"The Bright Stream"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
June 11, 2011
by Tom Phillips
Copyright 2011 by Tom Phillips
The Soviet Union was a great historical tragedy, but it was also a joke, set up by the Communist Party's project of creating a new human species, the "new Soviet man" or "Homo Sovieticus." Believing in the inheritance of acquired traits, the Soviets set about training the masses to give up all of humanity's vain and selfish desires, so that their children would be completely generous, hard-working, patriotic and self-sacrificing. "The Bright Stream" acknowledges the goal but is also in on the joke, which is why heads rolled when it was first produced in Leningrad in 1935. Today, 20 years after the collapse of Soviet communism, everyone is allowed to laugh, but we still like to dream of a nobler world, and that's why Alexei Ratmansky's revival of "The Bright Stream" is a hit from Red Square to Broadway. I wanted to see this particular performance because of the cast -- the only one with a Soviet-born ballerina in the lead role. ABT is loaded with Soviet natives, but for some reason only Veronika Part is among those dancing the heroine, Zina. Comrade, she was perfect.
Zina is a rural “amusements organizer” – i.e. a Party bureaucrat – and the story has to do with the visit of a troupe of famous dancers and musicians to the local collective farm, with the resulting challenges to the chastity, fidelity, and simplicity of the peasants. It turns out that Zina is not just a faithful communist but a great dancer herself, who once went to ballet school with the famous ballerina of the visiting troupe. When Zina’s husband falls for the ballerina, Zina dons a mask, whips out her own fouettes (even bigger and better than her friend’s) and wins him back. She’s not just a loyal worker and a faithful wife but an artist as well, all the virtues of Stalin and Peter the Great in one flesh. It’s “Homo Sovieticus” herself, in pointe shoes and a peasant dress.
For all its improbability, or impossibility, it’s still an inspiring vision. Part looks ravishing and completely at ease in the flowing peasant dress designed by Elena Markovskaya. Stella Abrera, her friend from the city, is vivacious and virtuous as well, but she can’t match the freshness and generosity of Part’s gestures.
So what did the Stalinists not like about this story? Maybe just that it's a farce, or that the other characters include some borderline degenerates: a lecherous accordion player lusting after a schoolgirl, and a couple of past-their-prime “dacha dwellers” with designs on the ballet dancers. Company legends Victor Barbee and Martine von Hamel play these bourgeouis interlopers – Barbee, with a bicycle, looking like a roué you might see cruising the boardwalk in Miami Beach.
In Ratmansky’s hands it’s an energetic farce, with lots of laughs in the gender-bending costume changes. Cory Stearns was terrific as a cross-dressing Sylphide charming the dacha dweller, and Gemma Bond sparkled as the innocent schoolgirl. But it was Veronika Part and another Soviet native, Gennadi Savaliev as the foot-stomping, leering accordionist, who gave the piece its most authentic Russian earthiness.
Comes the revolution, we all dance like this.
Copyright 2011 by Tom Phillips