Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream, which opened a week-long run at American Ballet Theatre on Tuesday, may not be a perfect ballet, but it is a very funny one, and one of only two ballets that have made me laugh uncontrollably. (The other is Jerome Robbins’ The Concert.) In The Bright Stream‘s uproarious second act, a ballerina dons a shirt and pants to become a cavalier, a cavalier sports a tutu to become a sylph, and a boy dressed as a dog crosses the stage in arabesque atop a bicycle. Death, cloaked in black and brandishing a scythe, appears, but he has no place in this innocent, whimsical world: The others toss him into the wings.
The Shostakovich-scored ballet, now in its second year at American Ballet Theatre, transports its audience to the Bright Stream farming collective, where Zina (Paloma Herrera at Tuesday’s performance) and her husband, Pytor (Marcelo Gomes) are among the residents preparing for a harvest celebration. A train soon arrives carrying artists including a ballerina (Gillian Murphy) and her dancing partner (David Hallberg), and Zina recognizes the ballerina as an old friend with whom she once studied dance. After Pyotr’s eye wanders to the ballerina and a pair of old married vacationers (Martine van Hamel and Victor Barbee) begin to ogle the dancers, the others hatch a plan to teach the unfaithful a lesson: Zina will entrap her husband while dressed as the ballerina, and the dancers will woo their would-be suitors disguised as each other.
While watching story ballets, one often has to ask, “Why are they dancing?” The beauty of The Bright Stream is that the question rarely, if ever, arises. Ratmansky’s choreography works both figuratively and literally; dancing is the means by which the characters converse, define themselves, and deceive others.
In Zina and the ballerina’s first duet, for instance, their dancing in canon strikes one as less of a musical device than one friend jogging the other’s memory. To deceive the eyesight-impaired dacha dwellers in the second act, the ballet dancers rely in part on their costumes, but the true trickery is in their steps; the ballerina repeats her partner’s variation from the first act, mimicking his macho posturing. And it becomes clear, when Pyotr dances with a masked Zina, that it’s not the ballerina’s physical beauty that draws this cad’s attention but the grace and verve of her dancing; in the finale, after Zina and the ballerina perform side by side, Pyotr is surprised to learn that his wife possesses these qualities as well.
The choreography’s wit and variety aren’t limited to character sketches either. Just before the finale, in a passage that recalls the human horse carriage of Frederick Ashton’s pastoral La Fille Mal Gardée, men cross a sunflower-filled scrim steering each other like wheelbarrows, and three tiers of dancers bustle by in the shape of a tractor, complete with moving parts.
Other dancers will perform the ballet this week, but this cast of principals — the first cast at American Ballet Theatre — remains a joy. Herrera’s dancing, both strong and relaxed, complemented Zina’s wavering confidence, Murphy handled the male and female steps with ease, and Pytor’s flirtatious outbursts proved a perfect vehicle for Gomes’ effusive charm and bravura technique. Hallberg, however, stole the show. It’s been said that when attempting comedy, one has to be doubly serious, and Hallberg made a convincing case with his delicate pointework, deliberate épaulement, and spot-on timing. Other dancers stand out too, most memorably Craig Salstein, who was both devilish and debonair as the accordion player who tries to seduce a schoolgirl. It’s a delight to watch these dancers, seen so often as serious swans and princesses and peasants, briefly let loose, and laugh at their art and themselves.