Ratmansky is a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen.
While waiting, he assisted in the creation of a troupe of Ukrainian refugee dancers headquartered in The Hague, with whom he had just staged his 2019 adaptation of “Giselle.”
Ratmansky now takes back what Prymachenko spent her life doing in her paintings—reviving the art and the history of Ukraine’s folk culture.
Ratmansky has previously devoted much of his career to creating ballets with Ukrainian themes and revisiting previous Soviet and Russian ballets.
“I think Ratmansky’s conflict with Russia and its history did not result in his best work.
A rolling tally kept by UNESCO shows that by the beginning of this month, the fighting in Ukraine had damaged 37 historic buildings, 13 museums, 86 religious sites, 18 monuments, ten libraries, and 37 other cultural structures. How about dancing? This is more difficult to calculate since dancing is essentially stored in our bodies. The Russians destroyed both the man and the dances that Oleksandr Shapoval, a longstanding dancer for the National Opera of Ukraine, contained when he died in fighting in September. When Alexei Ratmansky created “Wartime Elegy,” which recently had its premiere at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, I couldn’t help but imagine that he had something similar in mind. He has dedicated it to the people of Ukraine, and it is his first dance after the Russian invasion. Ratmansky raised a Ukrainian flag erect above his head during the opening-night bows.
Ratmansky is a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen. He was raised in Kyiv, where a large portion of his family still resides, after being born in Leningrad in 1968 to a Ukrainian Jewish father and a Russian mother. He relocated to Moscow to pursue his training at the Bolshoi. Still, he returned after earning his degree in 1986 and started performing with the Kyiv Ballet, where he eventually met Tatiana Kilivniuk, a Ukrainian dancer who would become his wife. Ratmansky migrated to the West following the fall of the Soviet Union. He performed with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet before accepting the position of artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre in 2009. But for the past two decades, he has also pursued a career in Russia, where from 2004 to 2008, he served as the Bolshoi Ballet’s director. He did not have to choose between Russia and the West in a way that would have been unimaginable for artists of a previous generation.
February 24 marked the end of that. He just happened to be doing a new dance at the Bolshoi when the invasion began in Moscow. His Russian colleagues labelled him a traitor, but it was a day of reckoning for him, and his decision left him with a terrible internal rift. He and his team hastily packed their things and fled the country. He once claimed, “I must block out this [Russian] portion of my heritage to function.” I’ll reach the point where I must put my identity together and make peace with the Russian aspect of my existence. While waiting, he assisted in the creation of a troupe of Ukrainian refugee dancers headquartered in The Hague, with whom he had just staged his 2019 adaptation of “Giselle.” He has since given us a dance for Ukraine, which American dancers have performed with delicacy and poignancy in Seattle.
The song is only a few minutes long and is divided into three portions: two elegiac sections and two upbeat Ukrainian folk dances that are unexpectedly sandwiched in the middle. The most well-known living composer from Ukraine, Valentin Silvestrov, provided the lyrical and enigmatic music for the mournful parts. The set designs by Wendall K. Harrington include projections of melancholy paintings and sketches by the artist Matvei Vaisberg, a close friend of Ratmansky who was heavily involved in the art scene that grew out of the 2013–2014 Maidan protests against Russian influence—a fragmented statue or body lying sideways, a stark but impressionistic landscape. The folk performance in the centre takes place in front of Maria Prymachenko’s (1909–1977) vibrantly whimsical folk paintings, which have evolved into a sort of global icon for the Ukrainian national cause, particularly in the wake of a Russian airstrike on a small museum in Ivankiv that housed a sizable collection of her work. (Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter claims that some pieces were rescued while the building burned.)
At first glance, Ratmansky’s choreographic structure—a nationalist folk cry surrounded by sombre dances of loss and tragic wartime events—seems almost too straightforward. However, the entire production is eerily moving, even eerie. It doesn’t fit together well because the pieces are too sharp and the changes between darkness and brightness, sorrow and jubilant joy are too abrupt. However, it still holds, particularly in remembrance, as the mind permits the borders to blur and blend, thanks to some logic of loss, memory, and fun weaved throughout the whole.
In the dim light, three couples lie in heaps at the beginning of “Wartime Elegy.” One man travels from team to couple, meticulously positioning each woman in an arabesque with her back to the audience. The women are perilously poised on one leg as they stand there. The body parts in Vaisberg’s backdrop draw attention to their frailty, while Silvestrov’s score features a gentle but erratic piano that picks its way through dissonance.
Although the dancers move as a unit in a continuous and fluid motion, each dancer nevertheless moves at their own pace. The dancers’ steps appear to circle in on themselves in patterns that end before they are completed. We experience only flow and fate—neither will nor self-expression. A man always seems to be splitting away, and it is obvious that these men are the main characters of the dance because of this. They appear virtually androgynous while wearing black leotards and showing off their bare legs, with long lines, deep curves, and moves that incorporate both feminine and male dance vocabulary, as Ratmansky has done in the past. There is no story, only soft, sad dancing with wistful bends and runs that appear to cross fields in vain.
Then the stage is cleared, and the time, location, and mood all change. Hey, fellas, play it like our wonderful Dovbush—a folk hero—as a person shouts in Ukrainian over a projected image of an elderly folk musician. “Play!” We begin a celebratory dance with the males wearing grey tights and white shirts with red folk-style belts and the women dancing separately in gay colours with floral headpieces. At the same time, Prymachenko’s magnificent flowers fill the background.
Ratmansky is meticulous; there is little indication of the Soviet folk troupes that captivated audiences with a cartoonish portrayal of rural Ukrainian life that relied heavily on impressive stunts and ethnic garb. Instead, these youngsters are having a good time, competing, cracking jokes, and performing these traditional dances in their unique style, mixing loose, carefree movements with intricate, incredibly challenging ballet routines. However, there is also an untold tale of the Ukrainian peasantry that Stalin assassinated in the 1930s that is only known to those familiar with history. Ratmansky now takes back what Prymachenko spent her life doing in her paintings—reviving the art and history of Ukraine’s folk culture.
The folk dancing doesn’t end—this is crucial to the ballet. Instead, the flowers in the background darken and become silvery, like an old photograph, before changing into a design by Vaisberg of the Nike of Paionios, a statue from the fifth century B.C. that is only partially intact. The goddess of victory is depicted with her face gone, one arm missing, and her head dangling precariously back on her neck. Her frailty is further emphasised by Vaisberg’s line figure, which floats in the air without a base to steady her onward momentum. The dance eventually returns to its beginning, with all the dancers lying on the stage except for one of the men in black, who picks up a woman and positions her in an arabesque. She hovers over the dancers as they discover the thread of the elegy, hovering over them like a memory of a memory. She is in the spotlight by herself this time. He releases the others and falls to the ground with them. Under the floating Nike, she remains a live, breathing figure who, once the curtain drops, is vulnerable rather than triumphant.
Regarding whether the conflict is transforming Ratmansky into a political artist, there has been a lot of discussion in the dance community. I don’t understand the question. Ratmansky has previously devoted much of his career to creating ballets with Ukrainian themes and revisiting previous Soviet and Russian ballets. They are not political because they don’t have a subtle ideological message like the Soviets had, but they do have politics nonetheless. He labored diligently, for instance, to find a more precise reproduction of the dances Marius Petipa created for the tsar’s court, such as “The Sleeping Beauty,” in the archives of Russian imperial notations. The U.S.S.R. is excluded from Russian ballet history due to Ratmansky’s passion for these lavish productions, which are magnificent but too decadent and polite for my tastes.
He has also, somewhat strangely, recreated classical Soviet socialist-realist ballets and stripped them of their socialism to achieve the same goal. He gutted “The Bright Stream,” a 1935 ballet that had enraged Stalinists because it celebrated Caucasian communal farm laborers’ creating a socialist utopia, and turned it into a rural romp with a decorative hammer and sickle prominently displayed. When Ratmansky’s rendition made its debut in Moscow in 2003, it appeared strange, albeit harmless—as if to say, “That is all over”—”toover”—to handle such a painful period in such a cheerful manner. Things feel different now that it is blatantly apparent that cruelty in the mould of the Soviet Union is far from over. In a recent interview, Ratmansky said he couldn’t bear to talk about the piece. He remarked, “I’m not sure if I want to watch this ballet again.”
I think Ratmansky’s conflict with Russia and its history did not result in his best work. In original dances like “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” and, particularly, in his dances to music by the Ukrainian-born composer Leonid Desyatnikov, including “Russian Seasons,” “Songs of Bukovina,” and “Odessa,” his voice is at its strongest. These dances, such as “Wartime Elegy,” are intimate with their own goals and languages, and they share a fascination with the balletic possibilities of transformed folk forms. They appear to naturally develop from Ratmansky’s method of fusing dancers, music, art, and lighting and seizing the life that appears. Its brand of politics, “Wartime Elegy”, is rougher and more awkward. Still, it also features a passionate outburst of emotion that is just as frail and human as the guys in black, the vibrant flowers, the women in arabesque, and the broken Nike presiding.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network