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Your 2024 Dance Bookshelf: The Boy From Kyiv

The Boy From Kyiv | By Marina Harss
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
www.fsgbooks.com

Ukrainian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky was a talented dance student at the Bolshoi School in Moscow in 1986, hoping to become a member of the Bolshoi Company. But it was not to be, and instead, he was forced to return to Ukraine on the eve of his graduation. Fast-forward to 2005 when the Bolshoi Ballet wanted Ratmansky to remake the company with contemporary works and reimagine its classical ballets. Dance journalist Marina Harss chronicles his remarkable career as a dance rebel with a cause in her biography, ‘The Boy From Kyiv.’

Alexei was born in 1968 when Ukraine was still part of Russia’s Soviet regime, to Ratmansky’s parents, Osip and Valentenya. His father had a background in gymnastics, and his mother in the performing arts. They encouraged Alexei and his sister to pursue their interests, and Alexei wanted to be a dancer.

His parents brought him to an audition at the Bolshoi School, which they considered the best pre-professional school. His parents thought he might not be able to adjust to the rigors of the school, but in fact, he was thriving in his new life and set his goal on becoming a full-fledged company member.

By 15, he was putting together student shows, training harder, and working with the most demanding teachers, most notably working his way up to the unsparingly stringent ballet master Pyotr Pestov. But Ratmansky became disillusioned by the propagandist messaging in the limited repertory and especially how it was limiting to his strengths and artistry as a lyrical dancer. The Russian danseur was required to have a sculpted physique and bravura persona. Alexei knew there was more to dance than what they were offering him.

Meanwhile, while on tour with the Bolshoi for international student competitions, he absorbed as much as he could about Western dance and had the chance to see the work of Jiri Kylian, Twyla Tharp, and even George Balanchine, whose ballets had been erased from the Russian school syllabus.

Alexei was in his last year at the Bolshoi in 1986, but he could no longer easily travel back and forth to Kyiv over growing political tensions. When the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred only 70 miles from Kyiv that same year, it further complicated matters. Ratmansky never graduated from the Bolshoi school because of these overlapping events. After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine declared its independence from Russia in 1991.

Harss reporting on this challenging era and the impacts on the lives of the performing arts in both countries is essential documentation of vital dance history. And throughout the book, Harss documents a lot of Russian and Ukrainian ballet history and the suffocating effects it had on dancers, who just wanted a chance to grow artistically and control their careers.

Ratmansky returned to Kyiv and joined the National Ballet of Ukraine, and by his second year, artistic director Viktor Litvinov made him a principal dancer. With that company, he danced classical roles that he would have never performed at the Bolshoi, including Albrecht in Giselle, James in La Sylphide, The Spectre de la Rose, and Alain in La Fille mal Gardee.

In Ukraine, he was also getting noticed as a freelance choreographer who could create works for different companies on a moment’s notice. He won first prize at a European choreographic competition convened in Ukraine and was looking to expand his choreographic range. When he attended class with Canada’s Winnipeg Royal Ballet, artistic director John Meehan noticed his stellar technique right away, and he was invited to join the company, and he accepted. He was also in love with Tatiana Kilivniuk, a fellow Ukrainian dancer, and they were making their own future plans.

Alexei was initially thrown by the company’s classical technique, and as conflicted as he was about his Bolshoi training, he struggled with the company’s liberated ballet style. But Meehan said Ratmansky was open to corrections and even gave him tips on elongating his torso and leg line. He was often paired with American dancer Laura Graham, whom Ratmansky credits for improving his partnering skills.

At this company, Ratmansky marveled at the relaxed, creative environment that Meehan established and was particularly impressed at how connected this director was to every dancer, whatever their rank, artistically and personally—an approach that Ratmansky aspired to when he became a director-choreographer over the course of his career.

Tatiana also joined the Winnipeg Ballet as a corps dancer, but when they decided to get married, they returned to Kyiv for the wedding. Upon arrival, Alexei found out that the venerated Serge Lifar choreographic competition was happening the day after their wedding. In no time, Ratmansky staged a comic ballet, ranked the highest in the contest, and then was commissioned to present a whole program of his choreographies.

They decided to remain in Ukraine and joined the Danish National Ballet in Copenhagen. By 2002, Ratmansky created close to 30 ballets; now at age 34, the company not only asked him to choreograph for the Bolshoi but also invited him to direct the company at a critical time. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi went through numerous directors to forge a new era. Tatiana didn’t want to leave the Danish National Ballet or Copenhagen, but Alexei couldn’t refuse the offer.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters were looking for Ratmansky to reimagine the ballet warhorses of the dated repertoire. Ratmansky was sought out as both a dancer and a choreographer. The Bolshoi’s longtime director Vladimir Grigorovich, whose three-decade tenure ended abruptly, unexpectedly awarded Ratmansky the top prize in a choreographic competition, and Ratmansky was given carte blanche.

Harss encapsulates the differences in Grigorovich and Ratmansky’s choreographic styles vis-à-vis the political realities in Russia spanning 70 years, writing, “Watching Grigorovich’s golden age and Ratmansky’s work side by side is revealing. He went on to choreograph a string of hits; the shortlist includes Dreams of Japan, Poem of Ecstasy, Cortana, Turandot’s Dream, Flight to Budapest, Firebird, The Bright Stream, Anna Karenina, Bolt, Ju de carte, Flames of Paris, Petersons of Nutcracker Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet.

‘Russian Seasons,’ one of several ballets he scored to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, was a smash in Moscow. Audiences immediately embraced it, and, ala Shostakovich’s music, his ballets often had subversive or sociopolitical narratives—as evident to some as it was invisible to others.

Harss’ descriptives of dancers in performance take you there in vivid, precise prose. Rather than a forensic prose blueprint of the steps and phrases, she can condense theme and choreography and its impact as performed.

Harss quotes Sergei Filin, a principal dancer at the Bolshoi before he was named director in 2011, recalling the novelty for the dancers at the time. “For us, it was a new feeling to have this sense of responsibility because we were in the room with the choreographer.” It had an ensemble of 24 led by Filin and Anastasia Yatsenko; the dancers were mostly eager young recruits who had never before worked with a living choreographer. Where Grigorovich showcases superhuman strength, Ratmansky is drawn to complexity and detail. Grigorovich’s world is black and white; Ratmansky’s is plagued by ambiguity.”

By the early 2000s, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin was Russia’s new president, reinstalling Soviet-era censorship and propaganda in the arts. Harss does a fine job describing the specific impact his policies had on Russian ballet. Initially, Ratmansky had to contend with a lot of resistance in the entrenched hierarchical systems running the largest classical ballet company in the world.

In Moscow, it was on programming with two original works, the lead dance critic responding to the comic offering with muted praise but noted that the choreographer shouldn’t attempt to “…solve the world’s problems through dance.’’

Harss tracks how Ratmansky continued to challenge stereotypes presented in ballet, noting, “The women in both Capriccio and Charms of mannerisms are witty, self-possessed partners in crime rather than effect or exalted figures. They project a modern idea of femininity—people independent, non-glamorized. This idea has persisted in many of Ratmansky’s subsequent ballets.”

He was now in charge of the company he initially trained for and now wanted him to choreograph for the company. The Bolshoi was changing directors and attempting to contemporize an ossified Soviet-era repertory. Ratmansky’s first ballet for his old training ground was a reimagined comic ballet by Shostakovich called ‘The Bright Stream.’ The old guard Russian critics had so far been dismissive of Ratmansky’s reimagining of story ballets.

After remaking Bolshoi classics for tours of Soviet-era repertoire, most notably reviving Spartacus and his triumphant production of Carmen and staging contemporary classics such as Twyla Tharp’s ‘In the Upper Room,’ which was wildly popular even as it ignited controversies, the company, Ratmansky ushered in a new era, at least in the short term.

He was being scouted as a choreographer in residence at New York City Ballet, since British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had finished his tenure. But the deal fell through when NYCB director Peter Martins Ratmansky made an off-handed comment to the press about fielding many offers. When Kevin McKenzie of ABT got wind of this, he offered Ratmansky a choreographic residency at ABT, an even more desirable position because it freed him up to create ballets for a top company and freelance around the world. Ratmansky was writing his own international ticket, including at the Mariinsky and Bolshoi ballet companies.

Fast forward to February 2022, he was in Moscow creating work when Putin invaded Ukraine. Ratmansky and his artistic team immediately got out of the country just in time before the borders were closed.

The Bolshoi continued to perform Ratmansky revivals without his permission and removing his name. But there’s no doubt, despite Putin’s attempt to erase artists who don’t toe his deadly line, Russian audiences are going to know which ballets are unmistakably by the boy from Kyiv.

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