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The Bolt — Alexei Ratmansky

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I watched the video for the first time last night. The dancing seemed to build brilliantly as the plot (and potential message) became more incomprehensible. I thought that the choreography in the final third to be possibly equal to Yury Grigorovich at his finest, for instance, Legend of Love.

Does anyone have any thoughts about the plot and potential message? If there’s already a discussion or any good references, please post them here. I would certainly watch it again just for the highly inventive and exciting choreography that is performed equally well.

The video can be seen in Marqee tv’s seemingly very good selection, available for a ’30-day free trial.’


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46 minutes ago, Helene said:

I love Shostakovich's music, whether incomprehensible or brilliant or both!  He's in my top three composers, and when I hear his music, I always envision movement of some kind.

Thanks. Understood and appreciated, but could I pursue this ?

For instance….

Why is the young man, probably the moral conscience of this work, at the ballet’s ending being held, almost in fetal position, in the arms of the well intentioned but 'simplistic' ‘socialist worker’s’ arms.

What is an uninformed spectator, such as myself, supposed to take away from this work ?

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I got the DVD for Bolt several years ago as part of a 3-disc set from the Bolshoi (along with Pharoah's Daughter and Petit's Pique Dame). I haven't watched it in a long time, but I think (from liner notes) that Ratmansky did all the choreography because they didn't have a decent record of the original. I enjoyed Bright Stream and it seemed popular with US audiences, but I can see why they haven't tried showing Bolt here. It reportedly was a critical failure in 1931 and disappeared from the rep under the Soviets. Stalin (a great ballet lover) reportedly had a heavy hand on the lives (literally) of the theater people in that era. 

I originally thought Bolt might help me understand the obscure Soviet references in Ratmansky's Trilogy (which I love, especially Symphony No. 9), but I guess you have to have grown up in the Soviet era to figure it out. Your comment makes me curious about all of this again, so I'll try to take another look soon.

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Based on the info on the Marquee app, even Shostakovich didn't seem to think the plot was worth much. He is quoted thus:


There's a machine. Then it breaks down (problem of wear and tear on equipment). Then they fix it (problem of amortization), and at the same time they buy a new one. Then everyone dances around the new machine. Apotheosis. All this takes three acts.


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8 minutes ago, nanushka said:

Based on the info on the Marquee app, even Shostakovich didn't seem to think the plot was worth much. He is quoted thus:


Thanks, but what do you suppose Alexei Ratmansky's trying to say ?

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25 minutes ago, nanushka said:

I'm afraid I can't offer any illumination on that! Just found the Shostakovich quote to be interesting.

Thanks, Nanushka. I meant to have asked, "What are *we* supposed to think that Alexei Ratmansky's trying to say?"

I guess the reason that I posted this topic and pose the questions that I do is that the first two thirds of this work have perhaps the best and most substantive use of dance to develop a plot and illustrate brilliant graphic situations that I’ve ever seen.

Once the disgruntled worker, who at first seems to be the hero, or at least the center of our attention, is discredited and disappears from the work completely, then begins, for me, the incomprehensible last part of the work. The choreography and its performance by the Bolshoi dancers, on the other hand, builds brilliantly.

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There were machine ballets before (Le pas d'acier,etc), but the problem with original production of The Bolt seemed to be that the scenario was satirical and Dimitri Shostakovich's music "too flippant for a proletariat subject," and therefore it was pulled after one performance. The conductor Alexander Gauk said that there were " musical characterizations there worthy of Chekhov's stories," and that he often conducted a suite from the ballet score which was very popular. Shostakovich later incorporated parts of the score into his other works.

I haven't seen the whole Ratmansky Bolt production for a while and only clips recently. I remember being very much taken with Denis Savin's performance of the character named after him and always wondered if Savin's particular kind of acrobatic dancing in turn influenced some of Ratmansky's choreography for the Shostakovich Trilogy.

Alexi Ratmansky in his NY Library interview with Paul Holdengraber talks about the great influence that the rather radical works of the Taganka Theater had on him, and that he would sneak out and try to see every production of theirs that he could. The Taganka Theater has deep roots going back to Stanislavski and Brecht, and the founding director Yuri Lyubimov was in the same touring acting and music company as Shostakovich in 1941. Lyubimov did however have something of a falling out with him after Shostakovich signed something or didn't sign something he shouldn't/should have.

So, Buddy, I know this isn't a great answer but I thought that maybe the key to the Bolt ending – and some of the imagery in the Trilogy – could be found by looking into the dramatic art of the Taganka Theater. I believe they still are around.

Here's something from Yuri Lyubimov's reminiscence of DS  that Elizabeth Wilson collected for her great Shostakovich oral biography. Not really on topic but I think these things, these footnotes to the arts & culture of the 20th century, should be kept alive wherever, whenever possible –


For all his nervousness and defenselessness, Shostakovich was a caustic man. HIs table talk was full of sarcasm. He liked his drink and, when in his cups, revealed his wit and irony. HIs mind was similar to Zoshchenko’s. … His letters were written with "English humor,” but in the style of "a Soviet communal apartment."

Later on his nervousness assumed the character of panic, a kind of conditioned reflex. He used to say: "I’d sign anything even if they hand it to me upside down. All I want is to be left alone.” I think he was only pretending he didn’t care. He knew what it implied when he signed such letters and deep down he suffered. Perhaps he was afraid for his family, especially for his son whom he dearly loved. He was always ready to admit his "mistakes’" (“Yes, yes, yes, I’ve been wrong. Of course, I’ll write an operetta which the People will easily understand."), but I think that this was done cynically and in cold blood. Akhmatova took the same line when talking to foreigners. Zoshchenko, however, tried to justify himself: “On the one hand … but on the other …” and he was punished for it. Because he sought rational explanations, he was not allowed to exist as an artist. On the other hand, Akhmatova was able to keep going after a fashion.

Ratmansky interview at NYPL


Yuri Lyubimov obiturary




Edited by Quiggin
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6 hours ago, Quiggin said:


So, Buddy, I know this isn't a great answer but I thought that maybe the key to the Bolt ending – and some of the imagery in the Trilogy – could be found by looking into the dramatic art of the Taganka Theater. I believe they still are around.

Ratmansky interview at NYPL




Thanks so much, Quiggin. I watched all the interview with great pleasure. Alexei Ratmansky is a brilliant and highly sympathetic individual.

You mention the Taganka Theater. If you could find a related video I'd really like to see it.

For now, the mystery remains. 

What is an uninformed spectator, such as myself, supposed to take away from this work ?  I'd even be interested in what a highly informed spectator values. So far I haven't found either in various sources that I've read and don't have my own answer. If I ever met Alexei Ratmansky this is probably the first thing that I would ask him.

The last third of the plot remains a challenge for me, because the opening two thirds of the plot and the entire work are so understandable and for me such a masterpiece of dance being used to define, color and develop the plot, the meaning and the situations.

Added: Even in the interview he says about his work, 'what you see is what you get.'  I highly subscribe to this philosophy, but in this instance can't leave it at that because there's so much greatness here.

Edited by Buddy
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Why re-create The Bolt for modern audiences? I would say because...

1) Ratmansky loves the music of Shostakovich, and the temptation to work with an actual Shostakovich ballet score must have been very exciting. And I do think Ratmansky means to be to Shostakovich what Balanchine was to Stravinsky.

2) Ratmansky seems to enjoy looking for diamonds in the rough from the "dark" period of Soviet culture. In the interview cited above, Ratmansky makes pretty clear that he feels there was more to the "tractor ballets" than people realize. He might be wrong(!) but he now gets to prove his point. It must have been fun to work with some pseudo-Constructivist stage designs if nothing else. I would have appreciated stage designs that were more authentic and of-the-time, since a few of my favorite artists were active in the 1920s Russian art scene.

The original Bolt choreography was supposed to have been very athletic/gymnastic and we can see that Ratmansky tries to retain that approach. And it is the high-energy, high-speed dancing that impresses me here, because some of the solo dancing reminds me more of NYCB than the Bolshoi. So is this ballet an example of Ratmansky trying to introduce new techniques and approaches to the Bolshoi dance culture?

For me, most of the nightclub/bar section was of no particular import, although we obviously get to spend more time with the characters - I'm just not sure I really got to know them any better. And I didn't find it a memorable slice of Soviet life. So, opportunity missed, imo.

The way in which the Thief (or snitch) is handled is probably the most interesting part of the story. Although the Thief actually comes up with the idea of sabotage using the bolt, he ends up getting cold feet and sells out the would be Saboteur. Then we see the Komsomol Girl and Guy attempt to bring the Thief back into the fold as a reward for his good deed. Beyond this point we get a lot of nonsensical acrobatic dances featuring swimmers and divers (and papier-mâché boats that are reminiscent of the Managers from Parade). The remainder of the ballet seems to be centered around the rehabilitation of the Thief (never returning to the Anti-Hero/Saboteur character), and communal group dances. The ballet ends with the 'uplifting' group dance of the idealized Communist forces, and later the Young Communists in their gym attire. I haven't been able to determine if the dancers in red are a reference to anything specific in the culture. Ratmansky keeps the last third of the ballet fairly neutral in mood. Despite the characterizations and mime acting, I never really felt myself involved in the fate of any of the characters - it was like watching people on a platform from a distance.

[Note: the original ballet had a Dance of the Colonial Slave-Girl, which Ratmansky omits entirely. He stays away from any explicit anti-Western decadence/ anti-Capitalism motifs.]

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It's worth noting that Ratmansky's production wasn't much more enduring than the original and was performed only 12 times. Not exactly booed off the stage on opening night like Lopukhov's version, but obviously not embraced either. After Ratmansky left the Bolshoi, the production disappeared altogether and hasn't been seen for 11 years now.


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On 5/17/2020 at 11:21 AM, Buddy said:

Thanks, Pherank and Volcanohunter, for your thoughts. Thanks particularly, Pherank, for your elaboration and detail. Still, though, my feelings and questions from my previous posts remain the same.

I wouldn't hold it against Ratmansky if a portion of the ballet doesn't work well. That's life. Or that's ballet. There are very few 'perfect' works (or none) - only works that are largely consistent and entertaining throughout. And for every favorite ballet, painting, song or whatever that you or I place on a pedestal, there's a thousand people to tell us what they don't like about said work. It's all about what YOU get out of a particular work of art.

I'll just add that the weakness of the last third of Bolt is probably due to Ratmansky not having any emotional commitment or intellectual interest in the Soviet messaging. He simply chose to echo the original subject matter rather than bother with metacommentary.


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