The 2003 "Bright Stream" commission from the Bolshoi brought him back to where he started. Before it even premiered, he was invited to become the company's artistic director. He hadn't planned a return to Russia, but he says, "I just thought that if I said no, I would probably regret."
"I had a lot of doubts," he recalls. "The company didn't work with choreographers much, because [longtime director Yuri] Grigorovich left in 1995, and for 10 years before that, he didn't choreograph. So a whole generation was raised with no experience working with choreographers. For me as a dancer, I always knew that the more I did, the better I would become. There's no way else you learn the styles, develop. So I was thinking that the [Bolshoi's] main problem was the lack of creative process."
Ratmansky did plenty to remedy that. From 2004 to 2008, he created four full-length and eight shorter ballets. He brought in foreign guest teachers, something that was unheard of, and woke up Moscow's ballet audience with a program of Balanchine's "Serenade," Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room" and a Christopher Wheeldon premiere. Perhaps even more radical was the evening he presented of Leonide Massine works. The Massine ballets are historic, influential works from the 1930s known in Europe and the U.S. but somehow never before performed in Russia.
"Those who wanted to, who were open to new ideas, gained a lot. But there were quite a lot of people who felt it was completely wrong," he says of his tenure. By 2008, the job had soured. "I was doing too much of things that are not artistic. I had no time to prepare, to listen to the music, to think about my new choreography. I knew I needed to sacrifice a lot of things if I was to continue as director."
The Bolshoi's loss has been ABT's (and the larger ballet world's) gain. American Ballet Theatre's dancers have been challenged technically and dramatically by Ratmansky's works, and many observers have noted a reinvigorated company spirit. (The company has rarely had a choreographer who worked with its dancers regularly, over a period of time. There was Antony Tudor in the old days, and Tharp was a frequent presence in the 1980s and '90s.)
Reviewing ABT's "Bright Stream" last month at the Met, Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times' chief dance critic, wrote, "All the dancers onstage at each performance show fresh aspects of themselves," and, he observed, "in the current season, when [ABT] has been mainly a mere backing troupe for visiting luminaries, no ballets have made it a truer ensemble than his."
"He's never frantic, always calm. There's no screaming — but he's tough," says principal dancer Paloma Herrera, who is in "The Bright Stream" opening-night cast (it has four demanding lead roles) in L.A.
"He inspires hard work. He knows exactly what he wants to achieve in the ballet. We can be really tired, but the way he works, it's an inspiration; you just keep going. He really challenges you. He takes it to the next level. He really encourages you to make it special."
Principal dancer Marcelo Gomes, also fast becoming a Ratmansky regular, will appear as Pyotr — the potentially straying husband of Herrera's Zina — on opening night, and shares her enthusiasm: "His comedic timing and musicality for 'The Bright Stream' are impeccable — and he transmits that to all of us so well, so clearly. He's the real deal. He does a lot of research about what it is that he wants to put on the stage. He tries to really bring past and present together. That's a wonderful thing, that I think ballet audiences need — not to lose the sense of classical ballet but also not be afraid to move in a different way."
Ratmansky recently extended his ABT contract to 2023 and says, "I'll do whatever the company needs — a small ballet or a bigger one." His new "Firebird" for them will have its world premiere at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in March. Though he travels widely, New York is home for him, Tatiana (who staged this production) and their 13-year-old son.
"I think I can be more myself — of course, my roots are Russian, but I embraced what I've learned in the West. I think it's very much part of me. I'm afraid I am considered an outsider back in Russia, while here, it doesn't matter where you come from."