Alexei Ratmansky, or The Education of a Choreographer

Alexei Ratmansky, or The Education of a Choreographer

Coppélia Alexei Ratmansky in prova

Alexei Ratmansky was born on August 27, 1968 in what was then known as Leningrad, to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. His father was from Kyiv, his mother from Leningrad. Though Ratmansky’s parents and elder sister Maria were living in Kyiv, they traveled to Leningrad for the birth, returning to Kyiv a few weeks later with the new baby, Alexei. Osip, a former gymnast, was an aeronautical engineer. Valentyna was a psychiatrist. And despite the challenges of life in the Soviet Union, they lived a happy, comfortable, middle-class existence, with regular vacations in Crimea, a car, and frequent visits to museums and concerts.

From the youngest age, whenever Ratmansky heard music on television or on the radio, he would dance around. Soon, he was putting on shows for his parents and their friends. Eventually, his parents decided that perhaps he should study dance. They asked around, and were told that the best dance school for boys was the Bolshoi School, in Moscow. So Ratmansky and his father set off for Moscow to take part in a general audition, even though Ratmansky had yet to take a dance class. After a few days of tests, Ratmansky was informed that he had been accepted.

So, at the age of ten, in 1978, Ratmansky enrolled at the Bolshoi school, and left home. In the ensuing years, he studied intensively, eventually entering the class of the famous teacher Pyotr Pestov. School was supplemented by frequent trips to see performances at the Bolshoi. He was an eager student of art, and, as he had back in Kyiv, he started to make short dance shows with his classmates. These included a ballet based on Paul Dukas’s symphonic poem The Sorceror’s Apprentice, in which Ratmansky danced the role of the apprentice.

But when he graduated, Ratmansky was not taken into the Bolshoi Ballet Company. And so, in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster, he returned to Kyiv to begin his professional career at National Ballet of Ukraine. He spent the next six years there, performing mostly classical ballets andrising to the rank of principal dancer.

This was in the late eighties, the period of glasnost and perestroika. For the first time, Ratmansky saw foreign companies perform ballets by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián, Roland Petit, and Maurice Béjart, and he found that he liked them more than the Sovietized versions of the nineteenth-century repertory and the muscular works of Soviet choreographers like Yuri Grigorovich. But though he was eager to dance in them, it seemed unlikely he would ever get the chance.

That changed with the fall of the Soviet Union, at the end of 1991. In 1992, he left Kyiv for Canada to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where he would stay for three years. Finally, he was able to learn and dance Balanchine ballets like Square Dance and Allegro Brillante, as well as works by Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, and Twyla Tharp. The experience made him faster, sleeker, more adaptable, more subtle in his interpretations.

It was also in Canada that he made his first ballet as an adult, shown at one of the company’s choreographic workshops. It was a comic sketch, called Whipped Cream, set to music from an obscure ballet by Richard Strauss. In 1994 he choreographed his first full evening of ballets, for the Ukrainian National Ballet, after winning a choreographic prize at a local competition. He found that he was exhilarated by the creation process. “I felt like I had wings behind my back,” Ratmansky has said.

The following year, he and Tatiana decided to leave Canada. With Kyiv as their base, they free-lanced, performing new works choreographed by Ratmansky for the two of them. It was at one of those performances that Ratmansky met Nina Ananiashvili, a star of the Bolshoi with a touring company of her own. When she invited Ratmansky to choreograph a piece for her, it provided him with his first hit. The Charms of Mannerism, as it was called, was a suite set to a series of charming keyboard pieces by the French Baroque composer François Couperin orchestrated by Richard Strauss.

Like Whipped Cream, it was funny. Humor and irony have always been part of Ratmansky’s vocabulary. One of his favorite books is Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, and one of his favorite movies is Fellini’s Prova d’orchestra. He loves the qualities that humor encourages in dancing: spontaneity, naturalness, informality. It is one of the reasons why dancers seem so free, and so individual, in his ballets.

The Charms of Mannerism brought him to the attention of the most important ballet companies in Russia, the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. Soon, they were asking him to choreograph ballets for them. In 2002 he created a post-modern Cinderella for the Mariinsky. Then, the next year, he made the ballet that changed his life: The Bright Stream. When this farce, set on a collective farm, to music Shostakovich, premiered at the Bolshoi, it was a roaring success. It was a turning point, for the Bolshoi and for Ratmansky.

At the time, Ratmansky and Tatiana were dancing at the Royal Danish Ballet. They spent seven years there, and it was during this period that Ratmansky became familiar with the ballets of August Bournonville. Bournonville is the choreographer who created much of the Danish nineteenth-century repertoire, including the version of La Sylphide that is performed today. Ratmansky was fascinated by the naturalness of the acting and mime, for which the Danish dancers are renowned. This intimate quality is noticeable both in his original works, like The Bright Stream, and in his versions of nineteenth-century ballets like The Sleeping Beauty and Harlequinade.

Because of The Bright Stream, Ratmansky was invited to become the next director of the Bolshoi Ballet, at the age of only 35. He accepted the challenge, retired from dancing, and with his wife and young son moved to Moscow. Ratmansky’s five years at the helm of the Bolshoi (2004-2008) were not easy. He was young, he was an outsider, and he faced resistance inside and outside of the theater. But he stayed, guiding the repertory and the company culture in a new direction.

He brought ballets by Leonide Massine, Christopher Wheeldon, and Twyla Tharp. And he created several new works, drawing from a pool of forgotten Soviet ballets, including The Bolt and Flames of Paris. Ratmansky encouraged a more open-hearted, natural style of dancing, but also shone a light on the ballets’ underlying ideology. In his hands, they became explorations of the humanity of the individual, who suffers in the face of oppressive forces. He humanized the Soviet esthetic.

Ratmansky’s introduction to the American public came in 2005, when the Bolshoi performed his Bright Stream in New York. He was immediately commissioned to create a work for New York City Ballet, Russian Seasons (2006), a non-narrative ballet with folk influences, set to music by the composer Leonid Desyatnikov. It felt completely new, both in its approach to storytelling and in its modernist-post-modernist-folk style. It was so successful that in 2008, when Ratmansky announced that he would be leaving the Bolshoi, it was thought that he would join New York City Ballet. And though that partnership did not materialize then, Ratmansky has continued to make works regularly for the company, including Namouna (2010), Pictures at an Exhibition (2014), and Voices (2020).

Instead, in 2009 he accepted an offer from American Ballet Theatre, where her remained choreographer in residence until spring of 2023, and for whom he made 17 ballets, including the Shostakovich Trilogy (2013), Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (2016), and Songs of Bukovina (2017). During that time he also became one of the most in-demand choreographers in the world, often creating three or four ballets each year for different companies.

What is surprising, besides his productivity, is his range. Ratmansky has made narrative works and non-narrative works, ballets to simple and tuneful music and ballets to difficult contemporary music; light works full of humor, and darker works steeped in chiaroscuro and ambiguity. He has taken all the strands of his dance education and combined them to create a style unique to him. In addition, since 2014, he has acquired another skill: how to read and interpret nineteenth-century notations, using them to create historically-informed versions of some of the most familiar ballets in the canon, including Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. His research, combined with his own taste and imagination, has revealed forgotten, jewel-like facets of these ballets, imbuing them with new life.

Ratmansky is now at a new turning point. He recently left ABT. This fall he finally joined the New York City Ballet as choreographer in residence. On a more personal level, he has been touched by the disaster of war. In early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, the country where he grew up and began his career, and where his family, and Tatiana’s family, still live.

It has been an anxious period. In Russia, his ballets have been stripped of his name, performed without his permission.  At the same time, he has embraced the cause of Ukrainian art and culture. How the conflict will influence his work is difficult to know. But what is certain is that he will continue to grow, to change, and to learn, led by his curiosity, his interest in history, and his love of ballet.

Marina Harss