ABT's 'Bright Stream' seamlessly blends comedy and history
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 10:35 PM
The rustic charm of country life and the vivaciousness of its people fueled Agnes de Mille's work on "Oklahoma!" and her one-act ballet that preceded it, "Rodeo." Watching Alexei Ratmansky's masterly and provocative comic ballet "The Bright Stream," a remake of a 1935 production that American Ballet Theatre performed this weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House, I was struck by the similarities to de Mille's landmark hits of a few years later.
Here, too, is a lighthearted musical comedy that celebrates the energy and romantic friskiness of rural folk - "The Bright Stream" takes place on a Soviet farm collective of the same name. And coursing through it is a shimmering air of optimism.
But while de Mille went on to a storied career on Broadway and in ballet, the original creators of "The Bright Stream" were not so lucky. Stalin all but crushed them: Librettist Adrian Piotrovsky was thrown into a gulag. Choreographer and co-librettist Fyodor Lopukhov was fired as head of the Bolshoi, and his further creative output was all but squelched. The lively enchanting music would be Dmitri Shostakovich's last for ballet. (He had composed two before it.)
And "The Bright Stream" itself was banned.
You watch it now and wonder what could possibly have seemed so dangerous. The music radiates such pleasure, and the ballet has such a gleeful, silly story of smitten innocents and tricksters who want to have a little fun with their affection. (Ratmansky was faithful to the libretto, though the choreography is all his own, as Lopukhov's has been lost.) So why was it so hated?
Apparently, Stalin found the Shostakovich too bourgeois, with its complexity and inclusion of non-Russian airs - you hear tangos, polkas, even a Charleston bubbling through the score, conducted on Friday by Ormsby Wilkins. And perhaps he suspected the creators of poking fun at farmworkers, rather than showing the politically correct respect.
Lopukhov had danced on the vaudeville circuit with his sister (later the wife of British economist John Maynard Keynes, by the by), and "The Bright Stream" is full of variety-show cheese: A tractor driver dresses up as a dog and careens around the stage on a bicycle. A visiting Ballet Dancer (the marvelous David Hallberg, on Friday) disguises himself as a gossamer-gowned Sylphide to fool a lovesick dacha owner, and he flits around hilariously en pointe.
This was all red meat for Ratmansky, a choreographer of great wit and easy style, who proved he can kill with the jokes as well.
Then there's his inventiveness, his way of throwing in the bravura leaps and spins audiences crave and delighting us with vivid character sketches, which is unparalleled in the ballet world today. It's hardly matched in recent history. There is a scene-changing dance before the closed curtain between Marcelo Gomes, as a married man, and Gillian Murphy, the ballerina he has a crush on, that has all the personality of a tryst between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Gomes's character all but falls at Murphy's feet - he coaxes and cajoles her like an eager puppy. Murphy resists, then indulges him, then utterly gives in, and this charming precis of romance is all told in fluid and deeply musical rhythms. Their sliver of stage could just as well have been a football field for the sense of abandon in the choreography.
As de Mille created "Rodeo" for the international dancers of the Ballets Russes, schooling them in cowboy moves, Ratmansky had to tutor ABT's dancers in the mannerisms of Russian peasants. The results were not always perfect, but Friday was the company's first stab at this ballet. As it was, Paloma Herrera was in her finest classical form as Zina, a former dancer who rediscovers her technique to win back her roving husband. Murphy was never better than as Zina's ballerina friend - and what a gigantic role: She dazzles with her classical purity, then dresses up as a man to power through the same gonzo steps Hallberg had tossed off in an earlier solo. And she also showed us her funny bone.
Hallberg, too, discovered his inner Buster Keaton. There were lively turns for Misty Copeland as a milkmaid - I hope we see more of her in the future - and Sascha Radetsky. Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee and former ballerina Martine van Hamel teamed up as the buffoonish dacha dweller and his wife.
But Ratmansky wasn't just after laughs. Beyond reviving a deserving work of art, it seems he also wanted to slip in a jab at Stalin. At least that's the impression I was left with. In the end, the farm folk gather to celebrate Zina's reunion with her husband, but as the music grows brighter and more buoyant, the dancers become more rigid and linear. They jump up and down like pistons, like machinery, and in the backdrop (Ilya Utkin created the wonderful line drawings) a towering cityscape looms clearer and clearer. Where was the swirling, the airy lightness we'd seen earlier? The communal farm had undergone an industrial transformation, moving, perhaps, toward a gray collective utopia. Was the circle of smiling dancers at the work's close ironic, and even tragic, as Soviet control encroached upon them? That finale made me want to see the whole work again and again. Great art is like that.