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Alexei Ratmansky, Artistic Director, Bolshoi Ballet:

Alexei Ratmansky
Iconoclast and Patriot

Alexei Ratmansky is the Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet (he was appointed in January 2004). Ratmansky was born in St Petersburg and trained in the Moscow State Academy of Choreography. After graduation he danced with the Kiev Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet. It was his growing reputation as a roving choreographer which attracted the notice of the Bolshoi, especially his staging at the Bolshoi itself of Shostakovich's The Bright Stream, which attracted favourable reviews. The Bolshoi, however, perhaps got more than it bargained for - Ratmansky is a man who speaks his mind, and his tenure has to date upset both the Duma and the diehard balletomanes, but he is good box office. Our editor Jeremy Noble spoke with him in his office, between rehearsals.

Q The Bolshoi is closing from July of this year until 2008. For many foreigners it is one of the main reasons that they come to Russia, do you think that they will stop coming while the theatre is closed?

No. We're not leaving town. We'll be next door.

Q Can you tell us where we will be able to see the Bolshoi when the main theatre is closed? Only on the New Stage or maybe you will use the stage of the Kremlin Palace?

The ballets we can put on at the New Stage are limited; but mainly there, of course. The Kremlin's stage is not really suitable, but maybe we will put on a couple of things there. .

Q Both the Bolshoi and the Kirov will be closed for reconstruction at the same time; do you think that this makes good sense given that the two theatres are so important for the tourist industry?

That's just how it happened. I didn't make the decision.

Q You have worked at both the Kirov and the Bolshoi, how different are they?

The Mariinsky has already had its period of reform; the Bolshoi is now going through the same process, but here it will be even more complicated. The Bolshoi is divided into two uneven parts: many in the company from the older generation don't want to change anything, but the young ones who are in the majority are ready for changes. The older dancers don't know how to behave in this new environment, they come to rehearsals and don't understand what to do. The young ones aren't afraid to admit that they might not know how to do something, they aren't afraid to learn something new. The 'masters' think that it is better to fall sick than to let others see that they can't do something.

Q Do you think that you are in competition with the Kirov?

No. We have a different direction.

Q The Bolshoi has been very much in the news recently, I am thinking about the controversy over the opera Rosenthal's Children and your staging of Bolt. The Duma seems to think that the Bolshoi is like a subsidiary of the government; what do you think about this?

The Deputies cannot dictate to us what we do, not according to the law or in any other way. And by the way, the reviews of the 'scandalous' Rosenthal's Children were exceptional.

Q You have been very willing to speak up in defence of artistic freedom, I am thinking about the controversy over Bolt. Do you think that artistic freedom is in danger in Russia? Or was it all about marketing?

This was a real provocation, perhaps some chic PR too (said with a little irony; Editor's Note).

Q Your work has been very varied, Middle Duo, Poeme de l'Extase, and Baiser de la fee for the Mariinsky, the comic Carnival of the Animals in San Francisco, the recreation of the Massine ballets at the Bolshoi, the romantic Anna Karenina; a lot of ballets in very different styles. Is this because you like to experiment?

Without losing its history our ballet has to be oriented towards the future. And this is my interest - the combining of history and new trends in ballet. Look at how Russian and Soviet ballets went down completely different roads after 1917. What would have happened if three quarters of the old Imperial Ballet hadn't left with Diaghilev? Yet even after such a loss we survived, like a phoenix.

Q Classical ballet is losing its audience in the West. Is the same thing happening in Russia?

Classical ballet will always be of current interest. And for Russia this is also a very traditional art and a part of our national pride. Russian ballet gives a lot to the world. A Russian person knows that our ballet continues to exist, and this is a guarantee that everything else in Russia will work well.

Q How important are foreign visitors to the Bolshoi?

They are very important. They buy tickets.

Q Foreigners like to watch old-fashioned classical ballet. When you are planning the repertoire of the Bolshoi do you put these classical ballets into the repertoire because they are more popular than modern works?

I have to think about it, yes. But the 'old' Bolshoi is always full, no matter what the ballet. Besides that, the corps de ballet and the soloists can better show off their capabilities in the classical ballets. In the new ballets it is more difficult for them to uncover their potential. That said, now no more than three or four ballet companies in the world can stage classical ballet at full strength.

Q You have made a lot of changes to the repertoire of the Bolshoi in the less than two years that you have been here. What needed to be changed?

Attitude. I would like to stage more new ballets, to create modern Russian choreography. It is not enough to develop old ones only. I would be interested to stage a drama in ballet with tears and strain; that's why I staged Anna Karenina.

Q Who decides what is staged at the Bolshoi? Are you the dictator of the repertoire?

Yes, I decide what ballets to stage. Next season we are restaging a few 'old ballets; ones that were created exclusively for the Bolshoi.

Q The last question, and perhaps the most difficult: why is ballet important?

Ballet can express what cannot be expressed with words. Words express just a small part of what exists in the world, especially in the world of emotions. In this sense, abstract ballet impresses especially. And ballet doesn't need translation. Classical ballet is a universal language; it's not inferior to the 'main arts' of painting and music. I know that ballet is understood everywhere.

© 2005 Jeremy Noble