Interview: Alexei Ratmansky Q&A

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Alexei Ratmansky

Alexei Ratmansky has been Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet for three years – succeeding Yuri Grigorovich, who had been at the helm for over thirty years.

He has ruffled afew feathers at home with his new approach but is also looking to the company’s past repertoire for new productions. As the company start their three week season at The London Coliseum he found time to talk to Graham Watts in the darkened stalls of the theatre while final technical rehearsals were being completed for the opening performance of La Bayadère.

*There’s been a strong bond between the Bolshoi and London for 50 years. You
had a triumphant anniversary season in Covent Garden, last summer. How’s your
reception been this year?*

We’ve only given three performances and so it’s a little early to say what the
reaction is but it’s going fine…….so far…..but it’s a very difficult season in
front of us.

*The opening production for this season has been your own new version of ‘Le Corsaire’,
which closely resembles the final Petipa version from 1899. How much of it
is faithful to the original and how much is your own work?*

Everything that survives from Petipa’s production is in our production. The
missing links were put in by myself and Yuri Burlaka (a specialist in the restoring and revival of Petipa choreographies). I would
say that about 60 minutes is pure Petipa and 20 minutes is mine. Some of the
mime was notated very precisely but in other places, nothing was down so we just
read the libretto and imagined how it could be done. We used every source we
could find to make it authentic – in Moscow, St Petersburg, Paris and at Harvard

We cut quite a lot of mime from the original so it’s not, like, five hours long.
We thought that we needed to leave the minimum for the audience to understand
what’s going on. The important thing is that it’s the right order of scenes.
I think it’s fair to Petipa’s production.

*It’s such an elaborate production. Have you had to change much from the Moscow
premiere in June to fit the Coliseum stage?*

We reduced the number of dancers in the Jardin Animeé. For example, instead
of twelve ballerinas on each side, there are ten. It’s still very crowded but
this is the idea: it’s like a kaleidoscope which constantly changes and it was
intended as a very crowded scene. It’s an incredible structure and idea – no-one
is doing anything like this anymore; it’s Petipa at his best, I think.

Did you have to change it in any other way to suit a London audience?

We thought about changing what Medora (the main character) is screaming out at
one point. She screams in Russian, so we thought about changing it to English
or French, as it was originally.

*There’s been some conjecture about what she screams – it sounds like ‘All Aboard’
in English which is strangely relevant to the action at the time (they are leaving
the pirate’s lair to travel by the Corsaire’s ship)*

It’s ‘na abordage’ (French = À l’abordage’) which is more like a warrior’s cry
when they go from the Pirate’s ship to board the vessel they are raiding. We
thought about changing it but decided to keep in Russian.

*Speaking of London audiences, have you managed to find time to enjoy London whilst
here? Do you have any plans?*

I’d like to see The Car Man by Matthew Bourne – I think the last show is on Sunday (5 Aug 07) and I hope to go.

What do you do to relax?

I would say that London is very relaxing compared to Moscow. There are lots
of green areas and nice, cosy restaurants. While on tour, I don’t have to do
many things that I have to do in Moscow. That’s very good! So, I hope to have
time to enjoy London.

*Having tackled Le Corsaire, I’ve heard that you may also be going back to recreate, as far as possible,
Petipa’s 1895 Swan Lake. Is that true?*

Well, one of the interviewers asked “what about Swan Lake?” and I definitely
feel that we need to go back to the original at some point, because no-one has
done it; not the Kirov, not us, nor any other company. It was a fantastic time
for me to work on Le Corsaire because it was like going into the creative process of Petipa, looking at all
his notations. He was a genius, no doubt about it. The Swan Lake as it was
intended by him or Ivanov, a no less talented man, or Tchaikovsky would be worth
doing, I think.

*Is it about stripping back the layers to get back to the original version, or
the final original, since Petipa himself made many changes?*

We can’t do the authentic production, it’s not possible, but using all the available
material to try to understand what was intended is very important, because you
can’t really go against the idea of those who created this history. It’s nothing
I’ve scheduled yet, it’s just an idea.

*But Vassily Vainonen’s ‘Flames of Paris’ is scheduled for performance next July.
It hasn’t been seen in a full staging for over 40 years. Why have you chosen
to bring this particular ballet back – is it because it’s the 75th anniversary of its creation?*

This is coincidence; it’s not the reason for bringing it back. We want to stage
big ballets because the company’s big and we want to use all the dancers, like
in Le Corsaire or Spartacus ……. so what to stage? We can do Manon; we can do Onegin; we can do another Swan Lake but the Bolshoi’s heritage is more than 230 years of creation. Many, many
titles are forgotten and I don’t think there is a drama-ballet choreographer who
has created a better structure for a 3 or 4 Act ballet than was used by Vainonen.

Flames of Paris is about the French Revolution and it’s still a very valuable, moral thing which
I think could work for us because the situation could be felt as familiar with
what is happening now in Russia: very rich people, and very poor people who have
no future, no money, no nothing. So in that sense it could be up-to-date as well.
And besides, it is brilliant choreography with a lot of scenes preserved on film,
although we will have to re-choreograph and add many things.

It’s a risky project because, of course, it was used as a political tool at that
particular time in the 1930s. It was used as propaganda, but the ballet is still
part of our heritage.

*Another highlight of the London Season is Carlos Acosta guesting as ‘Spartacus’.
The reviews from his Moscow debut earlier this month have been superlative.
Has it met all your expectations and what should we look for in his performance next

I’m not talking about his physical abilities which are amazing but as an actor
this part suits him. It’s like it is his own skin. It’s really rare that you
see the part and the dancer and they have to meet. It’s obvious, it had to happen.

The whole company was happy, I think, because we had a man who is not part of
the tradition, not part of the Bolshoi but who understands the essence of this
ballet. It’s really uplifting for the whole company.

*The Bolshoi doesn’t have a tradition for having guest performers. Is this something
you are deliberately changing and, if so, why?*

Actually, in the ’60s there were some guest appearances, like Yvette Chauviré and Alicia Alonso. I think it’s very important for the dancers, the audience and the Moscow
critics to see the best dancers of the time on the Bolshoi stage.

*Last year, Natalia Osipova wowed British audiences for the first time and this
year her opening night opposite 18 year old Ivan Vasiliev is a mouth-watering
prospect. How much of a responsibility do you feel for making the right artistic
judgements about dancers, so young?*

If I didn’t see their talent as so big, I wouldn’t dare to cast such young people
for such an important event. Vasiliev is extremely talented, as well as Natalia.
They are so modern, so full of energy: I don’t know where it comes from but their
amazing energy transforms the whole performance.

Natalia is much more mature than she was last season. She’s starting to control
herself better; it’s not the case with Ivan, yet.

To put such modern performances inside an ancient ballet gives new life and new
blood to it. It produces an interesting effect.

*Why did you choose to work with Christopher Wheeldon? There has been quite
a lot in the UK press about the problems he experienced in creating ‘Elsinore’.
What can we expect from it?*

It’s changing now but it was never part of the Bolshoi atmosphere to get western
choreographers to work with the dancers but they are much more open and appreciative
now, although they are still very different from western dancers.

He’s a classical choreographer, which is what is most important about him for
us because he understands the classical language from inside and he combines two
very important traditions in his English and American experience. He wanted to
do a story ballet and we wanted this as well, but then he did what he felt was
right with these dancers and with this music (by Arvo Pärt). I think he has produced a very beautiful ballet that is loved by the dancers
and has proved to be a very good addition to our repertoire.

In Moscow it was called Misericordes, which no-one understood. Now I think Elsinore is the right title because it suggests the place and the characters of Hamlet but it doesn’t need to tell the story.

Are there any other British choreographers that you would like to work with?

I think that England is one of the most important places now for new choreography.
It’s rare for dance to be at such a high and it’s great.

*You won the British National Dance Award for The Bright Stream but much of your choreography is modern and abstract (eg Go For Broke, Middle Duet, Charms of Mannerism )*Are you sacrificing this side of your artistry for the sake of directing the

It doesn’t feel that way. It’s more that I want to try different things and
it was an extremely interesting experience for me to work with Petipa’s original
choreography and to try to choreograph in that style. I know that I want to try
different things. By the way, you should see Osipova doing Middle Duet – she just had her debut in Moscow and it’s amazing.

*The Company is touring a lot whilst the Bolshoi Theatre is being renovated.
Where do you go to next?*

We go to Japan for a week with a small group of dancers and then we open the
season in Moscow. In October we go to Rostov in Russia – we travel quite a lot
inside Russia, actually. Then we go to Turin in December and then we have a season
in the Palais Garnier in Paris.

*There are recent rumours that the 2008 completion date for the renovated Theatre
might slip back to 2009. How will the company respond to that?*

It’s now looking like it’s going to be finished in 2009. We are having to change
our plans to respond to that.

*When you were a student at the Bolshoi School, did you ever imagine that you
would be the company’s Artistic Director, one day?*

No! I wanted to dance on the Bolshoi stage but I wasn’t accepted into the company
although I danced as a guest later on. I have been really lucky in my career
(spits and touches wood) but every next step was like “wow, is this really happening
to me” (laughs!).

*Dancer, choreographer, Director…are these roles a part of a trinity of interests
or is it just a case of moving on at the right time and the right age?*

For me, it’s just one thing. It’s part of the same whole being. As a dancer,
I always had choreographer’s thoughts about how do I look at the text that I’m
doing. It’s just exploring one thing from different sides.

*Do you feel the weight of history on you as Artistic Director of such a great

I have so much to do that I don’t have time for philosophical reflection or moods
(laughs). I spent enough time before I took the job thinking what was it all
about; what the tradition of the Bolshoi means and where I should try to go with
it. During my three and a half years as Artistic Director, I don’t think I’ve
changed anything that I thought of before.

July 2007

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