape again to step into the ballet studio, her perseverance through one hardship after another gave me tremendous inspiration.

In the book she has written in great length what it takes to be a true ballerina. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“It takes so many things to be a great ballerina: talent, strength, the ability to pick up choreography and then turn on an inner light when you perform. Having the right combination is the difference between being an artist who can capture the nuances of light in a watercolor and one who paints by number. I don’t think that most people realize that.”

Most of us ballet students and dancers have a rough idea of what it takes to become a professional dancer. However, I think few of us have any real idea of how much harder it is to be black in this predominantly white world of classical ballet. I thought I knew–until I read this book. Nothing prepared me for the kind of hardship Copeland had gone through.

I will leave you the reader to find out the details from her book. But let me just finish off this review with another passage that I like:

“I rarely get angry when I think about my childhood, wishing for what we could have been if we’d had more of a nurturing home environment. It made us all strong fighters, primed to push through the toughest of struggles. But I do get frustrated with people who experienced relatively ideal lives and yet don’t appreciate what they’ve had. Performing with ABT, I have sometimes overheard my dance mates complaining about going to the same vacation spot with their families, going on and on about how they’d rather be sunbathing than rehearsing, or how bad we have it at ABT versus City Ballet, or some other inconsequential thing. I would think about all that I had been through, what I had to navigate and overcome to stand on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. What are these people fussing about?

Even though I do not relate to her particular experience as a professional dancer, I do relate to her feeling of appreciation of having become a stronger person through pushing through a lot of tough struggles. It is here where I find the greatest resonance.

Related articles:

Video:

ABT’s Nutcracker: a Pleasant Surprise

Nutcracker with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov

After watching the Mariinsky version of “The Nutcracker” on Christmas Eve, I stumbled upon the ABT version, filmed in 1977, choreographed by Vasily Vainonen and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. I must say that I prefer the latter by a large degree after studying both.

I had no idea that the same ballet could be that different. The story line is similar in broad strokes but boy, how ingenious is the ABT version in terms of transitions in the plot, rendering the whole ballet actually a story that makes sense, instead of a mishmash of numerous pretty scenes put together with a very loose thread that can only be justified as a “dream sequence.” Surely the ABT version is a dream sequence, too. But as it is explained in the very beginning, the gift that Clara is about to receive on this Christmas night is the gift of a dream—it is intended by Uncle Drosselmeyer, who is a kind of wizard himself, instead of having the various dances in the Land of the Sweets just happening by chance.

This gift of a dream is actually the birth of a romantic dream in adolescence, represented by the character of Clara. It is a rite of passage, a coming of age, very beautifully portrayed by the ethereal Gelsey Kirkland. I was literally in tears watching her every movement, which simply melded with the beautiful Tchaikovsky music. There is absolutely no jarring steps. One scene leads to another in a seamless way, and Kirkland’s delicate footwork and expressive upper body are really unsurpassed. She is totally convincing playing a teenager, and her “growth” throughout the ballet is gradual and subtle, unlike the awkward switch from a teenager to a full-grown adult princess in the other versions.

Her acting is also superb. There is not a drop of doubt that she is completely smitten by the prince, played by Baryshnikov, and her whole body language exudes the excitement and slight nervousness of a girl who falls in love for the first time.

Baryshnikov is marvelous in his technique and actually not so bad in his acting, either! Very convincing as a prince in love with the young girl and ready to show her the world.

I also like the relative simplicity and smaller cast of the ABT version. Every detail is well thought out and nothing is superfluous, whereas the Mariinsky version seems to be a dozen cup cakes too many!

The only regrettable part of the ABT version is the costume of Clara. It looks as if she was wearing a night gown throughout the ballet. Perhaps that was the original intention, as she is in her dream anyway. But imagine how much more enjoyable if she was wearing a more flattering costume!

I will save the details now and not spoil the fun any further. Enjoy the ballet!

A Night with ABT

David Koch Theater

Every time I visit New York, my dance experience is enriched. I am totally amazed at the quality of the ballet audience there. Most recently (November 2013) I went to see an ABT performance right after I landed. I was seated next to a long-time balletomane. We quickly strike off a pleasant and animated conversation. Well, she took sympathy for me for having to switch seats with my friends because the petite lady in front of me brought a thick cushion to sit on, thus blocking my view entirely even though I paid a high price for the second row seat.

Our conversation swiftly turned to something more pleasant though, from compliments for the guest artist who just performed, Guillaume Côté, to how we both prefer the ABT to New York City Ballet, to how amused she was about my craziness of watching a performance right after landing from Hong Kong. I told her that I had read in Rudolph Nureyev’s biography of how he used to plunge into watching ballet performances after having flown long distances in order to absorb and learn new works. “I am inspired!” I told her.

She even spotted Allegra Kent, a former Balanchine dancer known for her ethereal quality, standing in the aisle chatting with friends. See the picture above where I have made a pink circle? That’s Kent! She is very petite, has frizzy red hair and was wearing a pair of spectacles. I would not have spotted her if my neighbor had not pointed at her direction. Apparently, current and ex-dancers make regular appearances at the David Koch Theater and Metropolitan Opera House. Such a regular occurrence is, to me, an eye opener as well as an eye candy.