If you have followed our balletic adventures over here for a while, then you know we try to catch the works of American Ballet Theatre’s Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky as often as we can. Having seen over 15 of Mr. Ratmansky’s ballets, we can safely say that for as long as he keeps creating, we will keep chasing his creations around the globe.
And so, off to a sold-out Met for the unveiling of Ratmansky’s latest: his Shostakovich Trilogy for ABT. I felt privileged to be in the audience, not only because here was a chance to see the choreographer working on home ground (the last of his ballets seen in London were guest commissions, 24 Preludes for the Royal Ballet and Romeo and Juliet for National Ballet of Canada), but because of a true sense of occasion, the music of Dmitri Shostakovich being an ever present source of inspiration for Ratmansky (the first composer he discovered on his own, he says) and this trilogy being the realisation of a dream as You Dance Funny rightly recalls.
The first work, Symphony #9 had already premiered during ABT’s City Center season last year and was presented here with the same stellar line-up of Marcelo Gomes, Polina Semionova, Herman Cornejo, Simone Messmer and Craig Salstein. It was Ratmansky at his fastest, with relentless energy and inventive patterns for the corps de ballet in response to Shostakovich’s military-like rhythms (this symphony was completed after the siege of Leningrad). Though more ambitious in scope (themes of triumph on the face of adversity?), this could almost be Ratmansky’s answer to MacMillan’s Concerto (which is, in turn, MacMillan’s answer to Balanchine). In addition to two couples, there is another point of similarity in the solo section for a male dancer – here Cornejo pulling all the stops – that recalls the solo girl role in Concerto, and except for a new background by George Tsypin that evoked Soviet realism and propaganda posters (think Rodchenko), the piece had no gimmicks, no excesses, just pure, exhilarating dancing.
The second work, set to the dark, melancholy Chamber Symphony – a late Shostakovich piece (1960) which is said to contain autobiographical themes - was, I thought, a masterpiece. All darkness and symbolism, with the peerless David Hallberg evoking Shostakovich himself: oppressed, rebellious, under pressure and later resigned, abandoned by his muses (portrayed by a wonderful trio of Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera and Isabella Boylston). With further hints of Soviet realism in the set design based on Pavel Filonov’s Eleven Heads, this was my favorite piece of the evening. As Critical Dance’s Jerry Hochman put it in this must-read essay about the trilogy, it is “a stunning choreographic visualization of the impact of tyrannical terror on an individual” and, in fact, the perfect dialogue between the fury of the orchestra’s strings and of Hallberg’s dancing still haunts me.
The final work, set to Piano Concerto #1 banked on a no less starry cast (Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Diana Vishneva and Cory Stearns) and displayed, again, undertones of the Soviet era, though more stylised. While I do agree once more with Critical Dance that this particular piece was harder “to absorb on an intellectual level because it is more abstract, and because its thematic content appears to be limited to certain isolated images rather than carried continuously throughout the piece.”, on reflection (and I wish I had had the opportunity to see all these pieces more than once) these isolated images seem to echo Shostakovich’s own motifs. This piano concerto was composed during his early years and it is all about clashing musical styles (for instance the trumpet in the final section that seems to come out of nowhere). The more I think about it, the more I find it clever of Ratmansky to have found a choreographic response in his own composition of lyrical (Vishneva, Stearns), angular (Osipova) and fast (Vasiliev).
Catching one of the final performances of Wayne McGregor’s story ballet, Raven Girl, on my return to London provided me with an additional opportunity to compare the Shostakovich Trilogy, and its structure of pure movement to music, to a ballet more preoccupied with innovative design. It is interesting how a choreographer can risk losing sight by trying to innovate too much, whereas another can succeed in breaking new ground by simply looking at the past. How many choreographers have been able to successfully package so many facets of a complex composer and of his troubled times into a single evening’s programme? This Trilogy is no doubt a major achievement for Ratmansky.