The Bright Stream has had to wait nearly seventy years for a revival since its successful debut in 1935 in both Leningrad and Moscow. Even so , its original choreographer, librettist and composer were crushed in various ways by Stalin and his paranoid culture ministers for the production, probably because the story made life down on the collective look too much like fun and not enough like real work. The cross dressing in Act II didn’t help either. Shostakovich’s comedic ballet plays like a Shakespearian green world comedy of manners with its cast drawn from all levels of society and an appealing, varied suite of danceable waltzes, polkas and marches. The Bright Stream reveals Shostakovich, the dance man, with all the severity and bleak soundscapes of his symphonies banished from earshot. This music is still full of irony and dark corners but it is also remarkable for its measure of delightful theatrical impulses. In one sequence Shostakovich blends tango, ragtime, a Charleston two step, and even a twisted Latin dance groove accompanied by an atmospheric trumpet into a satisfying whole, not an easy feat for a man for whom those musical idioms were foreign.
The ballet, Shostakovich’s attempt at a light propagandistic dance comedy, is in two acts. The first introduces the dramatis personae, agricultural workers and a train load of artists disembarking on the Russian steppe for a festival at the Bright Stream Collective. The story focuses on Zina, who is organizing amusements for the festival, and her husband, Pyotr. Their drama of shifting affections spills over into Act II where multiple disguises, switched identities and a little play acting finally put things right for all involved. Alexei Ratmansky, currently choreographer in residence at America Ballet Theatre who created the production, has put together a masterful and picturesque diversion that draws on classical dance, folk idioms, social dance and a goodly proportion of ad hoc movement, acting and mime. Ratmansky is, quite simply, a genius at this sort dance story, an amalgam that depends on clever steps, an effective ensemble, vivid characters and fleet story telling. He manages his scene changes with dexterity and great attention to detail. He is also an extremely musical choreographer whose movements capture Shostakovich’s eccentric rhythms and stylistic inclinations. He has achieved similar storytelling success with his one act ballet Namouna (set to music by Lalo), also a period, ensemble ballet, with a large cast, evocative sets and costuming. (Please see www.seedance.com Two Programs at the Koch Theatre for a review of New York City Ballet and Namouna.)
And for those of you who missed the retirement performance of Jose Manuel Carreño in Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House you could see him retire all over again in The Bright Stream. His performance opposite Julie Kent as Zina was full of charm and easy grace. He is as genial a partner as you might wish for and projects the confidence of a dancer who knows his craft inside and out. Both he and Kent were spectacular in the romantic duo of Act II not because the choreography was spectacular, but because their ease dancing together was profoundly real and contagious. Both Kent and Carreño danced their roles in an understated fashion that suited the demands of The Bright Stream story line. They generously shared the stage, rather than starring on it against a background of soloists and extras
And though both principals had ample time to shine on stage it was the depth and terrific acting of the company as a whole that made The Bright Stream memorable. Clinton Luckett as the Old Dacha Dweller and his paramour, the cleverly named Anxious-to-be-younger-than-she-is, played by Susan Jones, supplied ample comedic moments and evolved character dancing. He resembled a Russian double of the mime/clown, Bill Irwin. Craig Salstein as the yokel Tractor Driver and Sascha Radetsky as the Accordion Player also delivered well-wrought characters. Daniil Simkin and Isabella Boylston were also excellent as the second tier romantic couple. Simkin played his cross dressed character in Act II for laughs and got them but the joke sometimes wore thin with too many gags. Boylston, as the Ballerina, was phenomenal in a part that fit her to perfection. With athletic jumps, genuine acting ability and refined dancing she was by far the brightest of Bright Stream’s players and consistently elevated every moment given to her. She reprises Simkin’s male solo from Act I as part of the Act II hijinks and does it with uncommon gusto.
The sets, by Ilya Utkin, and costumes, by Elena Markovskaya, imbued the production with an authentic brand of 30’s era Soviet socialist realism. Utkin’s black linear structures and backdrops were especially effective, airy and left an impression of monumentality without visual obtrusiveness. The final backdrop for ACT II, a gleaming city skyline, left an ironic impression about the kind of metropolis collectivism hoped to build but, ultimately, never did. Markovskaya’s costumes, especially the draped skirts for the women field workers looked handsome and helped fill the stage with movement and visual appeal. The lighting design was by Brad Fields. I liked the moody evening scene in Act II set against the lone street lamp. This production and its designs were created for the Latvian National Ballet in 2004.
The American Ballet Theatre Orchestra playing under the direction direction of Charles Barker was excellent. The wind section especially offered edgy playing reminiscent, at times, of first-rate street and military bands. The solo cello for the Act II pas de deux with Kent and Carreño was also strikingly played. It was the ballet’s only nod in the direction of true musical romanticism.
For the curtain call, Mr. Carreño was warmly applauded and accepted a garland and a bouquet from his partner, Julie Kent. He looked genuinely moved as he bowed to the audience. He is a dancer with a long and distinguished career and also one who knows how to show an audience his appreciation.