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On writing ‘The Boy from Kyiv’

Marina Harss talks about dance, writing, and her new biography of Ukrainian American choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, whose "Wartime Elegy" will be performed Nov. 3-12 in Seattle.

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Marina Harss, author of “The Boy from Kyiv,” her new biography of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Photo: Marco Nistico

Marina Harss is a dance writer based in New York City, where she writes regularly for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Pointe, Dance Magazine, and the dance journal Fjord Review, for which she interviewed me in 2021. The Boy from Kyiv: Alexei Ratmansky’s Life in Ballet, her biography of Ukrainian American dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, was recently released to critical acclaim, including from me.

Ratmansky was born in Russia in 1968 to a Russian mother and Ukrainian father, and grew up in Kyiv, hence the title of the book. He trained in Moscow at the Bolshoi Academy and his dancing career started in Kyiv. He has danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet, which he also directed from 2004 until 2009, when he joined American Ballet Theatre as resident artist.  In his 13 years with the company he created some twenty ballets as well as meticulous reconstructions of such classics as The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. In June, when his contract was up, he made the shift to New York City Ballet, where he is resident choreographer along with Justin Peck.    

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Angelica Generosa, Elizabeth Murphy, and Cecilia Iliesiu in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Wartime Elegy,” which will be performed Nov. 3-12 in Seattle on a program that also includes Donald Byrd’s “Love & Loss” and the world premiere of “The Window,” by Dani Rowe, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo © Angela Sterling

Ratmansky is constantly on the move, choreographing for ballet companies all over the world, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, which is reviving his Wartime Elegy Nov. 3-12 on a repertory show titled “Love & Loss.” Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, Dani Rowe, also has a newly commissioned work on the program.

Recently, I had a biographer-to-biographer conversation with Harss via email about The Boy from Kyiv, dance writing, and what makes a good biography. 

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How did you become a dance writer?

Almost by chance. I never planned to be a writer. I think my plans were to become an editor and literary translator. I was working at The New Yorker as a fact-checker and translating novels and books of essays from French, Italian, and Spanish. And seeing a normal amount of dance and music in New York. But through reading and fact-checking Joan Acocella’s dance writing, I became more and more drawn to the world of dance.

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I started seeing more shows, particularly New York City Ballet, and found myself making connections with my background in music—I play the piano—and translation, in other words the idea of translating what I saw onstage into another language.

For the first time, I had the desire to write. I found that nothing stimulated this desire to make connections and analyze what I was experiencing like dance did. But before doing so, I felt I needed to know more. I audited several dance history classes at Barnard, taught by Lynn Garafola, who generously allowed me to sit in. I started studying ballet in order to understand the vocabulary and technique better.

By then I was attending all different kinds of dance: modern dance, flamenco, Indian classical dance, post-modern dance, tap, whatever. And then I started writing little things, that led to bigger things. 

How does your work as a translator from French and Italian to English inform your dance writing?

I felt this need and desire to translate what I saw into words, in order to understand it better and then in order to somehow transmit to a reader what I had just seen and how it related to other things: music, the history of art, literature, ideas. (I studied literature in college.)

From the start it has been extremely important to me to be able to capture what I see in words in a way that is legible to the reader. “Oh, that’s what it looked like”—that’s what I want a potential reader to think. So it’s about using the simplest, most direct, most evocative language I know.

You have said that you never really read biographies until you got into dance. What were you looking for in those biographies, and which did you read?

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I became very interested in biographies of choreographers, especially, as well as histories of particular schools or period of dance. I’m intrigued by the imagination, sources of inspiration, education, and working process of choreographers. How do they translate their own experiences and know how into an art that requires other people in order to exist at all? Where do they develop those skills? What do they draw from? What makes one choreographer so different from another? How do they build on each other’s work and on the past? At what point in their careers do they begin to understand what it is they are going for?

The first dance biography I was really struck by, and which in fact I thought of as a model for my own book on Ratmansky, was Joan Acocella’s biography of Mark Morris. In fact, I gave a copy to Ratmansky when I proposed writing a book about him. She wrote it when he was still young, and because of that, she was really able to capture the rise of this totally unique artist before he became a kind of “institution.” I wanted to do that, to be able to harvest all the stories from his early life and see where they led.

Other biographies I’ve read with great interest are  Lynn Garafola’s biography of Bronislava Nijinska, La Nijinska; Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere, on Jerome Robbins; Julie Kavanagh’s Secret Muses on Frederick Ashton and David Vaughan’s Frederick Ashton and his Ballets; your own book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet; Sally Banes’s Terpsichore in Sneakers, on the post-modern dance movement; various books on Balanchine, including the new Mr. B; biographies of Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Bournonville, Alvin Ailey, Nijinsky. As well as lots and lots of dancer memoirs, dance criticism (Arlene Croce and Joan Acocella in particular) and dance history. 

Ratmansky is constantly being compared with Balanchine, either touted as the “new” Balanchine or found wanting in comparison. There are obvious biographical similarities, of course, but what do you think of this constant search for a new Mr. B. or a replacement?

I don’t see him as being the “new Balanchine.” It feels like a totally artificial idea. Important artists, and I think Ratmansky is one, are never “the next” anything; they are something new.

I guess the logic is that some people believe there has to be one artist that represents each period in history, who adds to the chain. But even in Balanchine’s lifetime, there was already Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton, Nijinska, Merce Cunningham, even Twyla Tharp a bit later. And now, there are other important choreographers who work in different styles: Christopher Wheeldon, William Forsythe, Crystal Pite, Alonzo King. And that’s just ballet. 

I think, too, that Balanchine, like Petipa, lived at a time when people tended to be more aware of a single, all-consuming, artist at one time. There was less media, less globalization. That said, Ratmansky learned a lot from Balanchine, especially during his time at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet, where he danced Square Dance, Rubies, Symphony in C. But he also learned a lot from Bournonville, Petipa, Vasily Vainonen, and even Béjart. And he arrived in New York at a time when it felt like creativity  in ballet was in a slump. He filled a niche and reinvigorated the whole field.

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Cover of Marina Harss’s Ratmansky biography “The Boy from Kyiv.”

Your primary focus as a dance writer and critic is on ballet. Why?

I’m not sure that’s true. I see and write about a lot of modern, flamenco, tap, and, especially, classical Indian dance. But it is true that I am drawn to dance forms that have long histories, and therefore allow me to search out all sorts of connections and consider details in a historical perspective. I am also very powerfully drawn to dance that is set to complex music, because the relationship between music, movement, and ideas is very pleasing to my brain and interesting to try to parse.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet premiered Wartime Elegy, The Boy from Kyiv was already in the hands of [publishers] Farrar, Straus and Giroux, but you went out to Seattle to see it anyway. Seattle critic Marcie Sillman said this about it: “[It] is a personal response to a particular moment in time, but Ratmansky has created a work of art that speaks to the universal human spirit and the quest to pursue life, liberty and our own happiness.” Do you agree?

I went out to see it and wrote about it for, I think, Fjord Review. I had just recently been to The Hague to report a piece on Ratmansky’s involvement with the United Ukrainian Ballet, a company made up of Ukrainian dancers in exile. I had seen Ratmansky there, and spoken to him, seen his anguish at what was (and is still) happening in Ukraine up close.

I believe he has been deeply affected by this invasion of the country in which he grew up and started his dancing career (Ukraine) by the country in which he learned ballet and made some of his first very successful works (Russia), like Dreams of Japan, Charms of Mannerism, and The Bright Stream. And also the country of his father’s birth.

So I see Wartime Elegy as very much a response to a personal crisis, and the product of a desire to express the feelings of loss, but also the energy and sense of humor and vitality of a people. As I say in the book, as an artist he has tended to embrace lightness, humanism, and sophistication over gloominess or larger philosophical statements. War Elegy teeter-totters on the edge between those two spheres.

Your book is both scholarly and deeply personal; you are very much present, in the fashion of the new (now old) journalism.  Was that a conscious decision on your part?

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I don’t think of it as particularly scholarly. I applied all the things that I do: interviewing, watching dance, watching rehearsals, analyzing, reading and contextualizing. To that I added the very exciting dimension of traveling to places that were unknown to me and spending time there exploring locations and people related to my subject: the Soviet-style apartment complex where Ratmansky grew up in Kyiv; the bowels of the Bolshoi; the big, luminous studios of the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow; the streets and museums of St. Petersburg; the archives of the Kyiv opera house.

While in Moscow, I accompanied Ratmansky to the RGALI  archives [Russian State Archive of Literature and Art] and looked at Petipa sketches for his Bayadère. I met and talked to Ratmansky’s parents at their dinner table in front of a window overlooking central Kyiv for hours, as the sun slowly moved across the sky. It was an extremely personal experience. So I suppose the book reflects that. 

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I think I wrote the book I hoped I might write. Its shape came into view as I went along. 

Will you write a sequel?

A sequel! Ha! We’ll both be very old.

What’s next for you?

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I definitely caught the book-writing bug. It is such a satisfying process, in every way. I’d love to start work on another biography, and I do have a couple of ideas in mind. And maybe, eventually, if I have the nerve and the imagination, I’d like to work on a book of creative nonfiction that draws on the stories of a group of strong, highly original women in my Argentine family line. Argentina is a country full of stories.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Elizabeth Murphy and Lucien Postlewaite in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Wartime Elegy.” Photo © Angela Sterling
  • Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Love & Loss” takes its title from Donald Byrd’s ballet of the same title, which is on this program with Ratmansky’s Wartime Elegy and The Window, a newly commissioned piece by Dani Rowe, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland. The program will be performed Nov. 3-12 at Seattle’s Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. Check PNB’s website for times and ticket information.

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Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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