Ratmansky Revisited

(photo by Nicole Bengiveno, from NYTimes)

Hmmm, this is turning out to be a bit of a drama. NYTimes chief Sir Alastair weighs in on Alexei Ratmansky’s joining ABT, as does Apollinaire Scherr, who points to this piece of commentary, one of the most interesting in my opinion, by Robert Johnson in the New Jersey Star Ledger.

Johnson is the first critic I’ve read who’s not head over heels in love with the choreographer, but one of his reasons for so being is that he seems to think Ratmansky has somewhat of a Communist streak. He says that during his directorship of the Bolshoi, Ratmansky tried to revive the company, suffering in the wake of Perestroika, by re-staging some successful Soviet-era ballets. Johnson asks what “red eminence” this programming might have. Ratmansky’s own work “Bright Stream,” set to music by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, and praised by many dance critics here (the ballet, that is, was praised, not Shostakovitch), Johnson calls “a disingenuous frolic on a Soviet collective farm,” then interprets Ratmansky’s latest “Concerto DSCH” which recently premiered at the New York City Ballet as a mockery of Imperial Russia, with Soviet revival style triumphing.

I unfortunately haven’t seen “Bright Stream” or any of these other Soviet era ballets, but of course am now dying to. I did see “Concerto DSCH” and didn’t interpret it at all the way Johnson does.

But, even if you can attribute these underlying, subconscious politicized ideas to the choreographer, which is a huge if, so what? Can’t someone critique the Imperial period without being considered pro-Stalinist? (Johnson reminds of the bloody atrocities committed by the Soviet regime) Has anyone ever seen Peterhof? It looks just like Versailles. Your first thought is, whoa, look at all this opulence, no wonder there was a rebellion. But in any event, can an aesthetic critique be interpreted as a political critique? I personally think not, but even if so, is this reason for threat? Aren’t we post-Cold War now?

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I found that part of the article a bit shocking in a McCarthyist kind of way. But I do have to say, I applaud Johnson for resisting herd mentality and offering the first real Ratmansky criticism. (He does have more bases for criticism; this is just the one that seemed most prominent to me. And, by reading James Wolcott, Laura Jacobs seems critical as well — I’ve got to get a subscription to the New Criterion!) In the end, I do have to say, with all I’ve read on Ratmansky this past week, Johnson most makes me want to run out and see everything I can by the man…

(photo by Jennifer Taylor, of “Bright Stream” from NYTimes)

Oh and, somewhat apropos of the critics jumping on the bandwagon thing, I just want to point people to an interesting discussion, begun by Claudia La Rocco (who is so awesome to comment here :) ) on fans versus critics down in the comments section of this post.

4 Comments

  1. I agree that Johnson’s response was very interesting, but I think there are a couple assumptions in his article that seem kind of baseless. When he says, “it would be foolhardy to discount or, God forbid, discard this precious classical repertory,” that seems like a straw man sort of argument to me. I don’t see any indication that such a thing would happen. ABT isn’t going to suddenly jettison their moneymaking classics just because Ratmansky–who programmed plenty of classics as artistic director at the Bolshoi anyway–has come on board.

    When it comes to his criticism of Ratmansky’s choreography, I do agree that there seems to be this kind of undercurrent of anxiety about communism. In addition to your point that an artist ought to be able to criticize imperial Russia–and goodness is there a lot to criticize about it; that rebellion didn’t happen in a vacuum after all–without necessarily praising communism. What I find particularly bothersome though, is that in Johnson’s assessment of not only Concerto DSCH but also of the works Ratmansky created for the Bolshoi he seems to be suggesting that communist themes or relics ought not be revisited. But that’s a huge part of Russian history and it seems to me quite logical that Ratmansky would have worked on these ballets. That’s not to say that we, as viewers, shouldn’t be alert to the political implications of art, but I still find it natural that a Russian choreographer would produce work that related to communism in one way or another.

    Also, it seems to me that Johnson assumes that the work Ratmansky does for American ballet theater will necessarily take the same tone as what he did for the Bolshoi–which is affiliated with the state is it not?–in a country where a certain nostalgia for Soviet supremacy certainly exists. I might just be reading far too much into this though. :)

    Incidenally, John Rockwell also posted about Ratmansky on his blog, noting that the Times was only allowed to interview him in the presence of Kevin McKenzie and Rachel Moore. Such drama.

    Sorry to leave such a long comment…I really need to learn to be more concise! I’m so glad you posted about this though, because I think the whole thing is really quite fascinating.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Meg — and please, don’t ever worry about writing too much; I love long, detailed, contemplative comments!

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s really bothersome to me too that Johnson seems to be suggesting that communist themes shouldn’t be revisited and explored. It IS a part of Russian history, like the Imperial period. Maybe it’s a generational thing? Johnson is of the Cold War generation (I’ve met him before; I’m not making an assumption), whereas I’m Gen X — those for whom the fall of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain were a defining moment that gave us a certain world view — ie: Russia is not a scary foe and communism something to be feared and guarded against. I just know my parents think much differently than I do… I don’t know, the whole article was oddly slanted, although I do really want to see more of Ratmansky’s work now, whereas I hadn’t been as interested before reading Johnson.

    And thanks for linking to the Rockwell. I didn’t know that about the interview — it IS a drama!

  3. Thanks for the article, Tonya – it was an interesting take and a refreshingly different one from the raves that came from the NY Times. I agree with Johnson on a lot of his points, especially regarding Ratmansky’s choreography. As for me, I just haven’t been impressed with the two Ratmansky pieces I’ve seen (Pierrot Lunaire and Bizet Variations) and my response to this news was almost a nonreaction – I wasn’t really disappointed b/c he may become more promising, but nothing I’m too excited about.

    I just don’t know whose idea it was that decided to leak it to everyone that NYCB had offered him the position, when it hadn’t been set in stone. Now it just seems that Ratmansky snubbed NYCB in favor of ABT.

    Hm, SF Ballet is bringing Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons next year – should I be holding my breath??

  4. Isn’t it interesting, you guys, how there’s such a disconnect between critics and the general public on Ratmansky? Anyway, yes Jolene, please do see “Russian Seasons!” That’s the one that the critics most went nuts over here (at least Joan Acocella and Alastair Macaulay); I’d love to hear your opinion. I’d also like to hear how another company does with it — I only saw it performed by NYCB. Maybe SFBallet is doing that one here … I’ll have to check.

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