When dance writer Marina Harss first saw Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream” in New York City in 2005, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of what she had just witnessed—she only knew it was special. “It was like a forgotten branch, at least to us, of the ballet tree,” she says, thinking back to her first viewing of the work, a revival of a 1935 ballet by Dmitri Shostakovich, which riffs of traditional Russian-Soviet aesthetics to farcically portray life on a collective farm in Southeastern Russia. Ratmansky’s direction struck a chord with her. “To see someone working in that branch, but working with it in a way that felt contemporary—it wasn’t a rehash, it felt like a door was being opened.”
At that time, Ratmansky was the artistic director of Russia’s famed Bolshoi Ballet. Despite his still relatively small presence in the United States, his distinctive choreographic voice—which builds on classical technique to create works that often draw on humor and straddle the line between narrative and abstraction—had led to major commissions and acclaim abroad. The 2005 New York City Bright Stream performance, though not Ratmansky’s U.S. debut, was a defining moment in his entrée into the American dance scene.
In 2009, it was announced that Ratmansky would be moving to New York City to join American Ballet Theatre as an artist in residence. Harss, well-known in the realm of dance journalism and criticism, remembers thinking: “This is an artist I want to follow very closely.”
And that’s exactly what she’s done, along the way becoming an authority on all things Ratmansky and penning her first book, The Boy from Kyiv (slated for October 3 release). It’s the first biography of the choreographer, and Observer spoke with Harss about her research process, getting to know Ratmansky through his work and the choreographer’s new era as New York City Ballet’s artist in residence.
Throughout the book, you use your background in dance criticism to share vivid descriptions of the aesthetics and meanings behind Ratmansky’s choreography. How did you decide to weave criticism into the book, and what do these descriptions of his choreography reveal about him as a person?
I wanted to create a portrait of the artist, and so I was trying to figure out what that meant as I went along. It started to become, in my mind, the idea of a mosaic that is the product of many parts. What I felt was really necessary was understanding where he came from—I needed to understand who he had been in the other phases of his life before he came to the attention of the American audience. I needed to understand how the different parts of his life trajectory fit together, then how that connected to the work and how those pieces show up very clearly in the work. It’s something I had been vaguely aware of before I started, but it became much more three-dimensional as I traveled to places where he had spent significant periods of his life and where he had learned a lot from each place and each set of aesthetics.
In addition to traveling for the book, what were some other components of your research process?
There were several components. One was the interviews—I tried to find people from just about every chapter of his life, and I even spoke to his earliest teacher at the Bolshoi through a translator. There was an enormous amount of reading about the Soviet period, especially, and then a lot of reading about Ukraine, as that became more clearly relevant.
Another huge component was sitting in rehearsals. I was very fortunate because during the whole period that I was writing the book, he was at American Ballet Theatre, and ABT was incredibly generous about letting me sit in. I became like this fly on the wall. I got to watch the creation process of a few ballets basically from beginning to end—not every day, but I was there at the beginning, I was there at different phases and I was there when they were finished and being polished. I also got to see him rehearse with dancers from other companies and abroad, obviously not in the same depth, but it was very interesting to see comparatively what was different and what was similar.
And then there were the hours upon hours of talking with Ratmansky himself. He was very generous with his time. He’s not an artist who’s prone to philosophizing or wanting to sit and talk about himself, but he was patient and he took the request seriously so it was very productive. I felt as the months and years went on, those conversations became more and more relaxed and in-depth.
As time went on, what was it like to get closer to Ratmansky as a person while also writing about him as a journalist and biographer?
You can never know a person, truly. There’s an enigmatic seed at the core of every person, even a person that you spend hours and hours thinking about. I did get to a point where I felt, at least for myself, that I had a fully formed idea of his interests, inclinations and obsessions. And that doesn’t mean he couldn’t surprise me—because that’s the essence of a creative person, right? They’re always recreating themselves. That sense of surprise was not lost, but I did get to a point where I could be like, “Oh, I see that from this ballet, and I can relate it back to this other ballet.”
His works aren’t necessarily autobiographical, but you can see how he pulls from his life, like the way his experiences as a child informed the boy character at the center of his 2017 evening-length, Whipped Cream.
Whipped Cream came from multiple sources in his life—one was that experience of being a boy and getting sick on whipped cream and the other was [his wife] Tatiana being obsessed with whipped cream when they moved to Canada. It’s so cool to see those little connections. Of course, you don’t need them to enjoy the ballets—but to me, they add to the interest.
Another aspect of Ratmansky that you reveal in this book is that, in addition to the many highly successful works for which he is largely known, he’s also created many ballets that were received more critically. What do Ratmansky’s hits and misses reveal about him as a person?
I think Ratmansky is so prolific and somebody who, as Kevin McKenzie [the former artistic director] of ABT said to me, is a “creation junkie.” He just creates and creates, and so not every work can come out fully formed. I also think he tries different genres all the time, and some genres come to him more naturally and some he really works at. I also think there are certain things that ballet does better—that’s my personal opinion—and he sometimes tries to work with the forms that ballet isn’t as naturally suited to, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. The other thing that it reveals about him is he always takes risks. I remember with Whipped Cream, as he was making it, the dancers were not excited—they could not understand the point. And because he makes ballets so quickly and in little bits, only at the very end of the process does it all come together. Sometimes he’s willing to take risks and even drag people along who aren’t fully on board—and then only at the end, they’re like, “Okay, now I get it.”
Ratmansky just began a new role as artist in residence at New York City Ballet. This is something of a full circle moment for him, seeing as—before the deal fell through and he joined ABT—he was initially supposed to take this position after his move to the States in 2009. What can we expect from this new era at NYCB?
I don’t know, but I’m very excited to see what he does, especially because he’s at a very crucial turning point, I think, as a human being and as an artist. It’s a new point of maturation—the war in Ukraine has changed his way of seeing the world. I think, for him, art was something fully detached from the day-to-day. That doesn’t mean elements of history didn’t touch his work, but there wasn’t a direct equivalence. Now I think he feels much more questioning of that. I don’t know if his work is going to become more dramatic, or whether finally joining City Ballet will, in a way, allow him to be more experimental, because he has nothing to prove now.
There are many directions in which this can go—one of them is related to this moment in history, one of them is related to this moment in his artistic trajectory, where he’s kind of made the big story ballets, and maybe now he can once again be more experimental. Maybe he can use more experimental music, but I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think it’s a new beginning, for sure.