Groucho Marx would have had a great time at The Bright Stream. More than Karl Marx, in any case. A comic ballet in two acts, this Stalinist era romp was made in 1935 by Fyodor Lopukhov, head of the Bolshoi, with his co-librettist Adrian Piotrovsky, all to the glorious music of Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer, who had written music for two ballets prior, certainly knows his way around a grand jeté, with this work pulsating with melody, rhythms and motifs. Too bad then that Piotrovsky was thrown into the gulag and Lopukhov was axed from the Bolshoi because of this balletic farce. Shastakovitch, who feared arrest, ultimately fell out of favor with the Stalinist bureaucracy, and the ballet score, like his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District soon disappeared from Soviet stages.
But that was then and this is now. Happily, the brilliant Alexei Ratmansky has re-imagined the ballet (he choreographed it in 2003 for the Bolshoi when he was directing the stellar troupe), that is now being danced by American Ballet Theater. Flowing with wit, charm and virtuosic moves, Stream has become an instant classic. And with Ormsby Wilkins conducting an energetic orchestra, the Music Center of Los Angeles‘ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion came alive during ABT’s recent run of five performances.
Watching the effervescent dancers tear up the stage with unabashed joy, one wonders, though, how this hapless story – a pair of city artists visiting a Soviet farm collective, with cross-dressing, love triangles and merry mayhem ensuing – could truly have bothered the Soviets? Evidently, Stalin didn’t cotton to the Shostakovich score and was none too pleased that the dance made fun of farm-workers as opposed to showing proper – (read: politically correct) – respect.
The performance The Leaf saw featured the marvelous and radiant Julie Kent as Zina and the recently retired ABT star Jose Manuel Carreño as Pyotr, Zina’s hubby and an agricultural student. (Jose was moved to tears afterwards, a tiny taste of what had transpired on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House when he gave his farewell performance there several weeks ago). There were also sparks from a buoyant Isabella Boylston as the Ballerina who carried off her male solo with drag chic, and Daniil Simkin’s terrific Ballet Dancer, whose turn as the Romantic tutu-sporting Sylphide was a fabulous hoot.
Sascha Radetsky and Sarah Lane (Natalie Portman’s dancing double in Black Swan – for more about that click here to read some of The Leaf’s thoughts on the Aronofsky horror flick), were positively delightful as the Accordion Player and Schoolgirl, respectively. Then there was a host of Tractor Drivers, Highlanders, and a pair of dacha dwelling buffoons: Clinton Luckett (channeling Harold Lloyd) and Susan Jones, whose ample girth made her hippo-esque pointe work laugh-out-loud, nearly stole the show.
Amid the zaniness was a Grim Reaper, a crisp corps and astute characterizations –ABT’s dancers assayed Russian peasant mannerisms with ease – as well as a hilarious dancing…dog. Ratmansky has been on a roll recently and shows no signs of slowing down. Sure, there was an element of vaudevillian Velveeta, but this is precisely what the world needs now. Please pass the corn!