How Do You Solve a Problem Like Alexei?

By Leigh Witchel

Is Alexei Ratmansky a misogynist? Is he a racist? There’s been a cloud of inquiry, including from me, but there’s also more evidence against than for both assertions. Yet the question should not just be waved away dismissively. Ratmansky has, over several years, both repeatedly said and choreographed things that made one stop and ask, “Did he really mean that in that way?”

Were the all-blonde wigs on women who aren’t white just a Russianism (blonde=maiden) in “The Firebird,” or a nod to the historical tradition in “The Sleeping Beauty?” Was it a desire for consistency, or Whoopi Goldberg putting a white towel on her head and calling it her “long, luxurious blonde hair?”

Was the costume sketch for Von Rotbart in Ratmansky’s reconstruction of “Swan Lake” in Zurich that had as a note “dark skin” an issue of historical accuracy? My guess is that the original makeup was green, purple, or some hue indicating a magical figure rather than an actual skin tone. Was this an unfortunate wording between a choreographer and a costume designer not working in their native languages? It got more unfortunate as the dancer cast was black.

Was the ending of Miami City Ballet’s “The Fairy’s Kiss,” where all the leading women (including the hero’s dead mother) came out and lay in worship before him raised above them, just – as some of the dancers informally said – a last-minute bad idea?

In all these cases, quite plausibly so. And an isolated gaffe is something you might let pass – it happens to the best of us. But with enough gaffes there is a pattern. And it’s worth airing.

Switching from prosecution to defense counsel, if this is the worst we can come up with, how upset do we want to be? During the Here/Now Festival last April and May at New York City Ballet, the company showed several of his works, including a program devoted solely to him. There was far more humanity on display than misogyny. A strong faith in gender and gender-typing is written right into ballet’s vocabulary, from pointe shoes to partnering. Ratmansky’s facility and strength as a ballet choreographer comes from understanding and buying into these conventions.

“Russian Seasons,” from 2006, is one of the most durable ballets made in the post-Balanchine era. During the Here/Now Festival at New York City Ballet, Rebecca Krohn, dressed in orange, collapsed to the floor. The men came to her, but another woman stopped them and the women assisted instead, as if men couldn’t sufficiently understand or empathize with Krohn’s distress. The cast raced away, then hovered over, bending away and back, and being present. Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” has similar moments – men and women pair off, but also the men and women split apart like chromosomes, as if each sex had its secret DNA.

Krohn reappeared at the close of “Russian Seasons,” in white as a bride with a crown of daisies. She placed her finger over her lips for us to keep her secrets. Ratmansky wasn’t direct about his meaning, but the sense was that a union is also a death. She was raised, arms outspread, to a peeling refrain of hallelujah. “Russian Seasons,” like ballet, celebrates the idealized stereotypes of community and gender: courtship and coupling for life – and death. The heart of the work is there for anyone to see.

Another big work for NYCB, “Namouna,” shows the same trust in stereotypical gender roles, with some tweaks. Ratmansky’s faith in gender isn’t absolute but he rocks the boat in comfortably established ways. In “Russian Seasons,” Megan Fairchild tore through double saut de basques – a step traditionally for men – along with the guys. It’s a challenge, but a time-honored one: the tomboy.

Rebecca Krohn in “Russian Seasons.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

In “Namouna,” a variation smoking a cigarette (done to Édouard Lalo’s eponymous music) got differently shaded when Ashley Bouder took on a role originated on Jenifer Ringer. Ringer made her career on being a good girl – it was who she was, and the interest lay in casting a good girl in a bad girl part. Bouder is a bad girl grown up to be a nasty woman. Her smoking is incendiary. It’s still a stereotype, but Bouder played her strength and independence to the hilt.  She offered Tyler Angle her cigarette, but took it before he could and puffed. Later on, the men reentered with Bouder, and rolled her on the floor. She offered her cigarette to Angle again; he demurred. She shrugged and resumed puffing. Tant pis. Ratmansky’s view of women is closer to these moments: like ballet, women and men have a demarcated range of possibilities that can tweak convention, but not explode it. Still, if the options are limited, they are also positive.

The pot boiled over recently. There was the dust-up about his quote in The New York Times about women choreographers, which was followed by “Odessa” at NYCB. In The Times Siobhan Burke wondered if a scene with Megan Fairchild being carried by men was a gang rape. Looking at the same moment with Sterling Hyltin, I didn’t see something akin to Kenneth MacMillan’s infamous gangbangs in “Manon” or “The Judas Tree.” It looked far more as if Ratmansky was echoing Ashton and Balanchine. In several ballets, including “Illuminations” and the “The Unanswered Question” section of “Ivesiana,” a woman lifted by multiple men is the exact opposite. She’s unreachable, almost angelic or virginal.

The problem with “Odessa” was cumulative: the relationships in the ballet are abusive – presumably ironically. The abuse went both ways, if the men yanked the women, one woman slapped and decked a man. But the timing for the debut of this couldn’t have been worse, coming hard on the heels of Ratmansky’s gaffe about women choreographers.

There was also a cringing moment about a year ago on social media where Ratmansky defended blackface in Russia by explaining that there are no blacks in Russia so no one meant any offense. Argh. That goes from innocence to ignorance. [Author’s note: I’ve tried to retrieve this discussion, and can’t locate it – so this is from memory.]

Even the most egregious issue, the blackface discussion, was as much an opportunity to have a fruitful discussion. The problem Ratmansky had is the same one many of us stumble on, making the jump from individual hatred to the more pernicious issue of systemic habit. If only someone (*cough*Kevin McKenzie*cough*) had taken him aside ages ago and explained that there are things that might have worked in Russia, but they have a different meaning in America – and you can’t escape them by pleading ignorance.

If we’re raking Ratmansky over the coals for his poor optics, he’s not close to the worst offender in the current pack of choreographers. Ratmansky’s choreography has occasional questionable subtext. Liam Scarlett’s has crash-landed into overt misogyny.

Scarlett is fascinated by strong emotions including violence. That’s led to some astonishing work. “Hummingbird” for San Francisco Ballet, contained a duet of emotional intensity and physicality that had the man hauling the woman like dead weight, and at the close, Scarlett chose a moment of perfect verismo. The two both stood there, bent over and panting, and the sense of frustration, exhaustion inextricably melded with affection, was what made it one of the best new ballets that year.

Still, Scarlett’s attempts to walk in Kenneth MacMillan’s footsteps have led to disasters. “With a Chance of Rain” for American Ballet Theatre managed to smell of both homophobia and misogyny. “Frankenstein,” a co-production of The Royal Ballet and SFB, had female characters – and the audience – suffering through an onstage hanging and a rape. The extended detail in which both were shown left the gross feeling that Scarlett wanted you to get off on them.

There’s been enough smoke that it can’t be ignored.  Yet even with smoke, there hasn’t been fire. Ratmansky is no more misogynistic, racist or heteronormative than ballet itself; where you stand on that is fodder for another discussion.  For Ratmansky, Scarlett, and all of us, good things come from imperfect souls.  We live in an and/both world, not an either/or one.

The reasons to talk about this are the same reasons we all need to have this discussion – the difference between our intentions and our effects, the fact that unexamined habit can do damage as surely as hatred. Engaging Ratmansky in an open discussion makes him a better artist – and us a better audience.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

Cover:  A sketch of Von Rotbart’s costume in “Swan Lake,” by Jérôme Kaplan.

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