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The Me of Today

Earlier this summer I caught up with the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. A few days later, he would begin his tenure as choreographer-in-residence at New York City Ballet, after thirteen years at American Ballet Theatre. It was clear that this is a time of reflection for him. For the last eighteen months, the country he grew up in, Ukraine, has been fighting off a full-scale invasion by its neighbor, Russia, at great human cost. (On August 18, the New York Times reported that the number of soldiers killed or injured in the conflict had reached 500,000.)  Ratmansky’s parents and sister, and his wife Tatiana’s family, are still in Ukraine. And since last summer, he has been working closely with the United Ukrainian Ballet, a company of Ukrainian dancers-in-exile based in The Hague. He has become a strong advocate for Ukrainian culture. Much of Ratmansky’s early choreographic career took place in Russia, and Russian music has been a frequent source of inspiration. The war has led to a rupture from his own past. In a recent conversation, he reflected on how it has affected his way of thinking about ballet, music, and culture, as well as what it means to him to join New York City Ballet, the house that George Balanchine built, thirty years after he first dreamed of dancing in the company.

New York City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’sPictures at an Exhibition.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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It has been over a year and a half since Russia invaded Ukraine. Your parents and sister are still in Kyiv, and you haven’t been able to see them for several months. I imagine the initial shock and horror has evolved into something else.

It’s exhausting. It’s really hard. But compared to what people are going through there, it’s nothing. We have a routine. We watch the news constantly, online. And the situation goes up and down. But it’s hard to know what’s really happening. The Russian news programs are so painful. And the Western view is that the world is tired of it. What can I say? It doesn’t look like it’s going to end soon. 

When the war began, you were in Moscow, working on a new ballet for the Bolshoi, and you have a long history of working in Russia. How has your relationship to this past changed over the course of this year and a half?

The distance is huge. And it will of course affect the kind of music that I will want to use in the future.  Russian music has been an area that I knew so well and felt so connected to in the past. But now it’s different. Of course, it also gives me the opportunity to explore different music.

Just last year you used three Tchaikovsky overtures as the basis of a ballet for the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. Did you feel differently then?

That ballet had been planned a long time earlier. For a full evening-length work like that, you can’t just come up with a replacement at the last minute. I struggled at the beginning. But in the end, Tchaikovsky is Tchaikovsky, and it carries you. 

Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Fabrizio Ferri

But today, you wouldn’t use music by a Russian composer.

I can’t. I have this this image of Mariupol Theater, destroyed, with hundreds of people buried in the rubble—the building was plastered with the faces of big Russian cultural figures, Pushkin and Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. It’s contradictory in a way, because of course these figures are separate from the current war. But, on the other hand, I understand more and more the connection between Russian culture and Russian imperialism.

An imperialism that for a long time was absorbed even by many Ukrainians.

Absolutely. I remember my disappointed attitude when I returned to Kyiv to begin my dancing career after having studied at the Bolshoi school, and I feel ashamed. When I joined the Ukrainian national company, I was very snobbish, but I quickly realized that there were talents of great importance there. I had never really paid attention to Ukrainian culture, which is actually very rich, very different from Russian culture, and very interesting.

Is that why you recently started a Telegram channel devoted to Ukrainian ballet?

Yes, that’s part of it.  It takes a lot of time, and there is very little material.  

How would you characterize the difference between Ukrainian and Russian ballet? 

We keep discussing this, [me] with Tatiana, because of our experience working with Ukrainian dancers. The way they take in the material and shape it is different. They’re more free. There is a less strict imposition of how things should be done. You can see who the people are. The problem of Ukrainian ballet is just that it was isolated for such a long time. When the Russians opened up to Western ballet at the end of the ’90s and the beginning of the 2000s, nothing similar happened in Ukraine. 

Alexei Ratmansky with the United Ukrainian Ballet, US debut at Kennedy Center February 1, 2023. Photograph by Mena Brunette

What do you hope will happen with Ukrainian ballet once the war has ended? 

I think the most important thing is to open all the doors and become part of a global process. Because this exchange of ideas and choreographers and dancers and schooling, that’s what pushes the art forward. And I’m sure they’ll learn fast. There is hunger, and there are a lot of Ukrainians in the world who have experienced different things and want to bring those experiences back to the country. They recently performed John Neumeier’s “Spring and Fall” and Hans van Manen’s “Five Tangos.” It was the first time they had performed works by these artists.

Do you have a connection to the national ballet company based at the opera house in Kyiv, where you were once a dancer?

We’ve been in touch. A couple of days ago, they asked if they could perform a ballet of mine. So we’re looking into possibilities. 

What role do you think the United Ukrainian Ballet has to play in the profile of Ukrainian ballet in the world?

I witnessed the extraordinary reaction from the audience, so I think it’s important that they continue performing. It connects the audience directly and emotionally with what’s happening in Ukraine. When we had this young soldier, Oleksandr Budko, an amputee, who performed with the company, I’ve never seen something like that, so moving, so strong, onstage. It was in February, when we were in Washington. He was at the hospital there, being fitted for prosthetics. And he said, ‘I want to perform with you.’ He said what the company was doing mattered. 

Alexei Ratmansky in rehearsal with the United Ukrainian Ballet in The Hague. Photograph by Johan Molenaar

Some of your works are still being performed in Russia, by the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, without your permission and with your name removed from the credits. How do you feel now about ballets you created for those companies, like “The Bright Stream” or “Flames of Paris”? 

I think “The Bright Stream” should not be performed again. It’s not funny anymore. It’s of its time. Without knowing or thinking, I participated in a kind of movement or fashion for recycling Soviet material. And now half of the TV programs in Russia are recycled Soviet material. This has become part of the strategy: bringing back Soviet aesthetics and presenting them in the best possible light, as a way to say, “We just need to bring back this empire. See how well we lived back then? See how happy we were?”

Do you think you’ll ever finish the ballet you were making in February 2022 at the Bolshoi, “The Art of the Fugue”?

Yes, I need to finish it someday. I’m not thinking about it now, because I don’t want to recycle that material. But at some point, I’ll get back to it. 

In the past, your ballets have been more the product of your imagination than an exploration of the world we live in. Do you feel differently now?

This is a struggle for me. I listened to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder recently and I thought, no, I can’t touch that. Even though we have these images in our minds of the tragedies in Ukraine. And then the next thing I switch on is a Weber concerto, and I feel that this is more my territory. Then the next day I switch it on again to check how it feels. And I think, well, maybe it’s a bit empty. It’s not the me of today. I’m trying to find my way.

You’re at a crossroads artistically.

I think so, yes. Something is going on. I have never had a problem choosing music, but now it’s more difficult. I have to think about whether I want to reflect on reality or not, or maybe just touch on it lightly. Before, my response to the music was the answer to everything. It was enough to focus on theatricality or irony or style or creating a certain world.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III in Alexei Ratmansky's “Songs of Bukovina.” Photograph by Marty Sohl

Earlier this year it was announced that you would be joining New York City Ballet after being at American Ballet Theatre for thirteen years. What does that change mean to you?

It still amazes me that when I was a dancer at Royal Winnipeg in the early ’90s, I auditioned twice for City Ballet. And now, so many years later, I’ve ended up becoming part of the company. It’s interesting how you can want something and set yourself a goal and one day you get there, but it’s not a straight line. It’s like when I went to the Bolshoi in 2003. It was something you could absolutely not predict.

American Ballet Theatre is performing two of your one-act ballets in the fall, “On the Dnipro” and “Piano Concerto No. 1.” They’re so different; one is a story ballet about a young Ukrainian soldier returning to his village after the First World War, and the other is an abstract work set to Shostakovich that is a kind of exploration of Soviet esthetics. Do the current circumstances and the war color these ballets differently for you?

Yes, I think so. The Soviet time is an integral part of Ukraine; you can’t really ignore it. And I’m extremely happy they’re doing “On the Dnipro.” The company has been doing “Songs of Bukovina” on tour as well. That ballet has always been close to my heart. I’d love to see it performed with the orchestral version of the music [the original is set to piano pieces by Leonid Desyatnikov], which exists now and didn’t yet exist when I made the original ballet. But I think that seeing “On the Dnipro” again will bring different emotions, now that things are so different. I know it will.

Joining New York City Ballet also means that you’ll be staying in New York, where you’ve already lived since 2009. It’s the longest time you’ve spent anywhere, including in your native Kyiv. How do you feel that your relationship with the city has changed? 

I’ve also moved to the Upper West Side. I always think when I’m walking on these streets that Balanchine used to walk here. This is Balanchine’s world. I’m hoping to immerse myself even more in this world that I found so attractive thirty years ago. I enjoyed myself so immensely when Peter Martins invited me to choreograph at the company for the first time [“Russian Seasons,” 2006]. I first saw the company in the ’90s. I remember the Tracey sisters [Margaret and Kathleen], who were both dancers here, so young, so bright, and many others: Peter Boal, Kyra Nichols, and Wendy [Whelan], of course. There are always new groups of dancers, bringing in different colors, but all within the same river. And the source, Balanchine’s genius, is still so strong. It’s not just how they do tendus or transitions, it’s a whole philosophy, a complete system. One of the things I love is that when I watch Balanchine ballets, especially the ones I don’t know well, I see the old, pre-Revolutionary combinations, the old enchaînements that I recognize from the Russian ballet notations. I can see them clearly. 

Megan Fairchild of NYCB in Ratmansky’s “Voices.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

It’s interesting that you will be choreographer-in-residence at New York City Ballet, a company that already has a resident choreographer, Justin Peck. 

Firstly, I think it’s a very positive thing for the dancers. And secondly, it creates a healthy competition. You don’t want to fail if your colleague is doing great things. And on top of that, he and I have a great relationship. He welcomed me warmly.

Do you have an idea already of what you’d like to do for the City Ballet dancers?

There are things I would like them to try. Very precise, very physical things. And I even mentioned to John [Stafford] and Wendy [Whelan] that if they’d like me to teach, I’d be happy to. [Since the season began, he has taught company class several times.] I think there are things I could explain better in class. I can give them different examples. During the creation process, time is limited, you need to move on. And if something doesn’t work, it’s better to come up with a new step. But in class you can keep working.  

That would be a new thing for you, wouldn’t it? 

Yes, I never really had time for that, because it takes preparation to come in and teach. But I think I’m ready. 

You’re making a new “Coppélia” for La Scala Ballet, which will open in December. What kind of production will that be? Original or based on notations?

Manuel Legris [artistic director of La Scala’s ballet company] asked me what I would like to do, and I mentioned “Coppélia.” I won’t be using notations this time because it was already done by Sergei Vikharev for the Bolshoi, and it’s quite good. I won’t be using any Petipa or Cecchetti or Gorsky. It will be all original choreography. The ballet is actually set in Ukraine, in Galicia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire–did you know that? 

Marina Harss’s critical biography of Ratmansky, The Boy from Kyiv—Alexei Ratmansky’s Life in Ballet, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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