Alexei Ratmansky gives Seattle its own little piece of ballet genius

Behind the scenes with esteemed Russian choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, who directs Pacific Northwest Ballet in the American premiere of his production of Don Quixote, opening next week.

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Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky rehearses a scene with actor Tom Skerritt (back to camera) for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s American premiere of Don Quixote.

Behind the scenes with esteemed Russian choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, who directs Pacific Northwest Ballet in the American premiere of his production of Don Quixote, opening next week.

Watching Alexei Ratmansky during a rehearsal at Pacific Northwest Ballet is a revelation. Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and now one of the most in-demand choreographers around the world, is coaching members of the corps de ballet for his production of the classic Don Quixote. PNB is only the second company to perform the work — it premiered in 2010 by the Dutch National Ballet — and, as in all Ratmansky story ballets, the acting is as important as the dancing.

For most of PNB’s dancers, trained in the breakneck Balanchine technique, pyrotechnics come more easily than drama. But Ratmansky is a master storyteller and his “Don Q” requires every performer on stage, no matter how small the role, to breathe fire. Although Ratmansky has spent most of his time at PNB working with the principals, on this particular day, he’s directing a group scene.

The peasants of Barcelona watch as the fop Gamache arrives to ask for the hand of the heroine Kitri. She is in love with Basilio and she and the peasants are horrified at the thought of her marrying the ridiculous Gamache. There isn’t much dancing in the scene, mostly just the peasants reacting to the arrival of Gamache and hiding Kitri from him.

It’s a stretch for the PNB dancers to emote while they are essentially standing around, but Ratmansky is full of useful suggestions. “Every gesture has to have a meaning and a motivation,” he explains, “so take your time with every gesture and every movement. Remember that you know if Kitri marries Gamache she is going to be very unhappy so you’re all trying to help her.” The PNB corps tries again and it’s a little better, but still not quite right.

Ratmansky stops the action once more. “You’re a group but you’re all individual characters, you’re all peasants.” To one female dancer in particular he elaborates, “Think about whether you want to steal that boy from that girl over there.”

The rehearsal continues for another hour. The change in the acting is noticeable as Ratmansky continues to coach the dancers on how to use the music to understand their characters and even what they should whisper to each other to convey their reactions to the action around them.

This emphasis on drama is inherent even in Ratmansky’s plotless dances like Concerto DSCH, the other Ratmansky piece in the PNB repertoire, and he is unique in the ballet world for being equally adept at story and abstract ballets. “I don’t see a big difference,” he explains. “All story ballets have sections that are pure dance, all abstract ballets interpret the music and music is very connected to our emotions.”

Watching the film of the Dutch production of Ratmansky’s Don Q, it’s the focus on human feeling that stands out, even more than the flashy moves or dazzling sets. Ratmansky has gone back to the libretto that Marius Petipa used to create his original production in 1869. Although it’s impossible to perfectly recreate that version or the later Russian ones by Alexander Gorsky, Ratmansky adheres more closely to the original story (and, as much as can be determined, to the original steps) than many of the other modern productions.

He has retained the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as integral parts of the story. In some versions, including Mikhail Baryshnikov’s, the errant knight and his sidekick are incidental, wandering in and out of scenes like they were plunked down from another ballet. But in Ratmansky’s Don Q, they become a leitmotif, a logical narrative thread that runs from the opening Prologue through to the finale.

Like Balanchine, to whom he is sometimes compared (uncomfortably for Ratmansky), the steps always begin with the music. During his student years at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow, Ratmansky took piano lessons for four years and had classes in music history and musical theatre every term. Even so, seeing a Balanchine ballet for the first time, while he was still in Russia, was an inspiration. “I saw the interpretation of the music and so many steps and speed. It was amazing to realize what he had done.”

Ratmansky, like virtually every other modern ballet choreographer, has been deeply influenced by Balanchine. Still, as befits his Russian training, he retains a deep affinity for the classics as well.

“I always use any opportunity to do a big classic to learn. I love the research process. [For Don Q] I learned that the old master [Petipa] knew how to perfectly balance the dancing, the acting, the whole spectacle," Ratmansky says. "He worked for 50 years and in his last decade he found the golden formula for how the big story ballet should be told.”

Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse, which I saw in St. Petersburg in 2008, was one of only two ballets that the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet took to New York this past summer, to rave reviews. Despite the fact that the story is a little dense to a non-Russian audience, one is never bored, captivated by Ratmansky’s signature inventiveness, theatricality, and energy.

It’s that energy, the love of movement that motivates every dancer, which Ratmansky is so adept at unleashing in the companies he works with. Despite what seems like explicitly articulated direction, Ratmansky loves working with dancers trained in different styles.

“I don’t believe it’s necessary to dance in the Russian way," he says, "but you need to see through the movements of Kitri that she’s loved, she’s clever, sharp, and independent. So it’s ok if she does it in the Cuban way or the Balanchine way since it really is about the character. You can close your eyes if the line isn’t perfect, but if the character isn’t there, it doesn’t work.”

Like his friend Olivier Wevers, former PNB principal dancer and director of Whim W’Him, Ratmansky perfected his understanding of character during his years at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where they were both frequent partners of the prima ballerina Evelyn Hart. Hart was a perfectionist, sometimes insisting that her partner spend 20 minutes on the simple gesture of reaching out a hand and although the experience could be taxing, Ratmansky learned that inner motivation must drive every gesture, every facial expression, every step.  

That’s just one of the reasons he is in such demand around the world. In addition to his post as resident choreographer for American Ballet Theatre, Ratmansky has created works for major companies such as the Maryiinsky Ballet, New York City Ballet (which tried to hire him for as resident choreographer), San Francisco Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and Royal Swedish Ballet.

Yet despite the constant calls for his time and the critical accolades, Ratmansky is remarkably unassuming. “I guess there is a lot of pressure, but it’s incredible luck that people think that way. I know that there are choreographers who sit and wait and can’t do what they want to. I don’t have to seek out work; it comes to me.”

Fortunately for Seattle, PNB's Artistic Director Peter Boal was one of those who sought Ratmansky out. When “Don Quixote” opens on February 3, it will be an extraordinary opportunity to see a true ballet genius at work.

If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet's Don Quixote runs February 3 - 12 at McCaw Hall. Tickets: $28 - $168.


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