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June 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: June 20, 2011
Category: review

Banned Ballet Gets New Life

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK – Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream,” which had its New York premiere with the American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera June 9-15, is a comedy of errors in the vein of “Twelfth Night.” Cross dressers and star-crossed lovers abound. As restaged from the 1935 Soviet original, choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov to Shostakovich’s score, it places the action at an autumn harvest festival, where happy-go-lucky Dacha Dwellers, Caucasus Highlanders and Fieldworkers, high on the pleasure principle, flirt, snatch kisses and act otherwise delightfully unvarnished. They do so via a potpourri of dance styles—from the buffoonery of vaudeville to the high stepping of the Jazz Age to the stylized drama (albeit satirized) of the Romantic ballet tradition. Ratmansky’s “Bright Stream,” premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003 and viewed here June 11, is, at heart, a ballet buffa.

Its history is also the most tragic in the Soviet ballet canon. Stalin’s dismissal of the work wreaked havoc on its creators; co-librettist Adrian Piotrovsky was sent to the gulag, Lopukhov lost his position as Leningrad’s ballet master in chief, Shostakovich, already in disfavor for “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” never wrote another ballet score and had all of his theatrical scores banned. Pravda, the de facto house organ of the Communist party, denounced the ballet about romantic high jinks between artists and folks, calling it “slick and high handed” and utterly “false.”

Why was it “false?” Because “Bright Stream” was created before there was as any kind of clarity about how to construct a politically correct, realist Soviet ballet. The best example of that was “Spartacus” (1954), in which the eponymous hero leads the slave revolt against the Romans (read Western capitalists). That “ballet” dispensed with the trappings of Romantic ballet – no pointe shoes, no aristocrats in love with village girls, no tragic endings. And neither hero nor heroine was from the elite class.

In “Bright Stream,” the main characters behave as they would in any Romantic ballet, not like good Communist workers. Pyotr, a married agricultural student (Alexandre Hammoudi), has a head that is easily turned. It swings in the direction of The Ballerina (Stella Abrera), an old friend of Pyotr’s wife Zina (Veronika Part), a local amusements organizer. In the first scene Zina dances on pointe with her brow in a book. Pyotr tries to distract her, until he himself is distracted by The Ballerina, to whom he gives chase, causing his wife to weep.

In addition to the typically Romantic ballet behavior of the hero, who is in pursuit of the naive girl or creature from the glade, “Bright Stream” has all the markings of classic vaudeville: the scenes, delineated in the (preserved) libretto, unfold in a series of skits; the narrative churns along with the aid of a drop cloth — when it comes down, Pyotr hops in front of it like a puppet, hoping to win the attention of the Ballerina. Lopukhov’s previous tours of America’s vaudeville circuit undoubtedly gave him the idea to leave the lip of the stage open for action, in order to keep the story moving.

The characters too, have a vaudevillian quality: no one’s feelings run too deep and comic behavior rules. Pyotr lusts not just for The Ballerina, but for any ballerina. When Zina disguises herself as one and dances publicly, Pyotr goes after her – until he learns he already has her, since she’s his wife. Is Pyotr a Vaudevillian fool? Check. Did American-born Vaudeville appeal to Stalin? Nyet, is my guess.

As for Ratmansky’s choreography, his talent for crafting rhythmically inventive movement phrases is well in evidence, as when the Highlanders and the Fieldworkers alternate between barrel turns and deep lunges, forming a fast-moving circle that resembles a speeding carousel. In place of its horses on sliding poles, are the dancers, levitating independently, and energizing Shostakovich’s folk-inflected melodies.

In truth, it was difficult to concentrate on the choreography, so fast-moving is the narrative, in which three couples switch their allegiances to each other for a sexual thrill or a prank. Perhaps a second or third viewing of the ballet would remedy the problem, so let’s hope ABT keeps “Bright Stream” in its repertory for years to come.

The high point of “Bright Stream” comes when the Male Dancer (Cory Stearns) dons a long tutu and impersonates La Sylphide, the forest fairy and famous symbol of female un-attainability. Stearns, who is tall and broad shouldered, danced with technical polish on pointe. He could get a job with the Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo in a snap. Stearns seamlessly fluttered across the stage on his pointes. He made a dead stop, when the Old Dacha Dweller (ABT Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee) tried to cop a feel. Stearns with his long tutu eyed the old letch with the wide-legged stance of an intimidating football player. His alternation between dancing light as a feather and heavy as a rockslide made the audience laugh with glee.

Though their choreography wasn’t as comedic as Stearns’s, lead dancers Part and Abrera were nonetheless enthralling, especially in their side-by-side unison in the final scene; they mirrored each other – and the score — perfectly. At such moments, Ratmansky’s choreography resembled a master calligrapher’s brushstroke. He makes one aware of how dancing carves space and time. How its ephemeral nature creates a kind of mystery that, paradoxically, is the key to its staying power as an art form.

Copyright © 2011, Musical America

Musical America



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