You can hear in the music the ruin that the 1935 ballet would cause its creators: its composer, Shostakovich; its visionary choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov; and the librettist, Adrian Piotrovsky, soon bound for the gulag. The score is so stuffed with blaring brass that its celebration of life on a collective farm topples into parody. Even Stalin could tell.
In the 2003 remake that landed him the top post at the Bolshoi – the original libretto survived but he had to reinvent the steps – Alexei Ratmansky has translated Shostakovich’s sardonic jubilation over the forward march of Soviet farmers into a parade of irrepressible eccentricity. When the Bolshoi brought the ballet here in 2005, it seemed full of funny notions. This time, the comedy hit in the gut. On opening night (the ballet plays until tonight in New York and resurfaces in Los Angeles come July), waves of laughter rolled through the house.
No one is singing odes to supersized cucumbers on this farm. Instead, staccato harvesters, stomping Cossacks, an insouciant Death scarily flinging his scythe about and a bounding agricultural expert (Marcelo Gomes sailing across the stage) take turns to show off their special moves. A brigade of artists, visitors from the city, has prompted their eagerness to make fools of themselves. And let us count the ways: Ratmansky has a gift for depicting simultaneous self-delusion and adorability.
The Bright Stream is a comedy of errors that leaves loose ends of heartache. Zina, a former dancer, plans various amusements to boost the collective’s morale even as her own sinks: her husband turns out to have a wandering eye. The double-crosser is soon triple-crossed, but justice does not entirely quell her pain.
The Bolshoi programme noted that Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream was “a comic ballet that is also a homage to the people and artists who lived and worked under Stalin”. Zina resembles the many forced to set aside their ambitions for a soul-crushing state. In a beautiful corrective to Stalin’s twisted vision of collectivity, Ratmansky has Zina dance again – and everybody else, too, each in their inimitable way.