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Bringing Back the Banned

The Bright Stream
Bolshoi Ballet
Palais Garnier
Paris, France
January 2004

By Alexander Meinertz
Copyright © 2003 Alexander Meinertz

The new director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Alexei Ratmansky, has performed the unlikely feat of bringing successfully back to life a Shostakovich ballet banned by Stalin and denigrated by no less a figure than Agrippina Vaganova. The Bright Stream was given its European premiere in Paris last week in connection with the ensemble's season at the Palais Garnier.

Vaganova, who—apparently—found the dramaturgy and characterisations of Fyodor Lopukhov's original 1935 production of The Bright Stream inept, called the ballet's characters "puppies" in an article published in Pravda under the heading "No Ballet Falsitudes", and went on to ostracize Lopukhov for failing to adhere to her dogma that classical dancing "should originate from and be expressive of human emotion and social behaviour."

The choreography, she thought, had no regard for the action, contemporary subject and period of the ballet, which was set in the Kuban region of Russia's South, where a group of metropolitan artists come out to celebrate the harvest with the farmers of the collective The Bright Stream and become the objects of all kinds of love confusion.

Stalin, no doubt, had other, less artistic, reasons for not liking The Bright Stream. Perhaps he really believed that Lopukhov's staging of scenes of "modern Soviet life" were not realistic enough, but most probably he just had it in for Shostakovich at this particular time: Earlier that year rumours had it that Stalin had personally penned an editorial in Pravda describing Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk as "Muddle instead of Music."

Shostakovich, in fact, never wrote another ballet, and Lopukhov was later fired as director of the Bolshoi while the author of the scenario of The Bright Stream, Piotrovsky, disappeared in one of Stalin's Gulags, and it is probably a sign of the times, and of Russia going through a period of reconciliation with its Soviet past, that Ratmansky has chosen to revive the ballet and that it is so well-liked by audiences.

The point being that nobody takes the plot seriously, probably nobody did in 1935, not as art nor as an "agit-prop" example of "Soviet realism", but that in creating this ballet Ratmansky and the dancers of the Bolshoi are looking the beast in the eye and having fun doing it, laughing their fears of the past away and making something positive come out of something painful.

Except for a few banners with absurd Soviet slogans shown during the overture ­ "—Worker! Go and learn aviation techniques! Every kitchen maid must learn how to govern the State!" —Ratmansky's production of The Bright Stream is not overtly political. But it is a paean to the people and artists who lived and worked under Stalin, and as such it must carry great significance and have great resonance with Russian audiences and, indeed, with the dancers of the Bolshoi, who look radiant and committed to the new work.

The Bolshoi marvel, Maria Alexandrova, who plays the role of the Ballerina, shoots across the stage in an unforgettable series of great jumps and, disguised as a man in Act II, she has no problems tackling the virtuoso male variation—every single step—that Ian Godovsky, the Classical Danseur, first performs in Act I. Godovsky is both coy and exquisitely mannered disguised as a Sylph. Yuri Klevtsov is shy and ardent as the young farmer, who for a moment forgets his wife, a tender Inna Petrova, while Gennady Yanin is hilariously brash in the role of the accordion player.

Ratmansky clearly has directed the dancers with great detail. He demonstrates great craftsmanship in his choreography and, cleverly, seems to have taken all Vaganova's objections to Lopukhov's version to heart and to have learned from them as words of warning. His palette ranges from the conventional pastiches of Romantic ballets to athletic Soviet-style pas deux, from elements of slapstick and acrobatics to all kinds of energetic marches, entrées and character dances.

Having worked for more than a decade with European and North American ballet companies one sees the influence of Ashton, Balanchine, Neumeier and Cranko in Ratmansky's deft and saturated choreography—no Soviet choreographer could ever have composed at this level—and as he expertly propels the story forward, one realises how much he has also learnt about storytelling from his years with the Royal Danish Ballet.

But most importantly, Ratmansky responds ingeniously to Shostakovich¹s massive and colourful soundscapes. Unlike most other choreographers, who have taken on Shostakovich's ballets with academic one-dimensional and undistinguished results, Ratmansky penetrates the score and makes his multi-style choreography its equal ending with an unforgettable finale and a poignant message: The dancers whirl around the stage simply by running, a vortex of movement drawing first the shape of a cornucopia and then becoming a group of people sitting and standing, waving happily to the audience, as if posing for a family photo shoot: A group of people with a sense of community.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 4
January 26, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Alexander Meinertz



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last updated on December 29, 2003