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"Bright Stream" Flows Again as American Ballet Theatre Brings Glitter to the Music Center

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Monday, July 18, 2011, at 12:15PM
American Ballet Theatre Rosalie O'Connor

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in "The Bright Stream"

Never say die. Just because Stalin thwarted and condemned Shostakovich as a subversive didn’t mean that the composer’s lively, spirited ballet –- “Bright Stream” -- would stay buried forever.

Here’s the proof: American Ballet Theatre dug out the epic comedy with uproarious success and brought it to the Music Center this weekend. Thanks to Alexei Ratmansky -- he’s the Dudamel of choreographers; every company wants to sign up this towering master -- the score is now alive in all its wondrous graphic character. What’s more, the company’s resident dance-maker has animated it, from scratch to stage, with enormous flair and engaging wit.

You see, all notations were lost back in 1935 when the original choreographer, Fedor Lopukhov, was nearly terminated for parading his feisty avant-gardism in this seemingly innocent ballet, while librettist Adrian Piotrovsky was even sent to a gulag.

But you can’t keep a gifted man down, so Ratmansky latched onto Piotrovsky’s exuberant tale and Shostakovich’s antic score, sparking in them vaudeville shticks as well as mining those nuggets of ethereal lyricism embedded in the music. No wonder the whole thing proved irresistible to the current-day Russian choreographer. You’ll even recognize some of the folk melodies, waltzes and marches that the composer patched together as a suite.

All of which serve the story -- namely, a Soviet collective farm, rife with petty rivalries, personal strivings, deceptions, shenanigans and finally love, yes, love emerging vibrantly from the stage pictures. Precisely what triggered Stalin’s paranoia vis-à-vis this ballet is hard to explain, except for the despot’s distrust of everything Shostakovich, a fact that caused the composer life-long suffering.

But Ratmansky and Ballet Theatre suffer not. The Utkin/Markovskaya production, down to its minor characters, is cast from glorious strength. And while the just-ended New York run boasted big-time Bolshoi stars who enlarged the company’s already deep bench, its principals here on opening night gave heart-felt, rippingly virtuosic performances that caught us up in the moment.

I surmise it was Ratmansky himself who coached the dancers and did the final tailoring so that each one’s parts seemed made to order.

Never, for instance, have I seen Paloma Herrera, now celebrating her 20th season with Ballet Theatre, dance so splendidly as in her second-act pas de deux with Marcelo Gomes – she was Zina, disguised from her husband Pyotr, and, against all hopes, successfully enticing him. And if you can imagine what a swoon of exquisite unhappiness looks like this was it. Her fluency and supple phrasing were extraordinary, the movements spurred by emotional impulse. Gomes, here, and elsewhere in his solos, was as sleekly stunning and virile as I’ve ever seen him.

So too was Craig Salstein, as the red-shirted accordionist, thrilling in his bravura turns and leaps. Gillian Murphy, as the Ballerina, a hometown darling who returns as a star, had the lead role and relished every moment of her various, superb impersonations. Maria Riccetto did some spectacular allegro dancing as Galya, the school girl.

And in the caractère department, nothing could beat beanpole Cory Stearns who got up on pointe to (female)impersonate a white-tulle-skirted Sylph with the utmost delicacy – a marvelous performance that was funny without being slapstick. Then, too, Martine van Hamel made a crotchety cougar (as in old vamp), who hilariously arranged herself in a lift, seconded by a fish-dive in the equally decrepit arms of a hapless Victor Barbee. These two arthritic elders had us hanging on their every comic move.

Not least, Ormsby Wilkins culled from his pickup orchestra enough high-flown, zealous mockery, alternated with lyric sweep, to make Shostakovich smile in his grave.

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