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American Ballet Theatre

'The Bright Stream'

by Jerry Hochman

June 11 (m) and 15, 2011-- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

 Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream” is a puzzlement. It’s a comic story ballet, where the story is more silly than funny, and unlike many other comic story ballets, it has no classical pedigree, no hidden message, and not a serious bone it its body. But it also has some wonderful choreography, beautifully executed by each of the casts that I’ve seen, that reflects Mr. Ratmanksy’s singular ability to make his characters human, even where, as in “The Bright Stream,” they’re only cardboard. So if you enjoy exceptional dancing and a belly laugh or two or ten, and can handle a ballet that you may forget the day after you see it, see it you must.

“The Bright Stream” also carries with it Russian historical baggage that cannot be ignored. As silly a story as it is, the Soviet authorities didn’t get the humor – or perhaps they recognized that humor can be subversive. Although there isn’t a hint of sarcasm, mockery, or mean-spiritedness to it, and although it reportedly was hugely popular following its 1935 premiere, a year later “The Bright Stream” was condemned by Pravda as being “formalistic.” Translation: the party line was that the collective farm workers were engaging in a noble and heroic pursuit, and to depict them as dancing fools undermined the message.

“The Bright Stream” was banned shortly thereafter by the Soviet establishment, and its creative team was denounced. Dmitri Shostakovich, who had already been criticized in Pravda for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” suffered another blow to his reputation, for a time was officially disfavored, and thereafter endured repeated cycles of condemnation and rehabilitation. The ballet’s original choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov (a highly regarded character dancer and choreographer, and purportedly a protégé of Michael Fokine), was stripped of his title as director of what was to become the Mariinsky Ballet, and although he regained some respectability and acclaim as a teacher (Yuri Grigorovich, who was to become artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, was one of his students), Mr. Lopukhov never again created any choreographic work of significance. And its co-librettist (with Lopukhov), Adrian Pietrovsky, reportedly was condemned to the gulag and disappeared. “The Bright Stream” was not performed again until Mr. Ratmansky rescued and re-choreographed it in 2003, and he has succeeded not only in lovingly re-creating a long-lost ballet (based on Lopukhov’s notes) – he has given back to the Russian people a piece of their heritage.

But although attention must be paid to its historical context and its cultural significance acknowledged, Mr. Ratmansky’s recreation of “The Bright Stream” must be evaluated on its own merits. The result, for this viewer, is a decidedly mixed impression – although, as was the case with Mr. Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker,” after repeated viewings “The Bright Stream” grows on you.

Choreographed to a Shostakovich composition of the same name, “The Bright Stream” (also translatable from the Russian as “The Limpid Stream”) takes place in a collective farm in the former Soviet Union. There isn’t a “stream” in the piece, bright, limpid or otherwise – the title is the name of the fictitious collective farm (like ‘Happy Hills’ or “Hidden Lake’ might be the name of a summer camp), and the ballet’s specific connections to a collective farm in the Soviet Union seem to be pasted on (the occasional slogan-bearing banner carried across the stage, the decorative molding that spans the top of the house curtain, the parade of stereotypical collective farm workers during the coda, for example). Indeed, except for these superimposed effects and the names and descriptions of some of the characters, the story could just as easily have taken place in a rural town in the American West.

The characters? The piece opens to Zina (“a local amusement organizer”) with her head buried in a book, dancing as she reads. Her husband, Pyotr (“an agricultural student”) pokes fun at her for being so studious. There’s Galya (“The Schoolgirl”), Gavrilich (“An Inspector of Quality”), and a nameless potpourri of cartoonish villagers: an “Accordion Player,” “A Milkmaid,” a “Tractor Driver,” an old man (“Old Dacha Dweller”) and his wife (“Anxious-To-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller”) (that’s the character’s name – we’ll just call her ‘ADD’ for short), and an assortment of highlanders and fieldworkers (some of whom look like refugees from the Moiseyev) and collective farm folk. The only non-villagers are a “Ballerina” and a male ballet dancer (“Ballet Dancer”).

The story? The Ballerina and the Ballet Dancer arrive at the Bright Stream train station to entertain the villagers during their harvest celebration. Zina and the Ballerina discovery that they’re old friends from ballet school, and after a two-second refresher course from the Ballerina, Zina instantly regains her ballet technique (she obviously had sacrificed her ballet career for the good of society). As if some invisible Puck had worked overtime, Pyotr, Gavrilich, and the Old Dacha Dweller immediately develop a crush on the Ballerina, the ADD is similarly smitten with the Ballet Dancer, and the Accordion Player hits on Galya. Although the Ballerina insists that she has no romantic interest in him, Pyotr’s infatuation with the Ballerina makes Zina jealous. Galya the schoolgirl, who also happens to be a really good dancer (who knew?) is a little nervous at all the attention she’s getting from the Accordion Player, who fancies himself a mini-Casanova. Zina and the Ballerina decide to play a joke on the others, which Galya and the Tractor Driver join. The Ballerina dresses up as the Ballet Dancer to fool the ADD. The Ballet Dancer dresses up as the Ballerina costumed as a sylph to fool the Old Dacha Dweller. The Tractor Driver dresses up as a dog (who more closely resembles a Russian Bear) to bark the Accordion Player back to reality. And Zina dresses up as the Ballerina to fool Pyotr. The embarrassed Old Dacha Dweller and ADD forget their fantasies, the Accordion Player abandons his efforts to seduce Galya, and Pyotr decides that Zina is the ballerina for him. The harvest revelry continues, the villagers celebrate the joy of life on the collective farm, and they all wave goodbye to the assembled audience as if posing for a photograph to be titled: ‘the way we were’. It’s all good clean fun – including the set, which looks bright and golden, with the sunflowers as high as an elephant’s eye.

But if you forget the inane story, and the fact that it all seems to be on the same high-energy level (except for Pyotor’s duet with Zina dressed as the Ballerina, which is a welcome change of pace), you see that “The Bright Stream” is filled with non-stop action and some great choreography and dancing. Although much of it may have been taken from notes describing Lopukhov’s original choreography (Lopukhov was recognized for his avant-garde integration of folk references and acrobatics into his choreography), the movement quality is recognizable Ratmansky-style – that is, classical ballet vocabulary presented in an accessible form, and that includes unusual choreographic ideas that work in the context of the piece, including idiosyncratic hand movements, cartwheels, and a constantly changing kaleidoscope of corps patterning. He also choreographs a barking dog, the milkmaid milking a cow and a dancing train engine. At times it all looks like a one-ring circus or high-class vaudeville with a touch of commedia dell’arte, studded with choreography that is as memorable in the context of a comedy as it would be in a drama. And the entire cast seemed to be having as much fun dancing the piece as the audience clearly has watching them.

At the opening performance, Paloma Herrera and Gillian Murphy were perfectly matched friends, as was the pair at the closing performance: Veronika Part and Stella Abrera. Xiomara Reyes and Natalia Osipova were somewhat less well matched (I could not believe that Ms. Reyes’s Zina and Ms. Osipova’s Ballerina were ever school friends – Ms. Osipova was a little too much the ballerina). Each of them gave a memorable performance on her own, each with a particularized emphasis (e.g., Ms. Part was more expressive; Ms. Reyes more vulnerable, and Ms. Herrera more ‘natural’), but when sharing the stage as two ballerinas dancing together either sequentially or in tandem (a recurring event during the piece), their combined artistry provided the audience with potent and unusually sophisticated visual stimulation. [Like Fred Astaire dancing with Fred Astaire….except they’re ballerinas.] And seeing Ms. Osipova, Ms. Abrera, and particularly Ms. Murphy, brilliantly execute typically ‘male dancer steps’ (when they’re disguised as the Ballet Dancer) was almost by itself worth the price of admission.

Marcelo Gomes portrayed a more mature Pyotor to Ms. Herrera’s Zina, while Alexander Hammoudi and Ivan Vasiliev, not surprisingly, were more youthful (with Ms. Part, and Ms. Reyes, respectively). Technically, Mr. Gomes struck a perfect balance between trying to prove to the Ballerina (and to Zina disguised as the Ballerina) how good a dancer he could be even though he wasn’t a dancer, but Mr. Vasiliev seemed to be trying too much to be the best dancer the audience had ever seen: as good as his ‘tricks’ were, and they were spectacular, Mr. Vasiliev should have toned them down a little – Pyotr is supposed to a dancer wannabe. [Mr. Vasiliev is an interesting dancer. He’s young (I’ve been told he’s 21), with a refreshingly engaging personality coupled with explosive power and outsized technique. Although he’s still rough around the edges, he may fill an ABT void.]

At Saturday’s performance, Daniil Simkin proved to be a wonderful and hilarious cross-dressing Ballet Dancer. But, with his small and slight physical stature and features that could not exactly be described as being carved from granite, I expected Mr. Simkin to be a natural for the role. Cory Stearns’s portrayal last night was equally funny, but his character, as could be anticipated, was more ‘masculine’; his was a Male Dancer who was compelled to dress like a sylph, and although he made his ‘performance’ for the Old Dacha Dweller look good, he knew it wasn’t a role that he was born to do. But nothing prepared me for Mr. Hallberg. It might come across as a backhand compliment to say that this is the best dancing that Mr. Hallberg has done. I’m sure it isn’t. But it’s the most unexpectedly best dancing I’ve seen him do. His comic timing was pitch-perfect, and his pointe work was super. Yes, pointe work. But the fact that he was able to pull this off while being so tall and classical-looking was miraculous. Since it appears that there’s no truth to the rumor that Mr. Hallberg will take a sabbatical to dance for a year with Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo (as “Davida Siegfrieda Hallbergskaya”?), you must see him when he next dances the role at the Met.

“The Bright Stream” is also a very well balanced production, and everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine. Misty Copeland and Simone Messmer were delightful milkmaids; and Jared Matthews and Isaac Stappas were accomplished tractor driver/dogs. Martine van Hamel and Victor Barbee, and Susan Jones and Clinton Luckett, danced the ADD and Old Dacha Dweller with comic gusto. Both Ms. van Hamel and Ms. Jones were very funny, but while Ms. van Hamel showed more of the ADD’s character (anxious to be younger than she is) – Ms. Jones, who I saw at Saturday’s performance, was more gut-bustingly funny. [The audience seemed to take it for granted when Ms. van Hamel went en pointe; they gasped when Ms. Jones did – as if they didn’t think she could do it. There may not have been many in the audience who remember seeing Ms. Jones when she was a corps dancer with ABT.] Almost stealing the Thursday and Saturday performances were Maria Riccetto and Craig Salstein, as Galya and the Accordionist. While they both were a little over-the-top, each of them was hilariously fabulous. At last night’s performance, Gemma Bond and Gennadi Saveliev assumed these roles, and both performances were more restrained. Ms. Bond’s Galya was naturally sweet, while Mr. Saveliev's Accordion Player was naturally lecherous.

The entire performance takes less than two hours – including intermission and curtain calls. Considering its length, or lack of it, it may be appropriate in the future to pair “The Bright Stream” with a complementary ballet to complete the evening’s presentation. While “La Sylphide” comes immediately to mind, perhaps something more “Russian,” and more serious, might be a good counterpoint. No, not “Spartacus.” Another piece by Mr. Ratmansky: his shattering depiction of a different slice of Russian society: “On The Dnieper.”

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