The Boy from Kyiv: Alexei Ratmansky’s Life in Ballet
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023)
Marina Harss’s biography of Alexei Ratmansky is the first in-depth look at this fast-rising, in-demand ballet choreographer. Ratmansky led the Bolshoi Ballet for several years before eventually moving to New York, where he was artist in residence for thirteen years at American Ballet Theatre. He recently moved to New York City Ballet in a similar capacity and has already made a number of highly praised works for the company. As Harss traces Ratmansky’s life from Kyiv to New York, she identifies the personal, artistic, and political threads woven into his ballets.
Susan Yung (Rail): We’ve known each other for over two decades now, sitting near one another while watching dance! Congratulations on publishing your biography of Alexei Ratmansky. How did you choose him as the subject for your first book?
Marina Harss: First of all, how great that we’ve known each other for twenty years, that’s amazing. Ratmansky was a natural choice for me. I never really planned to write a book, the same way I’d never planned to become a dance writer, but they’re things that I’ve developed an affinity for.
In my thirties, I became a writer because I became interested in dance. And I wrote a book because I became specifically interested in this one choreographer whose work
stood out from anything else I was seeing. And stood out as having this enormous vitality in an art form that seemed like everything good had already happened in the past.
I remember hearing at the theater, “oh, if you had seen this performance, if you’d seen the premiere of that,” and that’s how I felt seeing every premiere of a Ratmansky ballet, that it would take its place in history. I was curious, excited, and wanted to know more. That’s what led me to write a book about him.
Rail: In your book, the ballet The Bright Stream (2003) was a bit of a launching point for your in-depth interest in his work and history. Is that right?
Harss: Absolutely. It was the first piece I saw of his. I had no idea who he was when I saw it. It was brought here by the Bolshoi on tour, when he was the young director there. I’d never seen a ballet like it. It was big without being heavy-handed or bombastic—what we’d expect from the Bolshoi. It was tongue-in-cheek and really clever; the subject seems so unlikely. It’s a comic ballet set on a communal farm in the 1930s. That sounds like something you would read about in a history book that would be discarded.
In fact, it felt really modern, alive, and intelligent—the way he had both recycled this historic form and made it a way of looking into the past. And a way of projecting ballet into the future. It made the dancers act in a way that was fresh; it didn’t feel like the same kind of ballet acting I’d been seeing. It didn’t feel like another formulaic story ballet.
Rail: He was able to find the balance between elegy and irony.
Harss: Definitely. Interestingly, the ironic part was a huge element, because I think he has evolved away from irony to a certain extent, but it was one of the first things that really attracted me. Irony and wit are things you don’t see much in ballet. It felt very postmodern, like he was breaking apart an old formula and making it new again. But it was irony with warmth—you actually cared about the characters.
Rail: Right. Ratmansky began dancing at a young age and living apart from his nuclear family. When and where were his first serious dance studies? And how did this shape him?
Harss: Basically, he didn’t study dance until he went to the Bolshoi School, which sounds insane. He was born in 1968; it was a different world in 1970s Ukraine, where ballet seemed like a really good career. I think that’s how his parents thought about it. He was responsive to music and enthusiastic about putting on shows for people. Everybody recognized that he had great coordination; it wasn’t like he was running around flailing his arms. When he moved to music, there was a harmoniousness to it, an understanding of music. He also studied the piano as a kid.
He showed promise. His parents talked to friends, and everybody in Ukraine and Russia knows someone in the ballet world. His mother had studied and loved ballet. So family members and friends said he should study at the Bolshoi School—it’s the best.
Rail: And he became independent at an early age…
Harss: I think it’s his temperament—he’s a no-drama person. And even though his family is incredibly close and loving, he went off to ballet school in Moscow and transitioned to living in the dorm. And it was fine, partly because he had something to do. From a young age, his ability to focus was very strong. Apparently he made friends easily. It helped that his mother’s best friend lived in Moscow, and on the weekends, he would go there.
Rail: Can you talk about some of the influences from his experience that are manifested in his choreographic style, such as his time spent at the Royal Danish Ballet?
Harss: I think his style shows influences from everything he was exposed to. He is a lover of dance. So he’s always been interested in seeing things and really studying them. And he’s a sponge, so everything he saw is somehow in the work he makes now. Starting with what he saw at the Bolshoi—the big Don Quixotes and Spartacuses, and these great stars with their huge personalities. The ability to be expressive onstage that he saw at the Bolshoi really stayed with him.
The Bright Stream contains a combination of the exuberance of the Bolshoi with the detail of the Danes and his own personal irony that comes from his taste in literature; his favorite book is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He went to Canada, to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and danced Frederick Ashton and that was a huge influence. From there he drew detail, delicacy, and complexity of emotion. Emotions didn’t just come in extra large, they also could come in medium, small, and fine-grained. Also being exposed to George Balanchine in Canada; the speed, the articulation of the footwork, the lines—he was obsessed with that. For a time, he was really into Roland Petit, and also Maurice Béjart and Jiří Kylián—the groundedness and masculinity, the possibility of being heavy and taking up space on stage.
Rail: And August Bournonville…
Harss: And in Denmark, at the Royal Danish Ballet, the lightness and ease of movement. You see a lot of that in his dance; he had to work really hard at it. The other thing he learned in Denmark was that people could be natural actors on stage, and embody characters who weren’t big archetypes. There was a complete, wide range of characteristics they could show on stage. And it could be funny and natural. He had grown up in a place where mime was forbidden, stripped away. And suddenly he’s in a tradition where mime is prevalent and very effective. It made him question the classicism he had been taught, whether it was as authentic as the Russians claimed.
Rail: His musicality is remarkable. How does this take shape in his choreography and rehearsal process?
Harss: It is. Contrast it with Balanchine’s, who’s also extraordinarily musical. The biggest difference is that, for me, Balanchine’s choreography helps visualize the structure of the music—he gives you a map for the music. Whereas Ratmansky makes you see the textures, the push and pull. Even the harmonics and the way it’s orchestrated, because it’s about thickness, thinness, and accent and all the events that happen in a phrase.
He doesn’t work with a score. He listens on headphones obsessively. Music for Ratmansky contains dramaturgy, little elements of narrative—a story, or bunch of stories, in the music. He helps tease out those images, events, characters, and sometimes when you see one of his ballets you think, Oh my gosh, I never heard that. Now that character and that sound seem united.
Rail: You sat in hours of rehearsals. How does Ratmansky work with his dancers?
Harss: I think of him like a sculptor, where at the beginning of a rehearsal, he gives away very little information, but he’ll make up a series of phrases, and they’ll look a certain way. A sculptor cuts away, and reveals a figure or some form. The rest of the rehearsal is spent refining those initial cuts made in the stone, and by the end, it looks nothing like it did at the beginning. Like the figure has emerged almost as if it had already been there; something that was conventional now looks complex and has many facets. It’s really hard for the dancers because he doesn’t lay a groundwork and then go back and chip away—he chips away from the beginning. That discrete piece by the end of that rehearsal has achieved its full potential, and that leads to the next piece.
Rail: His body of work is composed of both abstract and story ballets. Which of his dances have intrigued you the most and how so?
Harss: Yes, he runs the gamut, from abstract to story. He doesn’t work much in the completely abstract; most of his movement has a figurative quality of some kind. It either evokes character or story in some way, even a sliver. Balanchine worked often in a fully abstract mode, but with a philosophical wash to it. Ratmansky’s work tends to be less fully abstract, about ideas and a bit more about stories. Where he’s most interesting is in the middle, where you definitely feel there is some story, but you can’t quite figure it out. It gives each moment mystery, a sense of endless possibility.
An example—another ballet that compelled me to write this book was Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (2016), for ABT. Because it’s a ballet that has a structure, you kind of know what it’s about. But the solos don’t tell you the content of those conversations. How could they? That’s impossible. Instead they give a sense not just of the act of conversation, but of listening, debating, making your case. It’s a form of storytelling, but taking it to a different level.
Namouna (2010), for NYCB, is more toward storytelling, but it doesn’t make sense. But it’s hilarious, and has these characters that are so vivid—they stand alone, even if you don’t know exactly where they fit into the bigger picture. I also love his reconstructions of classical ballets because they show how Marius Petipa also played with that line between storytelling and pure dance.
Rail: He’s already had a great impact on the ballet scene in New York. What do you make of his recent move to New York City Ballet as artist in residence, after over a decade with ABT in a similar position?
Harss: It’s such an interesting move. I’m curious to see what will happen, because he wanted to join City Ballet originally. He barely knew ABT. But as I explain in the book, NYCB just didn’t happen; it was a clash of personalities, with some naivete on his side. He went to ABT and it was kind of a blank slate; in a sense he had to create his own dancers. Because at City Ballet, he wanted to work with Balanchine dancers, but at ABT they were kind of unformed. They’re wonderful dancers, but each had their own style, so it was about finding a common language.
And ABT is a company of story ballets, so he tended toward making story ballets for them. Like the Shostakovich Trilogy (2013); it’s a full evening—everything he has to say about Shostakovich and about his Soviet experience. It’s a big gesture. He made his reconstructions of nineteenth-century ballets, which were huge for him. He needed to come to terms with his relationship to those big ballets and figure out how they worked—Sleeping Beauty, Harlequinade.
I don’t think those are ballets he could have made at City Ballet, and they’re incredibly fruitful to him. They were a place from which he harvested an enormous amount of vocabulary. Like The Seasons (2019), which marked his tenth anniversary at ABT—a product of all that he learned from Petipa, and that’s why it’s so rich and full of joy.
But his interest in City Ballet never waned, and in a way, he’s a much more mature choreographer now. So he’s coming to City Ballet with all of this stuff he learned. Maybe it’s the right place at the right time. It’s exciting.
Rail: On a darker note, when Russia invaded Ukraine, how did that affect Ratmansky? And how do you think it might affect his body of work going forward?
Harss: It’s still to be seen how it will affect his ballet, but it affected him profoundly. For a while he was in a state of shock; he couldn’t work. He was just looking at the news and communicating with his family. The war happened, and it divided his life in two; he was literally in Russia when they attacked, working on a new ballet for the Bolshoi. He had been very hesitant about going. But part of him—like a lot of Ukrainians and Russians—thought, this can’t happen, it’s not possible. He said it was very tense in the studio in the weeks leading up to it. Then he woke up to a call from his wife Tatiana saying that Russia had invaded and he had to get out as soon as possible. So from the beginning, it was very dramatic, and he knew he would leave.
That’s on a personal, visceral level. I think the second complex, very profound thing that happened is he’d always been an internationalist. In the same way that he could joke about a communal farm on the steppes of the Soviet Union, he could work in the United States and in Russia and it didn’t make any difference. And suddenly, he realized it was kind of a fiction. I think that’s what people like Mikhail Baryshnikov always knew. It seemed like the world had changed, but also there was the shocking realization that the world—or at least Russia—hadn’t changed, so that’s been really difficult.
On the one hand, it’s been very easy; he feels Ukrainian, his loyalty is completely to Ukraine. The question is, where does that leave all of his early work, much of which is set to Russian music and is the result of his upbringing? Many of the ballets premiered at the Bolshoi—what is his relationship to all of that? He said he hopes The Bright Stream is never done again.
Rail: What should first time viewers look for when watching one of his ballets?
Harss: It’s not as much what they should look for, but what the experience of watching a Ratmansky ballet is like. First of all, the sense of surprise—you never know what you’re going to see on stage. His ballets can be very strange at first, because his imagination is so fertile, and he’s not making reference to American popular culture. It comes from a more far-ranging imagination. Again, his favorite book is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He draws from the surreal, from literature, from old movies, so you can’t know ahead of time what the experience is going to be like.
Another noticeable thing in a Ratmansky ballet is the virtuosity. The dancers just dance their legs off, both the men and the women! It pushes them to their absolute limit—the speed, the amount of steps. Also, you expect everything in ballet to be big and clean and with an aspiration toward lightness, and his choreography can be heavy, and down on the floor, and not so clean… it can be complicated, and four-dimensional. You have to let it happen; it’s not so easily absorbed as some other choreography because there’s so much complexity to the choreographic phrases. And the humor that’s often there right under the surface.
Rail: Slapstick, even.
Harss: He’s willing to go there—sentimentality, slapstick, melodrama, but he has taste. He goes right to the edge, but not often over it.