Arlene Croce once remarked she’d never seen a good ballet to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Whether she blames the composer or the choreographers is anyone’s guess, but this spring New Yorkers have been treated to two excellent Shostakovich-scored ballets, starting with New York City Ballet revival of Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Maneuvres, set to Piano Concerto No. 1. But had Croce’s criticism career overlapped with the rise of Alexei Ratmansky, the former Bolshoi Ballet director now in residence at American Ballet Theatre, it’s hard to imagine his version of The Bright Stream wouldn’t have forced her to change her mind about Shotakovich and ballet (or at least crack a smile).
Like the original 1936 Bright Stream, Ratmansky’s production riffs on the conventions of Soviet ballet, which glorified communist government and the value of hard work. This wasn’t the happiest period for Russian dance. Paranoid authorities censored artistic works of every kind, fearing their creators had encoded them with subversive messages. The first Bright Stream’s tongue-in-cheek tone and “tinsel peasants” offended Stalinists, and the ballet was quickly shelved. Fortunately, 21st-century audiences can openly embrace the layer of irony in Ratmansky’s production, which had its premiere at the Bolshoi in 2003. Ballet Theatre’s performance on Monday — starring Paloma Herrera, Marcelo Gomes, Gillian Murphy, and David Hallberg — was a triumph, a wry nod to history that teemed with joy, absurdity, and humor. No Ballet Theatre production to date has impressed me more.
As the ballet starts, we meet Zina (Herrera) and her husband, Pyotr (Gomes), two hardworking inhabitants of the Bright Stream collective awaiting artists scheduled to perform at the farm’s harvest festival. Once they arrive, Zina recognizes the ballerina (Murphy) as a classmate from ballet school, and the two reminisce through dance. Zina keeps up but proves to be a little rusty, marring her big finish — a combination of pirouettes and fouettés — by toppling over. Zina introduces the ballerina to her husband who, enamored, begins to flirt. At a celebration held to welcome the artists, and the locals — an accordion player, schoolgirl, milkmaid, tractor driver, and a couple of older dacha dwellers with wandering eyes — dance for a clapping crowd. These numbers are essentially divertissements, but each is unique and provides colorful characterization. (The arthritic and unromantic duet for the dacha dwellers, played by Victor Barbee and Martine Van Hammel on Monday, is particularly rich.) After the revelry, the ballerina assures Zina she has no intention of pursuing Pyotr. Instead, she hatches a ruse to school the unfaithful: She will don her partner’s costume and rendezvous with the female dacha dweller, and her dancing partner (Hallberg) will masquerade as a female dancer to woo the other. Meanwhile, Zina will wear the ballerina’s costume to trick Pyotr.
This plays out — hilariously — in the second act. When the female dacha dweller spies her husband carrying a flower and preparing for an evening tryst, her delicate bourrées become comically violent. Hallberg, who gives the evening’s best performance, scurries on stage as a sylph and enchants his short-sighted suitor with a delicate solo on point, made funnier by his stony expressions and immaculately timed emotional outbursts. Then it’s Murphy’s turn to don menswear. She chivalrously attempts to pick the older woman up from the floor but, lacking the requisite strength, just drags her before toppling over. She impresses her admirer with demanding male steps — lots of jetés — and, in a nice touch, loosens her tie as she takes her bow. There’s nothing remotely subversive about the drag in The Bright Stream, but it’s illuminating nonetheless, reminding us how rigidly gendered and mannered classical dance – and life – can be. (Consider when Hallberg sits with his legs spread and takes a hearty swig from the dacha dweller’s flask. Realizing his mistake, he quickly adjusts his posture and holds the flask more daintily, pinky extended.)
Zina and Pyotr’s pas de deux, on the other hand, has little humor. Masked, Herrera moves with ambivalence. She loves him but pulls away from his kisses, seeing each attempt as an unfaithful gesture. The next day, Zina and the ballerina, both masked, perform at the harvest festival (Zina, already back in prime form, completes the combination this time) and after bows, the two reveal their identities. Pytor, at long last struck by guilt, begs Zina’s forgiveness, now thrilled to know that his wife is “both a first-class worker and a marvelous ballerina.” Naturally, the peasants rejoice.
For all its many jokes about ballet, The Bright Stream is, at its core, a tribute to the art form. If the original production was intended as a celebration of work, Ratmansky’s is unabashedly about play, and it underscores the power of dance to inspire and entertain. When ballet dancers arrive at the Bright Stream collective, the remote, probably very drab town springs to life. The ballet produces the same effect. For two hours, Ratmansky’s incisive choreography — and the astounding cast — transform the Metropolitan Opera House into an even more perfect place.