ABT’s new production of The Bright Stream, a bracing, high-spirited ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, feels refreshing for several reasons. It’s known as a Socialist Realist tractor ballet, implying exotic form as well as dogma, and it’s seriously funny, which can be said about few full-length ballets. It hit our shores at a good time (the company is now onto other ballets through July 9), even better than seven years ago when the Bolshoi performed in NYC Alexei Ratmansky’s previous production of the Shostakovich ballet, originally done in 1935. (Apparently that was about 70 years before its time, as Stalin punished several of its collaborators.) This version has vibrant, graphic neo-Goth sets by Ilya Utkin, with costumes by Elena Markovskaya; libretto is by Adrian Piotrovsky and Fyodor Lopukhov, and Tatiana Ratmansky restaged it for ABT.
Set at an agricultural collective, a visiting ballet troupe’s star turns out to be childhood chums with the local community organizer who gave up her dreams of being a dancer for the good of the state. Mistaken identities and star-crossed flirtations make for an entertaining premise, featuring numerous lead and substantial character roles (including a dog), perfect for talented soloists such as Misty Copeland, Craig Salstein, Maria Riccetto, and Sascha Radetsky. Susan Jones brilliantly inhabited a youth-deluded dacha dweller, alternating with a saltier Martine van Hamel.
The meatiest scene belongs to the visiting dancer couple, who wind up dressing/dancing as the opposite sex. There is no substitute for seeing David Hallberg in a long tutu and pointe shoes, darting across the dim stage (kind of like a moose crossing a highway in moonlight), alternating between demure ballerina and butch guy. (Yes — he still manages to be impossibly graceful.) Complementing him is Gillian Murphy in pants, exploding fearlessly in grand jetés and sweeping lunges. In another cast, newly appointed soloist Isabella Boylston, opposite a charismatic Daniil Simkin, radiated true star quality to amplify her gorgeous technique. The lead couple hews to the more conventional — Paloma Herrera, cool and generous, with Marcelo Gomes, who was goofily ardent. Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño (retiring after this season) made an elegant pair in the other cast I caught.
Ratmansky flavors each role with details. Cossacks aggressively double punch the air; peasant women busily flutter their hands, implying productivity. Even miming or descriptive scenes (“milking” a two-man “cow”) were conveyed with lyrical, musical phrases, so that dance filled the entire ballet. Shostakovich’s primarily melodic, brass-heavy score coincidentally or satirically elicited passages of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Socialist Realism may have condoned false dreams, but The Bright Stream is no empty promise. Here’s to seeing it in ABT’s regular repertory rotation.