Writers & Company

Star choreographer Alexei Ratmansky makes breathtaking ballet out of classic literature

The Russian-born choreographer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about training as a young dancer in St. Petersburg and getting his start at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Alexei Ratmansky is an award-winning modern ballet choreographer and former dancer. He was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2013. (Laura Antonelli)

Alexei Ratmansky is one of ballet's most sought-after choreographers.

Described by The New York Times as a creator of "dance poetry," he's produced works for many of the world's major ballet companies, often inspired by literary sources ― from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Shakespeare's The Tempest

In 2011, Ratmansky was commissioned by The National Ballet of Canada to create a new version of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The production was a smash hit and toured internationally. 

Born in St. Petersburg, Ratmansky was the artistic director of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet for four years. In 2009, he moved to New York to join the American Ballet Theatre as Artist in Residence. 

His most recent work, Of Love and Rage, is based on Callirhoe ― a 2,000-year-old novel by the 1st century Greek writer, Chariton. It had its world premiere in California on March 5, 2020. 

Ratmansky spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at The National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, where he was rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.

Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in Alexei Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet for The National Ballet of Canada. (Bruce Zinger)

The Bolshoi tradition 

"I think a ballet career in Soviet Union was considered very prestigious, even for the boys. The ballet was on TV every week and the ballet stars were the talk of most people. These people were great stars. Everyone knew Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev.

"My aunt who lived in Moscow, she suggested the Bolshoi school — the best. And I did get there. She said, 'If you succeed, you'll be able to see the world.' I remember her words and that was something that excited me too.

"I remember Dad, he traveled to Moscow for work and he brought me with him. And then we were just on the street and we saw the poster — the Bolshoi school takes kids. [Dad] said, 'Do you want to try?' I said, 'Sure.' And that's how it happened.

"The competition was fierce. I remember hundreds of kids when we took the exams. I remember many kids crying because they didn't get through. And then, to everybody's surprise, we got a letter saying, 'He's in.' I was 10 years old and that meant that I would be living away from the family. They lived in Kyiv, Ukraine and I stayed in Moscow. I had my aunt living there, so I would visit her on weekends and she would take care of me.

It was all about the heroic dancing. One-handed lifts. Larger-than-life acting. That was the Bolshoi tradition I grew up with.- Alexei Ratmansky

"The first couple of days, it was a bit tense. But then I made friends. At some point, I started to like it because I started to succeed — and then I started to love it. 

"It was all about the heroic dancing. One-handed lifts. Double, triple turns in the air. Huge jumps covering the huge Bolshoi stage. Larger-than-life acting. That was the Bolshoi tradition I grew up with."

A scene from Alexei Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet for The National Ballet of Canada. (Bruce Zinger)

Adapting literature to dance

"The essence of dance is very simple. You dance for joy. There is another tradition, which is ancient, which is to dance to connect with the universe — with the power of the creation. And yet another tradition, for funerals, for something tragic. They would perform a ritualistic dance. But the best and the most organic one is for joy.

"When we try to compete with drama or philosophy or movies, it's hard to compete — because we go against the essential quality of dance.

The essence of dance is very simple. You dance for joy.- Alexei Ratmansky

"The dancers are athletes — highly trained, capable of extraordinary things — but they also are actors, so they can act like actors and they can also colour the steps. To a certain degree, some steps could express something, but it's actually adding a special little thing to the step that would make it expressive.

"The classical step by itself, like arabesque for example, or assemblé, or attitude or tour en l'air, it does not, it can't express anything unless we add acting or a bit of contemporary sensitivity into the upper body — like little tilts, little twists. That's where there is a lot of possibilities."

Romeo and Juliet

"Romeo and Juliet's score is one of the greatest ever — or maybe the greatest? Some people like Tchaikovsky better, but Romeo and Juliet is faultless — with its Prokofiev score. You need to listen to it and it carries you through the story beautifully. While I was skeptical that I could succeed, because there are some extraordinary productions, I really wanted to experience working with this music. 

"Listening to the story and finding the movements that fit, it's a very exciting process. Sometimes it just flows and sometimes you suffer and struggle — and you can't find the right combination of steps or the right mise en scène for the actors and dancers.

I remember dancing Romeo. There is nothing like it because you make your heart naked.- Alexei Ratmansky

"[Romeo and Juliet] are lovers of genius. They go through transformation as characters. They mature by the end of the story. Through the movements, they need to let the audience embrace them. 

"I remember dancing Romeo. There is nothing like it because you make your heart naked. You don't experience that kind of passion in life. In life, you don't kill yourself. But here is an extreme situation — and if you find truth in it that's the best thing."

Alexei Ratmansky's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

 

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