Not that this worries him. Many dance-lovers agonise over the way their chosen art form is adored only by a minority. Not Ratmansky. “I don’t care about that,” he says. “I don’t think there is any problem if the amount of people who love it is small.”
Yet the 45-year-old Russian has probably done as much as any living choreographer to make ballet feel vital and relevant. Mikhail Baryshnikov told me that “Russia never had anyone better”, comparing Ratmansky’s work to that of historically significant figures such as Petipa and Balanchine. Alastair Macaulay, fastidious critic for The New York Times, has described him as “the most gifted choreographer specialising in classical ballet today”.
He was an outstanding director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004-08, nurturing a new generation of dazzling dancers such as Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev and encouraging others such as Maria Alexandrova and Sergei Filin, who went on to lead the Bolshoi himself. He also burnished the lost works of the Soviet era such as The Flames of Paris and The Bright Stream.
Now, as artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York, he is free to choreograph major works for companies around the world, including the Royal Ballet, for which he created 24 Preludes, to the music of Chopin. And a generation of American children is growing up with his fabulously rethought version of The Nutcracker, which has begun its seasonal run at the Brooklyn Academy.
It is, he says, a good place for them to discover ballet because “Christmas, presents, sweets, toys coming to life, scary mice, boys and girls on stage – all appeal to children”. His production adds a couple of twists to the traditional story, including the idea that Clara and her Nutcracker prince see a grown-up version of themselves. “I wanted to avoid a series of unconnected dances, so I have added action,” he says.
This is one of Ratmansky’s gifts. His range is wide, from abstract creations to the restaging of classics. But in creations such as his reworking of Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream, featuring both a dog on a bicycle and a ballerina dressed as a man, he displays a remarkable ability to tell stories through dance.
He has never asked himself why he feels relentlessly compelled to do this. “It just happened to be this way,” he says. “I started to do ballet when I was 10, and I started to love it when I was 15 and I am still passionate about it. In my free time, I still think about it and look at it. That is my main reason for making ballet.”
He works almost constantly. “I do a lot and maybe too much, actually,” he adds, laughing. “On the other hand, I really feel better when I don’t stop. There are stops, of course, between big projects, but if I don’t do anything for half a year or longer, it feels like I am losing the touch.
“If you look at the history books, some choreographers just kept doing it. It also gives me a chance to try to be different and experiment. If something doesn’t work this time, I use the idea next time and try it with a different angle. I think you learn by doing.”
Something like that has recently happened with the Cinderella that he mounted for Australian Ballet, having first made it for the Mariinsky. He has also just choreographed a new one-act version of The Tempest for his home company, which opened to slightly underwhelming reviews. “I am sure I’ll keep working on it,” he comments wryly.
With The Tempest, as with everything, it was the music – in this case a 40-minute Sibelius suite – that was Ratmansky’s starting point. “It is hard for me to pull out ideas. My work goes from the melodies, from the feel of the music – I have a list of all the music that I want to work with. It is a big list, so I am rushing to be able to do it all.”
He is, he says, a very different choreographer from the one he was 15 years ago. “Every time I start to work with a new composer it feels as if I am starting on a blank page and I don’t know anything. On the other hand, it is easier when I am stuck to find my way through. I feel a bit more relaxed in the studio.”
Ratmansky trained at the Bolshoi ballet school but was not accepted into the company. Instead in 1992 he became one of the first wave of Russian dancers to use the opportunities of glasnost to work abroad, dancing in Canada and Denmark, until he began to make work for Bolshoi star Nina Ananiashvili’s personal tours. The invitation to head the Bolshoi arrived out of the blue.
As a man who understood both the possibilities of the Russian tradition and the new influences in Western choreography, he was under pressure internally almost from the start. The atmosphere of conspiracy and opposition he experienced became even more poisonous after he left, culminating in January’s acid attack on Sergei Filin, which cost him most of his sight.
Ratmansky has talked in the past of his struggle during his time in charge, but is reluctant to talk too much about the Bolshoi’s present position. We speak after Filin has visited the company during its London residency and before dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko and two other men were found guilty of the attack. “I think it is important that Filin is back but I don’t know exactly what is going on there at the moment,” he says, adding that he’ll join them at the end of this month in Paris, where they are restaging his production of Balzac’s Illusions Perdues.
He is not currently booked to return to Russia. “Of course it is my home country and I know what it is and I have a lot of friends that I am happy to see and work with again, but I am very pleased and happy to be working in New York,” he says.
In part, this is down to a different artistic vision. Ratmansky is most inspired by the ideals espoused by Balanchine – another Russian émigré to New York – about the pure relationships between steps, space and music. “The choreography comes first, before the story, before the set and costumes, before the star power of great performers. Choreography in itself is an art.
“In Russia something else is important – the experience of the spectator, the theatrical experience. The steps are not so important. In Russia, if the dancer brings tears to the spectator’s eyes that counts a million times more than something more quiet, more technical.”
Ratmansky recognises the virtues of this approach. “Sometimes I tell dancers, don’t be shy, don’t hide behind the steps, you need to bring something of your own to the ballet. But very often in Russia the choreography just disappears behind the dancer’s personality. It takes the art of ballet down a different path, which I am not very supportive of, I don’t think.”
He looks forward to seeing how Osipova, who now performs with ABT, fits into the different world of the Royal Ballet, where she is guest principal. “It’s a very interesting fit,” he muses. “Unexpected but very fruitful, I think. It is a very good base for her talents to be maybe refined in some way. She will still be herself in everything she does but that might lead her somewhere.”
He hopes, too, to choreograph another work for the company after the success of 24 Preludes. “The time was difficult because the repertory was intense and everybody had flu, but it is a wonderful house, with very talented dancers. If they want me back I would be happy.”
There is little danger that they won’t. Ratmansky is the man people point to when discussions break out about the death of the balletic form: while he exists, there is hope of a saviour. He is having none of it. “I don’t know why classical ballet has to be saved. I think it was, and is, in a fine state. There are many fantastically talented young choreographers. Dancers too are much more technically capable than they were before; you would not have been able to imagine what they can do even 20 years ago.”
As a student of the history of dance – he likes staging classical revivals because “it is like getting under the skin of a master” – he points out that, in the early 19th century, after the death of Noverre, narrative ballet’s first proponent, people moaned ballet was in decline. He laughs. “I guess it is a feeling new people are coming and it is all falling apart, but it is just different.”
He has recently been appointed as a mentor on the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and is confident of finding a soulmate. “I am looking for a person to share my thoughts with, because there is actually no one you can discuss choreography with. With dancers usually you are under time pressure and giving them the steps; with critics, they are the other side of the barricade, so I would love to talk but you can’t drop your guard too much.
“With a fellow choreographer, you have these wonderful chances of long talks. I have had them with Bill [Forsythe], Chris [Wheeldon] and Benjamin [Millepied]. I treasure those moments because you can really compare and share ideas.”
courtesy of the Thelegraph