In many ways, Alexei Ratmansky is already an essential part of the New York City Ballet artistic family. Having choreographed six rich, singular ballets on the Company over the past 18 years, he has worked with more than one generation of NYCB dancers and created works that traverse multiple stylistic and musical universes, exploring much of the potential extension of the creative affinity he shares with the organization. His presence now in the role of Artist in Residence, taken on just in time for the Company's 75th Anniversary, offers today's dancers the opportunity to become better acquainted with him—as a unique choreographic voice, a teacher and coach, and a fellow artist. As NYCB prepares for the world premiere of his newest ballet with the Company, we spoke with Principal Dancers Joseph Gordon, Andrew Veyette, and Indiana Woodward and Soloist Emma Von Enck about working with Ratmansky and performing in his many significant contributions to the repertory.
INDIANA WOODWARD: I had the pleasure of being in the room when Ratmansky was choreographing Pictures at an Exhibition (2014)—that was my first experience with him. I was understudying [former Principal Dancer] Abi Stafford. Abi wasn't there for a couple of of the rehearsals, so I got the chance to work with him. It was so challenging, but the type of challenging that inspires you and makes you want to do your absolute best. This is the best thing for ballet, in my opinion, because ballet is so hard; you have to be something of a perfectionist in order to do it—but you also have to love it. You want somebody that pulls everything out of you. I felt like that with Ratmansky. And it was a real pleasure, because I'd never worked with him before. I wanted to try so hard, because I knew that all he wanted was the best for me, so if I really tried what he was saying, it would make me a better dancer and artist.
EMMA VON ENCK: I’d done Namouna [a Grand Divertissement, 2010] but only the corps. I really liked dancing that ballet—it was definitely one of the hardest things I've done. And then I was an understudy for Voices (2020). One day, he took the time to work with me, even though I wasn't in the main cast. That was really nice. It made me feel very valued and seen in the back of the studio.
ANDREW VEYETTE: I've gotten an opportunity to sneak my way into some of the ballets he's created on us. Even if we're just putting one of his ballets back together, like Pictures or Russian Seasons (2006), he'll come to a rehearsal or two, just to have a look at it and make sure that he's happy with our interpretation and the way we're performing his work. So I worked with him a few times on those things.
JOSEPH GORDON: I first met Ratmansky when I was a young corps member learning his ballet Concerto DSCH (2008). I remember he came in for one hour or so. He was immediately asking for things to be much more dynamic, really pushing the dancers, and I think he noticed me and saw that I was responding to his feedback. While I was still in the corps, one of the first major opportunities of my career was when he choreographed a lead role for me in Pictures. It was a really big deal for me because there were just five principal couples; Wendy Whelan was also one of the leads, and this was during her last season as a performer. It was a really wonderful process. I learned a lot and I was pushed. A few years later, I was in the original cast for Voices. So, we've had a pretty steady working relationship. I've always felt like Ratmansky's someone that has seen my talent and my desire to improve as a dancer, and I really respect him.
EMMA: And he treats everyone with a lot of respect. He has very high standards, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he sees every dancer in the studio, whether or not you're an understudy. He really cares about trying to give everyone a chance. I appreciate that, because sometimes when you're an understudy, it can feel like you’re intruding on the process; he acknowledged the work that I was providing in learning the ballet and trying to acclimate to what he was saying.
His choreography is also very demanding, but in a way that doesn't feel upsetting. If you think something's impossible, you know it's not, because he can almost always do it.
INDIANA: He was a brilliant dancer—still is a brilliant dancer. You see it in the studio because he shows all of his steps. From street to studio, he’ll do a split jump in one second. I don't even know how it's possible. Most of the time, we're warm, we've been dancing for three hours, and we can't do it.
ANDREW: There’s one story I remember, when he was choreographing Odesa (2017), that captures the way he is in the studio: He had all of the women in the corps de ballet of Odesa doing this step where they do a jeté to one side and then a little failli, and then jeté back the other way. The preparation for this big jump was very short. Basically, what he was asking for was very difficult. He was wanting more and more from the dancers, saying, “Full split, full jump, full split.” And everybody was saying, “Uh huh, uh huh.” You could tell that in their heads they were thinking, “Yeah, but like, how?” After sitting on a stool for an hour, he just popped up and said, “Like this.” And then he started doing exactly what he was asking for. Everybody looked at each other like, "If he can get up off the stool and do it, then we have to do it."
He has the energy, strength, and enthusiasm to do the steps the way he wants to see them done, so he leaves you without much of an option other than to do it yourself. It's really unique to see him get things out of people because of his own willingness to go to that extreme place. He convinces the artists that he's working with to do the same thing.
INDIANA: I find that he has a lot of “secrets” about how to be able to do his choreography, because it's so challenging. They're truly just technical ballet corrections that are helpful in our careers. Every time I get to work with him, I feel like it helps me throughout the season. I feel like I grow and become more confident as a dancer. He gives me the tools to be able to achieve a great performance, or to achieve a good turn, things like that. He really takes the time, which is beautiful. Time is so precious to him, and he really wants to invest his time. That's really nice to feel in the studio.
JOSEPH: I would describe his presence in the studio as a sort of quiet authority. He has a real gravitas. It's a quiet presence, but it's very demanding. And he asks for what he wants. There's also something a bit mad-scientist about it. As soon as he sees you do one thing, he'll say, “Oh, can you do that more off balance? Can you linger in the air longer?”
I also find him to be quite mysterious. I don't ever know what he's going to make. For example, in Pictures, there's a section called "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks," which is very perky and staccato, and you would think of it as a movement for women and fast pointe work, with a feminine quality to it. And yet, he had the men dance this movement. And then "Cows," which is a heavy, march-like piece of music that you would associate more with a masculine energy, was danced by the women. He's always surprising me in that way.
ANDREW: One thing that's interesting about Ratmansky's choreography is the shapes that he gets you to make—you wouldn't initially think of them as musical and organic. But once it settles into your body, and you're performing his ballets, you can't imagine anything else being in the place of the steps that he put there. It is almost folk dance-ish in its style and inspiration, but also remarkably musical and comfortable at the same time. Well, comfortable...because you're definitely always stretching yourself physically to do things the way that he wants to see them done.
JOSEPH: His work is very much rooted in the classical form, and yet, one of the major objectives is a sense of elasticity and the spiral of the body—how the spiral of the body can, like a cord, create immense power and strength. He's always asking for this kind of opposition in your body on a technical level. Stylistically, I think his work is all very much rooted in his heritage. I often feel like the full spectrum of life is communicated—the absurdity, the laughter, and the joy, but also the pain and the suffering and the sadness that we all experience. Of course, certain ballets of his have more or less of these elements. But I always find that there are these images, like archetypes. They're very layered.
This process [rehearsing the new work] has been really different, because he's really opened up. He's much more vulnerable, explaining a lot to us, because the content of the piece is so heavy. There's so much that has to be discussed, almost like an actor would rehearse—you have to know the intention behind every word you're saying. The process has been so cathartic and intense for me. I think he is really making something that's going to be very moving. It's a dance that communicates grief in a way that words fail to express.
EMMA: He diversifies our repertory in a way that's very unique—he has a unique voice because of his experience, where he was born, where he's lived, what he's been through, and as an advocate in the dance world. In a large American ballet company like ours, he adds a different lens. It’s good to be in contact with, to learn from, to take note of.
ANDREW: It’s wonderful to have him around and see him in the studios. He's really a very, very sweet person and a very inspiring character to have in the building. As a company that thrives on its artists, and all the amazing people that have done such wonderful things around here, it's nice to feel like that's continuing. Ratmansky brings that into the building, that hopeful feeling—"We've got another amazing artist that we all get to work with." So in that way, I'm just so excited for him to be here.
JOSEPH: He's interested in the language of classical ballet, which is the language that we have to be fluent in, even though we may be dancing contemporary works. He has an authority and commands respect from the dancers because of the work he creates. We all see the work and see it as genius or, at least, highly interesting. For me, the most interesting balletic choreography that's being made today comes from Alexei. That type of person forces us all to rise to the occasion.
INDIANA: He's a breath of fresh air to have in the studio. We're lucky because we've gotten to work with him on quite a few ballets, but every time he’s here, you can just see how the Company lights up. He has tools to help us in our technique, our musicality, our artistry, and he's not afraid to tell us. He has such generosity and really wants to help us to attain better dancing, or better artistry. And cares about us as people too, I believe.
Namouna, a Grand Divertissement, Odesa, and Pictures at an Exhibition performance photos and rehearsal photo © Erin Baiano. Concerto DSCH performance photo © Paul Kolnik.