American Ballet Theatre and "carmageddon"
The premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's two-act comic ballet, The Bright Stream, signaled that a new day had dawned for the Bolshoi Ballet and that Ratmansky was a major choreographer. That was 2003. By January 2004, Ratmansky was installed as Bolshoi artistic director. With five new and re-staged ballets during his tenure there, he delivered a shot of emergency adrenaline to the still-stodgy Moscow behemoth. This being the Bolshoi, however, a coterie of sullen dancers treated him and his new works as though they were foul-tasting medicine. Give us Spartacus, or give us death. Something like that.
Ratmansky's two-act Bright Stream is a reworked version of the "lost" 1935 original, which had choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov, a full-bodied score by Dmitri Shostakovich, and a story set on a idealized collective farm. Unfortunately for everyone involved in creating the original, Stalin deeply disapproved, and the ballet was banned. Shostakovich never wrote another ballet. Lopukhov was blacklisted for years, while poor librettist Adrian Piotrovsky was arrested and died in captivity.
Ratmansky kept the libretto and score, and simply (not so simple, really) added new steps. Southern Californians first saw it during the Bolshoi's 2005 U.S. tour. The Bright Stream was clever, funny, gentle and musically astute. It was contemporary, yet had a direct link with Russia's grand and complicated past.
Ratmansky left the Bolshoi for American Ballet Theatre in January 2009, but it didn't add Bright Stream to its repertory until earlier this year. The company opened at the LA Music Center last night (Thursday) and is performing it through Sunday, during the dreaded "carmageddon" weekend. More on that later.
The ABT production is nearly as charming as I recalled it from six years ago, with one major stumbling block. ABT has borrowed sets (designer Ilya Utkin) and costumes (by Elena Markovskaya) from the Latvian National Ballet, and I can only compare the magnitude of distraction and disruption to Maria Bjornson's designs for the Royal Ballet's 1994 production of Sleeping Beauty. The light-colored backdrops and side "legs" depicted flat, dry fields of wheat and sunflowers. Fair enough. But they also lured the eyes up and away from the stage, to infinity. Oversized illustrations dwarfed the dancers. Meanwhile, the women's skirts and white leotard tops were unflattering in the extreme. Perhaps ABT has a budget line for new sets and costumes of its own.
The best part of Thursday's performance was watching familiar dancers shine anew and differently, inspired into new depths of portrayal. The sometimes retiring Marcelo Gomes (Pyotr) gave off sparks and leading-man charisma. Paloma Herrera (Zina), an often overly mannered principal, had a new lightness and genuine-feeling sweetness. Gillian Murphy (Ballerina) was equal measures playful and glamorous, tossing off athletic leaps with ease. The very masculine Cory Stearns (as Ballet Dancer, replacing the injured David Hallberg) excelled in purity of gesture; as the oversized sylphide, he was hilariously deadpan, even when taking an unexpected spill.
Craig Salstein was a particular hit as the Accordion Player. Attempting to woo the adorable Maria Riccetto (schoolgirl Galya), he brought just the right level of exaggeration to every gesture, from the fake manliness to the crisp directional shifts. Last, but not least, there was the joy of watching the elegant Martine Van Hamel and Victor Barbee cutting up as the Dacha Dwellers. Martine in white bobby socks, sticking out her buttocks? Worth the price of the ticket.
Which brings me to the so-called carmageddon, or this weekend's closure of the 405 freeway, about 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It's possible to get to the LA Music Center without driving on this highway, aka the San Diego Fwy., even if you live on the city's west side. But ticket sales have been below expectations, hurt by pronouncements to stay off all the roads or risk gridlock. What a shame, of course, that all those millions, billions, of dollars aren't going toward more public transportation, instead of toward widening one lousy freeway. If that had been the case, we could be moving (no pun intended) toward an easier trip for everyone around LA, on a train or light rail.
In the meantime, tickets to all performances were on Goldstar a few days ago. And if past experience is any indication, this moment of predicted freeway bottleneck will instead prove to be a driving bonanza.
TOP: Martine Van Hamel and Victor Barbee in Alexei Ratmansky's two-act comic ballet, The Bright Stream. (Photo by Rosalie O'Connor)