Dmitiri Shostakovich is the kind of artist whose work invites intrigue. He composed under an intensely fearful and repressive regime, prompting many of his listeners to try to read between the phrases of his music to elicit the true meaning behind his notes. Symphony #9, like many of his previous symphonies, begs the question: was he a sincere patriot or engaging in a political farce? Certainly the apparetn lightness of this symphony poorly complements the grave and grand event which it was commissioned to commemorate—the Allied victory of the Second World War. Seen in the light of history, it is hard not to wonder if this enigma was a matter of poor taste or veiled intention.
I attended the June 1st matinee performance of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy for American Ballet Theater with these questions in mind. The first ballet on the program was the eponymous Symphony #9. And while the ballet premiered on its own this past fall, this was the first time it was used as the opening work in a full Shostakovich/Ratmansky evening. Five men, in jeweled belts and mottled tops, and four women, in dresses of similarly dyed fabric (sans jewels), opened the work in a sort of contemporary village scene. Contrasting a sharp use of the legs with a quirky, loose approach to port de bras, the opening dance exuded joy. The ensemble chassed with elbows carving the air and soloist Stella Abrera relished a bit of air drumming amid her classical footwork. There was a missing subtext in all of this celebration that would not be satisfied until Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle joined in a duet. The movement downshifted to legato and the lighting softened as the couple emerged. Here Ratmansky whispered the most evocative gestures of the entire evening—nervous glances over the shoulder as four more couples joined and the lighting moodily darkened, her hand covering his mouth for a brief moment of censorship and anguish, and a humorous fracturing of the body, toppling in sharp increments from head to toe, all the way down to the floor. Most of these moments would not be seen again and when the bodies of the entire group later crumbled in the same fashion, it was less an integrated motif but more a random aside in a long fanfare of steps and sounds.
Jared Matthews was proficient in the largely undeveloped role of a young, hopeful man. He returned the mood to one of vibrancy, ushering in a gorgeous set painting by George Tsypin that featured flags and planes floated in a demure sea of blue. The dancers scanned the horizon with their limbs–big sweeps of the arms, long lunges of the legs–before bringing the ballet to a close with a completely schizophrenic collage of classical finale steps and rag doll bouncing. Matthews reached for the rafters in a big jump before the cut to black. While Ratmansky seemed to be aware of the need to tread the line between sincerity and satire, the lack of a clear narrative and/or emotional center failed to keep the razor edge of this paradox sharp.
Following the seemingly underdeveloped logic of Symphony #9 was Chamber Symphony, best described as a solo for a tormented man, with three soloists acting as his torments and the corps de ballet mimicking the noisy thoughts in his head. Once again, the set was resplendent. The curtain lifted to mesh sculptures hanging, with lines that divided the shapes into the study skulls of a phrenologist. Once the stage lit up, they morphed into scowling portraits of surly old men, designed by Tsypin based on a painting by Pavel Filonov. It laid down a very obvious tone for what was to follow but for the sake of cohesion, that was not such a bad thing. James Whiteside threw his lithe body around with aplomb, but Yuriko Kajiya’s lyrical dancing as one of his three female counterparts was the standout performance. Bits of comic relief peppered this dark work as the Kajiya, Sarah Lane, and Hee Seo resorted to luring Whiteside with flirtatious hip shakes, delighting the audience and keeping the piece from becoming overwrought. Caught in the somber web of life, Chamber Symphony presented a reason for man to live (and dance), amidst of heartbreak.
After the show I learned that the music of Chamber Symphony, Chamber Symphony for Strings in C minor, Op. 110a, is an orchestral transcription of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. The original quartet was written when Shostakovich was in the decimated city of Dresden after World War II and right before he became a Communist Party member. Death, literally and figuratively, was on his mind and the quartet was his memorial to himself. The transformation of the quartet to full orchestration acts as another layer to this music, broadening the range and scope of tragedy; and Ratmansky’s dance steps add yet another veil, sharpening the focus on one man and his particular struggles. For an artist as pursued and caged as Shostakovich, these lenses work as infrared goggles, illuminating the hidden spectrums of meaning in the score.
Wrapping the program up was the more abstract and plotless Piano Concerto #1. Once again Tsypin delighted the eye with his art; Soviet era graphic sculptures, in a monochromatic red, were suspended like a mobile in front of a large backdrop featuring a gradated charcoal sketch of a triangle. Like precious toys bound for or bursting from the void, they provided a whimsical place to rest the eye when the kitchen sink battery of classical steps began to feel like an assault on the audience. In all three ballets, Ratmansky uses his ensemble to the fullest; however, in Piano Concerto #1 the result was often dizzying. Christine Shevchenko replaced an injured Gillian Murphy, and though an extremely talented dancer, her juxtaposition to the Xiomara Reyes made for an awkward pair of principals. Daniil Simkin impressed with a tricky sequence of attitude turns and an overall playful attitude and throughout the dancers showed a high level of athleticism. However, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the more star-studded A cast might have provided a subjective distraction from what felt like the churn of a tired choreographic machine. In a rather anti-climactic ending, the floating objects were flown up in the final seconds of the dance, deflating the last note.
Ratmansky has made eleven ballets to the music of Shostakovich and he is clearly driven by a need to unveil and physicalize the ambivalent connection the composer had to the turbulent times in which he lived. Yet, the final act turned the use of the word “trilogy” into a kind of false advertising. Yes, there were three ballets on this program, all by the same choreographer and composer. However, I am hard pressed to find a clear theme underlying them. There seemed to be little value in viewing them as one performance and they would probably benefit from being split apart on a mixed bill. Programming critiques aside, there is something unique in the mix of virtuosic technique and abstract theatricality that Ratmansky’s ballet choreography employs. In true Shostakovian fashion, it delights in skirting a monolithic reading for meaning. If he can find an editor as well as a director who understands how best to curate his dances, he might actually be able to make good on his promise as the great hope for the future of ballet. The art form is anxiously waiting.