“He wants to do everything.”
That’s what the dance critic Marina Harss said about choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, about whom she’s writing a book. A look at his oeuvre supports her point. Currently artist in residence with American Ballet Theatre, whose summer season is underway now at Lincoln Center, Ratmansky has choreographed full length story ballets like “Of Love and Rage,” which recently had its local debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. He’s done smaller, abstract pieces, like “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium.” With his wife, Tatiana, he learned to decode old forms of dance notation to unearth the original choreography of pieces like “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”
Companies around the world have commissioned dances from Ratmansky. He’s worked in Australia, Europe and across the United States. “Of the people who work in the classical vocabulary," Harss said, "he is maybe the most sophisticated, maybe the most in demand, the most admired.”
Ratmansky was choreographing two works for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow earlier this year when he received news that shook him to his core. Tatiana – herself a former ballerina – called him at 6 a.m. on February 24th to tell him Russia had invaded Ukraine.
“I said to the Bolshoi, ‘I leave now,’” Ratmansky told Gothamist in a recent interview.
The conflict is personal for him. Ratmansky was born in Leningrad – what is now St. Petersburg – in 1968. His family moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, when he was a toddler. On a visit to Moscow when he was 10, he learned the famed Bolshoi Ballet Academy was holding auditions. He auditioned and got in. As a young man, he danced for the Ukrainian National Ballet.
After stints in Canada and Denmark, he returned to Moscow in 2004 to head the Bolshoi Ballet. At the time, Ratmansky was just 35 years old. “They said I was the youngest in the history of the Bolshoi,” he said. “That was pretty insane.”
The war, then, is between his homeland and the country where he came of age as an artist.
It wasn’t just Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his western neighbor that stunned Ratmansky; he’s also disappointed in the lack of push back in Russia. “On February 24th, I was 100% sure that millions of Russians would go out on the street and it would all stop. And it didn’t happen. That’s pretty horrific,” he said. The conflict is particularly painful in part because both his parents and his in-laws are in Kyiv. “They are in their 80s and 90s and they can’t leave,” he explained.
He’s questioned artists who haven’t repudiated Putin. “I can’t imagine how I would keep all of the relationships with Russian companies that receive money from the state,” he said. “It’s unimaginable.”
For Ratmansky, there has been an unexpected outcome from the conflict: It gave him a sense of belonging. “I actually never had [that],” he said. “I was the boy from Kyiv when I studied in Moscow. When I danced in Kyiv I was the foreigner from Moscow. Maybe New York is the only place where no one cares where you come from. You just have to deliver. And that’s the beauty of New York, and America.”
Ratmansky made the City his home in 2009, after he left the Bolshoi. While the company’s foreign tours were feted, the changes he made raised hackles in some quarters in Russia. He introduced American choreographers like Twyla Tharp into the company’s repertoire and promoted younger dancers, which didn’t sit well with the old guard.
A few years into his Bolshoi tenure, Ratmansky choreographed “Russian Seasons” for New York City Ballet. When it premiered in 2006 at the New York State Theater, it caused a sensation. “The dancers who worked with him were transformed,” Harss said. “He took them to a whole new level.”
She said that’s a product both of demanding choreography and how he interacts with dancers: “He works with them kind of like an acting coach.”
While the expectation was that Ratmansky would join City Ballet, he accepted an invitation to join American Ballet Theater. “That was quite a coup for ABT,” said Harss. A generation of dancers has come of age during Ratmansky’s 13-year-long tenure at the company, including Calvin Royal III, who rose from performing with ABT’s studio company to principal dancer.
“There is no hiding when you’re in front of Alexei, in a room or onstage,” Royal said. “His eye for detail is so exact.”
Working with Ratmansky has helped him grow, Royal added. “Because of that attention to detail, I think I’ve been able to expand as an artist. He’s really seeking this ideal or perfection.”
That passion for detail prompted Ratmansky to document the original choreography of the great Western ballets. He and his wife headed into the archives of Houghton Library at Harvard University to peruse the scores of Marius Petipa, the French-born choreographer who created seminal works in Russia during the late 19th century. The Ratmanskys recently recreated Petipa’s “Swan Lake” for Miami City Ballet, and “The Sleeping Beauty" for ABT.
“I want to get as close to the original intentions as possible,” Ratmansky said. “In 99% percent [of the time] it makes more sense. It’s more clever, more detailed.”
His work attracted the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, which in 2013 awarded Ratmansky its “genius grant.” He was choreographing in Australia at the time, and at first ignored the emails, texts and phone calls. “Why are they following me?” he wondered. A Google search made it clear. “I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said.
Ratmansky’s most recent full-length, original ballet to appear in New York is “Of Love and Rage.” Set to a score by Aram Khachaturian, it is based on an ancient Greek novel, Callirhoe, which was published in 1 A.D. It features a star-crossed couple that weather jealous rages, slavery, and war before they are reunited.
Ratmansky created “Of Love and Rage” before the war in Ukraine broke out. But perhaps inevitably, the conflict is informing his newest work: This fall, he will craft a dance in conjunction with a Ukrainian composer and designer for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s part of his healing process.
“It’s been a lot; I need to process it,” he said. “The best way to process it is to find a shape for it onstage.”
The current American Ballet Theater season runs through July 16th at Lincoln Center; abt.org.