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American Ballet Theatre

'The Bright Stream'

by Colleen Boresta

June 11, 2011 matinee -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

The Bright Stream originally opened in Leningrad in 1935 to great acclaim, and then transferred to the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. The ballet was a big hit in both cities, but Stalin and the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda, did not approve of it. Stalin felt that The Bright Stream was not a faithful portrayal of the life of the Soviet peasants. Would Stalin really have preferred a ballet showing the millions of peasants who died due to his policy of collectivization as opposed to a comic work which just happened to be set on a collective? One of the ballet’s librettists, Adrian Piotrovsky was sent to the gulag, never to be heard from again. The career of the choreographer and co-librettist, Fyodor Lopukhov, was ended and all performances by the composer, Dmiti Shostakovich, were terminated.

In the 1990s the choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, rediscovered The Bright Stream. He rechoreographed the work and, beginning in 2003, it was again danced by the Bolshoi Ballet. The Bright Stream was a big hit and has remained so ever since. In 2011 Ratmansky staged the ballet for American Ballet Theatre. It is a joyously sparkling work which can be enjoyed by small children as well as the most seasoned balletomane.

The Bright Stream is set on a collective (of the same name) in the North Caucasus in the 1930s. Zina, a dancer turned arts organizer, her husband, Pyotr, and their friends are awaiting the arrival of a train carrying famous artists who will entertain the collective workers at the harvest festival. When the artists arrive, Zina discovers that the Ballerina is an old friend from ballet school. Zina introduces the Ballerina to her husband who courts the dancer as Zina becomes angrier and angrier.

Field workers from the collective greet the artists who give out gifts to the collective’s best workers. Pyotr tries to set up a rendezvous with the Ballerina. As well, the old Dacha Dweller tries to arrange a tryst with the Ballerina. His wife, the Anxious-to-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller, sets up a meeting with the Ballerina’s partner, the Ballet Dancer. Neither Dacha Dweller is aware that their spouse is planning an assignation.

The Ballerina suggests to Xina and her friends that a trick be played on Pyotr and the Dacha Dwellers. She will dress up in her partner’s clothes and go meet the Anxious-to-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller. Her partner, garbed like a character from a ballet (La Sylphide), will rendezvous with the old Dacha Dweller. Zina, dressed in the Ballerina’s costume, will go to meet Pyotr.

At the beginning of Act II, the collective’s Accordion Player attempts to seduce a schoolgirl named Galya. Her friend, the Tractor Driver, tells Galya to keep the meeting with the Accordion Player. He (the Tractor Driver) will dress in a dog costume and protect the schoolgirl from the lecherous Accordion Player.

The old Dacha Dweller arrives to meet his “ballerina”. He sees “her” through a clump of trees. Since it is dark, the old Dacha Dweller thinks the “Sylph” is the same female dancer he met that afternoon. His wife arrives in pointe shoes for her rendezvous with the Ballet Dancer and sees her husband flirting with the “Slyph”. Furious, she chases the old Dacha Dweller off, but is then startled by the Tractor Driver in his dog costume riding a bicycle. The Ballerina at first pretends to comfort the Anxious-to-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller, but then mocks her for not realizing the Ballerina is not a man.

Zina, disguised as the Ballerina, dances with her husband. He fails to realize who she really is, and Zina runs away in tears.

The old Dacha Dweller and his “Sylph” come rushing back on stage. The Ballerina pretends to be the “Sylph’s” spurned lover, and challenges the old man to a duel. The Ballerina shoots first and misses. One of Zina’s friends bangs a pail just as the old Dacha Dweller prepares to fire his shotgun. The “Sylph” falls to the ground and the old man thinks he has killed “her”. Terrified, the old Dacha Dweller flees. The “corpse” returns to life and the Dacha Dwellers come back on stage, realizing they have been tricked.

The harvest festival celebration begins. Pyotr is shocked to see two ballerinas in identical costumes (including masks) performing. When they take off their masks, Pyotr discovers that it was his wife he danced with the night before. Pyotr begs Zina’s forgiveness and they reconcile.

Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet is witty and blissfully exuberant. There are many innovative choreographic touches – like the “Sylph” riding in arabesque position on the back of the old Dacha Dweller’s bicycle, the tractor formation moving across the stage in front of the curtain, and everyone, including the Dacha Dwellers, performing cartwheels. The score by Dmiti Shostakovich is sparkling and imminently danceable.

The performers are uniformly outstanding, with regard to both dancing and acting. Guest artist, Ivan Vasiliev (from the Bolshoi Ballet), is Pyotr. In my 31 years of attending ballet performances I have never seen a dancer with as exciting a technique as Vasiliev’s. He whips off twists and turns in the air, as well as executing astounding 560 degree turns. Vasiliev also pulls off some very fast turns a la seconde where he throws in several jumps. As well, Vasiliev is an endearing actor who makes Pyotr seem more like a naughty little boy than a philandering husband.

As the Ballerina, Natalia Osipova (another guest artist from the Bolshoi), is flawless. In Act II, the steps which parody the acrobatic style of the Bolshoi Ballet’s male dancers fit Osipova perfectly. Her leaps, where she floats above the stage for what seems like an eternity, are a wonder. Osipova has a real flair for comedy and her chemistry with Xiomara Reyes’ Zina is lovely to see.

With his amazing multiple pirouettes and incredible pointe work, Daniil Simkin is almost too good as the Ballet Dancer in drag. I wonder if the role would be even funnier with a performer not quite so slight and delicate-looking.

Xiomara Reyes is a very sweet Zina, but she is outshone by her co-stars, especially Osipova and Vasiliev. As the Anxious-to-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller, Susan Jones threatens to steal the show every time she appears. Seeing her dart across the stage on pointe is a sight not to be missed. Craig Salstein serves up a mean tango as the swaggering Accordion Player. Maria Riccetto is an adorable schoolgirl. She stays in character even during the curtain calls as she claps her hands and mouths “For me?” when she is given her bouquet of flowers. Issac Stappas is a hysterically funny dog with a truly frightening bark.

My only quibble with The Bright Stream is that it ends too suddenly. A final pas de deux between Zina and Pyotr is needed to show they are really on the road to happiness. And a razzle dazzle solo for each of the principal characters would conclude the ballet on an even higher note.

That being said, The Bright Stream is the best new ballet I’ve seen in years. It is a perfect blend of witty, innovative choreography, sprightly music and superb performances. It deserves to stay in American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire for a long time.

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