Alexei Ratmansky

ABT gets a new Nutcracker.

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CHILL OUT From left, Snowflakes Karen Uphoff, Leann Underwood and Melanie Hamrick get icy.

CHILL OUT From left, Snowflakes Karen Uphoff, Leann Underwood and Melanie Hamrick get icy. Photograph: Matt Karas

In Alexei Ratmansky's Nutcracker—a highly anticipated ballet premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday 23—the curtain parts on a bustling kitchen, alive with cooks, housekeepers and hungry mice. The work, for American Ballet Theatre, features children's roles played by children, the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" taking place in an ominous snowstorm ("it's a Russian thing," as Ratmansky puts it), a "Waltz of the Flowers" pairing female blossoms with male bees, and a growing chair. For Ratmansky, ABT's supremely talented artist in residence, the inspiration is all in the music. He spoke about his latest creation at the company's Broadway studios.

You were just rehearsing Mother Ginger, weren't you? I could hear the music from the lobby.
It's the first time I tried this [He knocks on the table].

With stilts?
Yeah.

How did it go?
[Smiles] It's tricky. They need to get used to it. It's really high, actually.

When did you decide to do a Nutcracker?
Well, Kevin [McKenzie, ABT's artistic director] asked. If the company needs it, I'll be happy to do it. I worked with The Nutcracker music before, because I did one [production] for the Royal Danish Ballet. So I thought it was a great chance for me to redo it.

What was that production like?
First of all, the set was very demanding because it was sort of a diagonal stage with half of it covered with a big staircase. It crossed the whole stage, so you couldn't do any circles, and it was a challenge to find how to make it work. [Sighs] This time I have a full stage and I have time to prepare, which makes a big difference.

What is your idea for the story?
I wanted to find motivations for everything. You hear this music differently in every phase of your life because there are many, many layers. There is very balletic music and ironic music—it's almost funny, like a little joke. I'm talking about the kids' dance, Grossvater ["Grandfather"] and, of course, most of the divertissements—but not all. And then there are the raw symphonic parts where you feel that Tchaikovsky talks from his heart about some things that are important to him, which moves away from the story of the ballet. So you also need to find the right motivation. And not necessarily in dancing; in mime also. The kids are playing the lead parts for most of the ballet—they do a little dancing, but their strength is in their immediate reactions. It's a lot of fun, actually, to work with them.

When you talk about Tchaikovsky and how the music hints at him talking from his heart, do you refer to the pas de deux?
Mostly. Well, the adagio, I would say. The variations are a little more conventional, more balletic, but the transformation music, the "Snowflakes."

Oh, so beautiful.
[Smiles] Yeah. And some of the "Waltz of the Flowers" also. I think these are the moments—the important accents of the score, not necessarily of the story. And that's a challenge.

What do you mean by some parts of the "Waltz of the Flowers"?
The middle section. You are suddenly transported to another place, which speaks about—well, you can't really translate the music into words, but you unmistakably get the message from Tchaikovsky there. So the "Snowflakes" would be pas d'action—an action scene. Not just a number of dancing. All these places that I talked about, there is going to be an action ballet. You can't translate it from French—pas d'action makes sense, action ballet doesn't.

No, it doesn't.
[Laughs] At least that's what I'm trying to do: to make the pas de deux a continuation of the story.

That's a challenge?
It is. Because you still need to do pas de deux stuff, and an arabesque itself doesn't mean anything, but it's everything that surrounds it—the turning of the head, the look. What's before this arabesque? The transitional steps.

So you have children playing the leads and then in the pas de deux they are transformed into dancers?
Yes. They are still the same—they are the children. You can read it in different ways. You can read it that they imagine themselves grown-up and in love. Of course, it's more like Clara's dream. It's so interesting to rehearse with kids, because you can see how the girls react differently than the boys. There is a moment in the snow scene when they just sit and talk and behind them the principals do...not a love pas de deux, but something is happening. The girls get exactly the right mood, and for the boys, it's a bit more difficult. They're not interested in girls yet.

Or they don't want to show it even if they are?
[Flashes a quick smile] They're not.

About how old are they?
They're 12, 13. I think it's the right age. It's close to Juliet's age. Right? She's 14. It's a little bit before that; she can't love, she can't be a woman yet, but she feels that it's happening. She anticipates it. She dreams of love and marriage. But at the same time, I didn't want it to be literal, and these are things that are just suggested. That's my goal, because you can't read that in the pas de deux music. It's more than that. I always thought that the pas de deux could not be done by two dancers. I thought it should be either giants or a circus with a lot of swings and falls, because the plastique of two human bodies is not enough to fill out this music, but we'll see what happens. [Laughs]

But you are just using two people?
Yes. It is just two people. It's huge. It is such a great discovery of Tchaikovsky. [He hums it.] Just the way it goes down in scale. It says the whole universe. It's really amazing how he made it work.

When you started this production, were you sick of the music, like every other dancer in the world?
Absolutely, yeah, yeah. But I found a recording that is very fresh, that is very inspiring. It is Gergiev's. Maybe it is not the best one tempi-wise, but it really sounds like you hear it for the first time.

How do you want the tempi played?
Not slow, definitely. The one thing that is important is that the male variation in the pas de deux...

The tarantella?
Yes. Originally, the cavalier didn't do the solo in the pas de deux. Instead the fairy's entourage—it was a group dance for girls, I think. But then eventually, the men wanted to dance, and the choreography was done—but it's so fast that to really do a big jump or a big turn or anything big, you need to slow down the tempo, which kills the music. Of course, this variation is very beautiful; it's very fine, but it's done three times slower—so we are keeping the fast tempo, and he is doing a lot of small things. We'll see. [Laughs] It works for the smaller guys, but we also have Marcelo [Gomes] and David [Hallberg]. They will do anything. They are great.

What was it about the Gergiev recording that changed your mind or gave you hope?
It just sounds fresh. Because of course you don't get any response in your head, or anywhere, when you hear this music. [Laughs]

You choreographed a version for the Royal Danish Ballet, in which you took over another production. Is that right?

Yes. I didn't use any of the steps that [Aage] Thordal-Christensen did before me, but I only had one month to do it, and it was a very stressful time. [Laughs nervously] The biggest challenge, I think, of my life, and it was my first-ever full-length.

It was 2001?
Correct.

Why did you accept it? Just to see if you could? To try?
Yeah. I wouldn't say no. [Pauses] I would always say yes. Even if I think it is crazy.

You also started working on a Nutcracker, once before, for the Kirov. What happened? Was there a disagreement with the designer?
Honestly, what happened is that I just discovered—because I was going back and forth from Copenhagen—and I discovered that another choreographer was working on it. So, some intrigue behind my back. And then I was like, "Why? What?" And the designer said that he didn't like the way I was translating his ideas. That was it. And I was no one, and he was a big name.

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