It is a Friday afternoon in January at the studios of American Ballet Theatre near Union Square and Alexei Ratmansky is late for his own rehearsal.
The choreographer spent lunch sweating over his travel visa to the Netherlands, where the Dutch National Ballet is staging an ambitious festival of new works, including one he has yet to create. Autumn was taken up with an evening-length Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada and the summer with his first piece for the Paris Opera. After Amsterdam, ABT’s resident choreographer heads to Miami to complete a work for the City Ballet there. Only three weeks before its premiere will Ratmansky return home – if you can call it that – to finish the ballet he has just begun, Firebird.
He started work at 7.15 this morning. When we finish this evening he will head home for dinner with his family – his wife, Tatiana, and his 14-year-old son, Vasily – then “listen to the music”, as he calls his preparations for the next day’s rehearsals, until 2 or 3am.
It’s a ferocious pace. But, he says, “I want to choreograph as much as I can while they want me to – as taste is tricky. The greatest choreographers fell out of favour. They didn’t like Petipa at the end of his life, and Massine must have been a very sad old man.”
The peripatetic Russian does not work like a man in a hurry, though. With the assembled dancers he proceeds slowly, fine-tuning even as he invents. He takes up details of the arms and legs, the angle of the chin and even the gaze.
The 43-year-old has a rare gift for limning the quirks and verities of human behaviour through classical steps and it has catapulted him to the world stage. In 2003 the Bolshoi commissioned him to resurrect The Bright Stream (at ABT this season), a 1936 comedy of mistaken identity on a communal farm, of which not a step remained on record. The ballet Ratmansky fashioned from the shimmering Shostakovich score and the witty libretto possessed such a winning blend of humanism and classicism, historical savvy and postmodern amplitude, that it won him the Bolshoi’s top post. It also ratified his scholarly bent.
He regularly anchors his ideas to precedent and plumbs the archives for gorgeous, danceable scores. “I need history; some people don’t,” he tells me. “I like reading old books. And it’s amazing what you can find on the internet, starting from the 15th century!”
He is particularly keen on the lost generation of the 1920s and early 1930s, before Soviet ballet came to be identified with heroic kitsch. “It was the beginning of a brilliant development that wasn’t fulfilled. All of this generation” – he reels off the names – “formed a great movement of experiments despite the [political] pressure on the arts that was building up.” In 2008 Ratmansky revived Vasily Vainonen’s 1932 Flames of Paris for the Bolshoi, building the new choreography around the 20 minutes of the original that survived. Vainonen, he says, “was great with rhythm – no less sophisticated than Balanchine. And [Kasyan] Goleizovsky was the first to introduce off-balance partnering, which is the main idea of 20th-century partnering. Then it all stopped.”
The Firebird, a 1910 Fokine-Stravinsky collaboration for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was never lost, however. Everyone from Balanchine to Béjart has made a version and the original Fokine remains in circulation. It is unusual for Ratmansky to plough such cultivated terrain. Why would he want to?
“There are works of art that are timeless” – he cites Sleeping Beauty and Balanchine’s Apollo – “and there are works that belong to their time: amazing, interesting, but there is a space there. I’m pretty sure Firebird is in the second category.” For one thing, the Fokine does not speak to Russian audiences. “Diaghilev found a special style to represent the Russian ballet in the west, for a special public. It’s a foreign aesthetic somehow.”
Ratmansky’s Firebird offers subtle but important reinterpretations. For instance, in Fokine’s version the 13 maidens enthralled to the wicked wizard Kaschei are mild and virginal, playing catch with apples. Ratmansky has instituted “a little change” in the libretto: the maidens are no longer innocents. Now they are monsters like their deathless leader. In rehearsal, the choreographer gives the corps jagged, jaunty steps. “It is a dangerous place,” he says of their turf. “Men die there. They go to save the girls and they turn to stone.” To rescue them, Ivan, the ballet’s human hero, must divorce the women from their nature. Finally there is something at stake in this fairytale.
Next Ratmansky turns to the lullaby near the end of the 45-minute ballet. Traditionally the firebird lulls everyone to sleep and dances while they snooze. Ratmansky has us enter their dreams – “an inner landscape, deep down in your unconscious,” he tells me. The wild firebird, stalwart Ivan, seductive Kaschei and chief lady-monster tangle with each other in a pas de quatre of almost comic complexity. No one quite knows what (or who) hit them. It is typical of Ratmansky to have multiple self-absorbed dramas coinciding and colliding.
But, if you ask him, he will say – he does say – that dance is not capable of the nuance I ascribe to him. “If you want psychological complications, you’d better go to the cinema or read a book,” he advises. If you want the “philosophical, universal, important, big”, listen to Beethoven. “In one sense, dance is limitless,” he continues. But, in another, “it’s just dancing”.
‘Firebird’ premieres at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, March 29. www.scfta.org
Then Metropolitan Opera House, New York, from June 11. www.metopera.org