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Winter 2012

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Wendy Lesser

The Bright Stream,
choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky
to music by Dmitri Shostakovich.
American Ballet Theatre, New York,
June 2011.

Alexei Ratmansky, who is now the artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, made his reputation re-choreographing Shostakovich’s first two ballets, The Golden Age and The Bolt, for the Bolshoi Ballet. A young lion of a Russian choreographer, Ratmansky found his match, his ancestor, and his muse in that young lion of a Russian composer, who wrote his first ballets in 1930 and 1931, when he was about twenty-five years old. I have not seen the Ratmansky version of The Golden Age, but I thought his updating of The Bolt was a masterpiece. So it was with something exceeding anticipation that I went to see his recent production of The Bright Stream, Shostakovich’s third and final ballet.

To say I was disappointed would be inaccurate. I was confused and unsettled and not at all sure what I felt. I went to the ballet twice in three days, and the second time I was even more impressed than the first—but I was still unsettled. The dancing was often thrilling and the character portrayals a delight. As always in Ratmansky, the ensemble bits were brilliant: in one superlative entr’acte, the dancers put on an inventive parade in which they jointly mimicked tractors, drivers, and even crops. (The ballet’s plotline, in case you were wondering, revolves around a harvest festival at a collective farm called the Bright Stream.) I could happily have watched it all four or five times more. But compared to the memorable dances that have truly moved me in the past—Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas, Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, not to mention Ratmansky’s own previous works to Shostakovich, including Concerto DSCH as well as The BoltThe Bright Stream struck me as somehow flimsy, or tinselly, or false. Why was this?

Ratmansky is one of the greatest choreographers working in ballet today. His virtues are many, but chief among them are the capacity to make individual character emerge from a dancer’s gestures and, even rarer, the capacity to make ballet dancing look like dancing—that is, like something a human being might do for fun when set alight by music. Most ballet looks like a series of exaggerated and somewhat stilted poses set to background music that only randomly goes with the steps. Occasionally this is augmented by astonishing acrobatics or amazing feats of physical prowess, but though these moments draw oohs and aahs from the audience, they do not really mean anything: what the audience is experiencing in such cases is admiration for technique, not artistic response. When ballet really works—when any art form really works—it is because the individual audience member is stirred to the point of perceiving her own world freshly, through some kind of felt connection, physically and emotionally, with what she finds before her on the stage.

For Ratmansky, the way to accomplish this has always been through the music. It is not just that the steps he choreographs go to the music (though that would be rare enough, in ballet); it’s that they seem to stem from the music itself, interpreting the music to us at the same time as they interpret the dancers’ characters. The people in a Ratmansky ballet—by which I mean both the dancers and the characters they portray—seem the spontaneous outgrowths of the music to which they move, created by that medium and perfectly joined to it. If they are funny or charming or ridiculous or sad, it is because their music is funny or charming or ridiculous or sad. And this is true even of largely non-narrative ballets, like Concerto DSCH, for the correlation is not a simpleminded one between story and tune, pantomime and accompaniment. Ratmansky’s connection to the score goes far deeper than that, and somehow he manages to transmit this feeling to his dancers, so that even familiar performers become something else in his hands.

I got to see two different leading casts in The Bright Stream, and part of the pleasure of going twice lay in noticing the subtle differences in the portrayals. As the urbane ballet dancers visiting the collective farm and conferring their glamor on the harvest festivities, Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg were noble to the point of grandiosity; Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns, in those same two parts, relied much more on a movie-star-ish sex appeal. Paloma Herrera, as the local girl who had once aspired to ballet fame, carried throughout the evening a weight of delicate sadness, caused mainly by the suave infidelities of her husband (played by Marcelo Gomes); Veronika Part, dancing the role two nights later, seemed filled with a beauty and strength that made her more than a match for the boyishly flirtatious Alexandre Hammoudi.

In the second half of the show, when all these characters took on disguises to further the mismatched-lovers plot, their individual characters became even more pronounced. Hallberg, for instance, was required to dance most of the second act in a floppy tutu and toe-shoes. He gave the performance its full comic potential (the audience was in stitches), but he also gave it a measure of seriousness, drooping his shoulders and curving his arms in a gracefully feminine way, so that at moments we could almost believe he really was a ballerina. In contrast, Stearns played the role for all its disjunctiveness, emphasizing the ridiculousness of this masculine frame clad in female garb, and by extension satirizing the very conventions of ballet by suggesting that toe-shoes were a curious form of torture.

Yet the strengths of Ratmansky’s excellent performers only underlined the weaknesses of the ballet, for this was a plot that could not sustain the weight of serious character portrayal. What could Shostakovich have been thinking, when he agreed to write the music for a 1935 Soviet ballet about the comical goings-on at a collective farm? By that time, the worst excesses of the collectivization movement—its harsh violence against the kulaks, the subsequent widespead famine—were common knowledge among at least some Soviet citizens, as we know from the stories and novels of Andrei Platonov and Vasily Grossman. Even if we grant that Shostakovich was handed the plot and libretto by his collaborator, the choreographer Fyodor Lupakhov, it’s still not clear why he felt he had to involve himself in this doomed project. Was he asking for trouble, or trying to avoid it? With Shostakovich, it was never easy to tell. The Bolt had proved unpopular with the authorities because, with its sabotage plot and its often discordant music, it seemed to question the unity of the factory workforce. Perhaps he now imagined he could convey a completely rosy picture of sweetness and light and get away with it.

Still, this piece must have struck some members of the original audience as an overt satire, and not just a satire of ballet. In an article called “Ballet Falsehood” that appeared in Pravda in early 1936, the composer, the choreographer, and the librettist were taken to task for failing to appreciate the seriousness of the collective-farm theme. (As so often in Pravda’s dangerously cranky criticism of Shostakovich, a grain of artistic truth was swimming amidst the fetid official language.) And the authorities were not the only ones to feel that something was lacking in this production. Shostakovich’s best friend and most trusted musical advisor, Ivan Sollertinsky, criticized the music in private for its lack of unity and its heavy borrowings from The Bolt, finding it noticeably “inferior” to the composer’s two previous ballets. Even Shostakovich himself, in a letter to Sollertinsky written just before the 1935 premiere, called this project “my shameful failure” and confessed that he had “felt that way about it from the very beginning. I only want you to believe my attitude,” he pleaded with his friend, “and by believing, to understand, and by understanding, to forgive.”

That was the private Shostakovich. The public one, writing in the Bolshoi Ballet program booklet, was much more sanguine about his accomplishment:

The music to the ballet is, in my opinion, happy, light, entertaining and, most importantly, ideal to dance to. I delib-erately sought to find a clear, simple language, equally comprehensible both for the audience and for the performers. In my view, it is not merely difficult but quite simply impossible to dance to music with a flabby rhythm and melody. I believe it is fundamentally wrong to try to replace genuine ballet with some kind of surrogate in the form of a dramatised pantomime… Just as one cannot omit music from opera (though this is also a convention), so one cannot eject dancing from ballet.

Shostakovich was notoriously cagey in his written statements, and we can never take anything he said at face value. Clearly in this case he is trying to cover himself. But he is also, I suspect, hinting at the truth, or at any rate a truth. The music for The Bright Stream is indeed “ideal to dance to,” in that its regular rhythms and chipper melodies naturally give rise to the kinds of gestures and movements that reflect the pleasure and freedom of pure bodily expressiveness. Ratmansky has assiduously followed this musical hint, and what we get in the dancing he made for The Bright Stream is largely an expression of that kind of physical joy.

But in being faithful to the music, Ratmansky is also faithful to the project’s self-divisions, and that may well be the primary cause of my underlying unease. The falsehood that can be detected here is not just a matter of plot (how can you truly present a “happy, light, entertaining” portrayal of Soviet collective farms?), but also a matter of character: Shostakovich’s character, that is. Optimistic cheer was not a mode he found congenial, and whenever he put it on, it was always a noticeable mask. Here he is wearing the mask practically all the way through the ballet, and the effect—on me, at any rate—verges on the ghoulish. Once or twice the mask slips, as when the figure of Death enters the stage to a deliciously creepy waltz tune, causing one to think, “Here he is at last, the real Shostakovich!” But Death is quickly banished, and the composer once again hides his face behind the unremitting sweetness and light.

I suspect that Ratmansky means us to feel this division, and part of my suspicion stems from the way he has retranslated the ballet’s name. Most English translations render the title of Shostakovich’s third ballet as The Limpid Stream. What limpidity and brightess have in common, when applied to streams, is a lack of muddiness or obscurity. But the word “limpid” also suggests transparent clarity—in that sense, truth or honesty—in a way that “bright” does not. Brightness can be a feature of satire or even deceit. Brightness can be false in a way that limpidity cannot.

In 1935, when Soviet audiences first saw The Limpid Stream, they did not need much of a hint to alert them to the piece’s deceptiveness. That meaning lay before them, as clear as running water, and they would have had no trouble adding their own dark thoughts to the ballet’s superficial lightness. (Even Shostakovich’s friend Sollertinsky, after witnessing a live performance, saw how this might work: “For the first time The Limpid Stream began to sparkle with the richest of orchestral colors,” he observed.) We in America, in 2011, perhaps require some additional guidance to lead us to the same perspective. Alexei Ratmansky, with his typical lightness of touch, has offered us a helping hand across this particular stream; whether I am capable of taking him up on it remains an open question.

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of nine books, including one novel and eight nonfiction works. Her latest book is Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, published by Yale in 2011.

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