The Star Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky on Russia’s Cultural War

Alexei Ratmansky was scrolling through social media recently when he came across a startling post.

A video showed rehearsals from a production of “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, that Ratmansky, the renowned ballet choreographer, had worked on before Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

Ratmansky had severed ties with the Mariinsky at the start of the war. But the video suggested that the company was still using some of his choreography, though his name had been removed from the production, a version of the 19th-century ballet by Marius Petipa.

Ratmansky, who is of mixed Russian and Ukrainian descent and grew up in Kyiv, posted a statement on social media last month calling the episode “the most painful professional experience in my life.” He accused the artistic team that replaced him, including the Italian choreographer Toni Candeloro, of choosing “to become tools of Putin’s propaganda.”

The Mariinsky, where “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” is playing through early May, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ratmansky’s name has also been scrubbed from several productions at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, where he once served as artistic director. To show opposition to the war, he abruptly departed the Russian capital in February 2022, shortly before he was to premiere a new work there. (The Bolshoi did not respond to a request for comment.)

In between rehearsals last week at New York City Ballet, where he assumes the post of artist in residence in August, Ratmansky discussed “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” the future of Ukrainian culture and the war’s impact on his art. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did it feel when you first saw videos of “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” which you and your wife, Tatiana, had worked on for two years?

It was really painful. It was a longtime dream of mine to do it. It was a lot of preparatory work.

But it’s nothing compared to the war. No one dies. It’s just a ballet. They take a ballet, OK, they take a ballet. They don’t write my name on the production, well, that’s bad. It’s wrong on so many levels. But it’s nothing compared to the real tragedy that is going on every single day.

How can you be sure that the Mariinsky used your choreography?

The work that I did was very specific. It was a reconstruction from the notations. Its steps, combinations of steps, arm movements, gestures and how the steps are connected to the music. There are parts that are now very different. But they just built it on top of the work that I had done.

In the video, I saw moments that couldn’t have been found anywhere else. The dancers worked on these steps for months. It’s in their bodies.

You were born in St. Petersburg but grew up in Kyiv. How do you see your identity now?

It’s hard to answer that question. We speak Russian at home, but we often switch to Ukrainian. My son, who never lived in Ukraine, texts us in Ukrainian now. My heart is in Ukraine.

How has the war changed you as an artist?

You can’t put your immediate reaction onstage. You need to reflect on it, and not force it.

I staged a ballet in Seattle in September called “Wartime Elegy.” It’s a short piece, but I used Ukrainian music and Ukrainian artists for the design. It was important for me to do it.

I like comedy, I like lighter things. So this is a new way — a new depth that I need to explore.

Russian leadership has sought to erode Ukraine’s cultural identity. Are you hopeful about the future of Ukrainian art?

This is a chance for Ukrainian culture to step forward. It has always been suppressed. In the 1930s, there was a whole group of Ukrainian writers, painters, drama directors that was executed.

The cultural history of the country will be rewritten. And the experience of this war will bring out some extraordinary art.

One year later, how do you feel about your decision to leave Russia and cancel your collaborations there?

On Feb. 24, 2022, I suddenly realized I had a voice. Everyone in the ballet community knew I’m from Kyiv. And I was in Russia, in Moscow, the heart of Russian arts. When I canceled my premieres, I felt something that I never felt before. Was it political? I don’t think it’s politics. When it comes to the war, when it comes to killing thousands of people, you can’t call it politics.

Do you envision a day when you’ll work again in Russia?

I’ve heard that when Nabokov was invited to Germany after World War II, he said, “I won’t go because I don’t want to accidentally shake hands with a murderer.” That resonated.

What is your sense of the Russian cultural scene now?

It’s getting worse and worse in Russia day by day. In cultural life, they try to pretend that everything is fine, but the repertory shrinks, the best creators leave. Some have chosen to stay. But if you work for a state-supported, important Russian cultural institution, it means that you support Putin and his war, and you’re a tool of propaganda.

Some Russian artists say they have no choice but to work for institutions like the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. Even if they oppose the war, they say, they need the jobs.

If you live in Russia, I understand that. But if you come from the West, that’s unacceptable — as unacceptable as for the West to receive people who support Putin. And there are many great amazing artists who still find a way to tour and perform.

Valery Gergiev, the star Russian conductor who has been shunned in the United States and Europe because of his ties to Putin, recently led a tour in China with the Mariinsky Orchestra, where he received a warm welcome.

The market has switched to Asia. For these Asian countries, it feels like the war is so far away from them. But actually it’s not. Just look at the Taiwan situation, and what Ukraine might mean for them.

What did your Russian friends say to you after you left Moscow?

At the beginning, I naïvely tried to alert them to the large numbers of Russian soldiers who were dying. I was like, “Do you understand what is going on?” And most of them didn’t respond. And some of my closest friends, I never heard from them after the war started.

But I did receive a couple of wonderful letters that are very dear to me. They said: “We support you, we are with you, we understand. And we are sorry for what Russia is doing to your country.” But you can count those letters on one hand.

Have you had any communication with the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky since you left Russia?

Not long ago, the Mariinsky sent a letter from one of the clerks in a production office. They said that they spent money on us, on me and my wife living there, and that we would need to pay back that money — the hotel, the overseas flights. Of course, they perform ballets of mine without my name, and they don’t pay any royalties. So that was an interesting letter.

Did you respond?

I didn’t. I don’t know what to say.

Everything used to be according to contract, but it was so easy for them to break a contract, to deprive an artist of intellectual property.

The directors of the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky were very close friends. They are in an impossible position. But nevertheless, it’s very heavy. It’s very hard.

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