"The Bright Stream"
American Ballet Theater
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 9, 2011
by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2011 by Mary Cargill
It is clear that the Cold War is well and truly over--the hammer and sickle is decorating the Metropolitan Opera House's front curtain, introducing a comedy about life on one of Stalin's collective farms. Of course, life was not a comedy during that period, and, except for remote areas of academia and old issues of the New York Times, everyone agrees that Stalin's collectivization caused millions of deaths. One of the victims was Adrian Piotrovsky, the librettist of the ballet--Stalin didn't approve of the idea that someone might be making fun of his ideas, and sent him to a prison camp. So a ballet using the same libretto (set to a gloriously varied and danceable Shostakovitch score) showing jolly villagers frolicking in a collective farm might make some viewers queasy. But no time in history has been free of horrors and essentially all comedies are performed on someone's grave, though few graves are as full as those of the Soviet Union in the 1930's. "The Bright Stream", though, isn't really a comedy about a collective farm, it is a universal story of human vanity, of men who stray and of women who forgive them, that happens to be set in a collective farm. It is "The Marriage of Figaro" on point, as the heroine Zina (Paloma Herrera) tricks her wandering husband Pyotr (Marcelo Gomes) into making love to her as she is disguised as the Ballerina (Gillian Murphy). There are various subplots, all along the pricking of illusions theme, and all involve disguises--a very traditional idea, and a wonderful metaphor for willful blindness and Ratmansky's ballet is vibrant, funny, and triumphant.
The Bolshoi Ballet brought it to New York in 2005, with bright costumes and colorful, complex sets by Boris Messerer. ABT uses the version created for the Latvian National Ballet, with scenery by Ilya Utkin and costumes by Elena Markovskaya. At first, the rather plain sets and somewhat dowdy costumes seemed disappointing after the riotous color of the Bolshoi production, but the broad vistas give a fine sense of space, and let the audience concentrate on the action. I do think the costumes could be spruced up--the kerchiefs for the corps women make them look plain, and the Ballerina could use a fancier costume than a white leotard and droopy skirt.
Ratmansky has told his complicated story clearly, though viewers will be well-advised to read the libretto carefully. The dancers seemed have a wonderful time, and so did the audience, judging by the raucous laughter and standing ovation (a real one, not the so-called "walking ovation"). There were so many joyful surprises in the choreography. My favorites were the delicate Ashton quotations--the man in the dog costume (you really had to be there) in a pose from "Les Sylphides", echoing Ashton's dog from "A Wedding Bouquet" who takes the same pose, and the witty tractor formation, made up of dancers chugging along the front curtain, descendants of Ashton's pony cart from "La Fille". Ratmansky's choreography is gloriously characterized, and ABT's dancers have rarely looked so vivid and individual. Herrera danced with a poignant sweetness, and Murphy, as her glamorous friend (the ballerina is visiting the farm on a goodwill tour to present presents to the model workers) had a slight air of snootiness, and stormed through the choreography. Gomes as the straying husband was both silly and appealing and David Hallberg as the visiting ballerina's partner was channeling Jack Lemon in "Some Like it Hot". (The plot calls for him to dress up as Giselle to trick an old man who has designs on the ballerina.) Hallberg's performance was simply wonderful, as he used the contrast between his size and his occasionally delicate, Romantic arms to hysterical effect.
The supporting dancers were equally outstanding. Martine Van Hamel even made it back on point as the "anxious to be younger than she is dacha dweller", funny and also touching in her too-short frilly dress and desperate attempts to dance. (She had designs on the ballet dancer, and was fooled by Murphy in drag.) Victor Barbee played her husband, staggering around after Hallberg's Giselle. Craig Salstein as the accordion player was a pocket Valentino, dancing a very funny, vainly inept tango as he tried to impress an utterly charming Maria Riccetto as the schoolgirl. Roman Zhurbin, as Gavrilych, the creaky inspector of quality, proved yet again that he is a superb mime and a fine comedian. And Misty Copeland as the champion milkmaid, danced her solo with an unforgettable sparkle and got to milk the funniest cow since Ashton's "Facade".
The final denouement, when Pyotr returns to Zina, was a bit of a let down. Gomes and Herrera had danced a touching pas de deux when he thought she was the ballerina. He was swooning in ecstasy, and she had to lead him on, while showing that Zina's heart was breaking. Ratmansky had her barely look at him, turning away, clearly to hide her tears. The finale, where he realizes his mistake and she forgives him, passed by very quicky. It surely deserved a final pas de deux, where Pyotr could show he had learned his lesson--the "contessa, perdona" moment that is so moving in "The Marriage of Figaro". Possibly there wasn't music for it, but it is a shame that we did not see more of Gomes in the last scene. But without a doubt, this is a fine acquisition for ABT, the best new full-lenght ballet they have done since "La Fille", and they have the dancers to prove it.
copyright © 2010 by Mary Cargill
Photos by Rosalie O'Connor:
First: The tractor
Second: Victor Barbee and Martine Van Hamel
Third: Roman Zhurbin
Fourth: Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes