It’s easy to discuss a work I love or hate because the archetypal opposition of black and white is simple. Far more difficult are the shades of gray in between, and Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography revels in that realm of obscurity. Layered, complex, and rich like a dark red wine, Ratmansky’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’, presented by American Ballet Theatre as a part of their season at the Metropolitan Opera House is an intellectual feast. For Ratmansky, this opportunity has been the realization of a dream (hey, remember this?), as it has always been the music of Dmitri Shostakovich that inspires him most. In tribute to the Soviet era composer, the eccentric trio of ballets receive their titles from the music—Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto #1, the scores of which not only provide the stimulus for the dance, but also strong musical selections from Shostakovich’s vast catalogue. Ratmansky’s name carries a lot of weight in the world of ballet and Shostakovich even more so in classical music, making for a rarefied occasion in which a famous choreographer has created a dynamic relationship across time, as George Balanchine did with Tchaikovsky, Jerome Robbins with Chopin, and now Ratmansky with Shostakovich. Although such things are indeed prolific, they carry a great onus because each example calls for the choreographer to live up to the standard set by the composer.
Accordingly, Ratmansky treats Shostakovich with great care; I’ve seen only a handful of Ratmansky’s works and most of them not to my liking (to be fair, I think I got the short end of the stick—Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, Firebird, Les Carnaval des Animaux…I know, right?), but it was his Concerto DSCH to Shostakovich’s ‘Piano Concerto #2’ that stood out to me. There is love and honesty, riddled with quirks and even some wackiness that makes Ratmansky’s Shostakovich ballets so completely genuine that it serves as a reminder that a belief in magic finds its lifeline in art. In Symphony #9, the flippancy is out in full force, and although it’s not a clever wit Ratmansky employs it is an unambiguous one. I love that Ratmansky is a geek for Shostakovich, because geekiness is sexy and Symphony #9 is quite chic, with its sleek costumes and streamlined choreography. He uses ballet steps with a plebian quality that makes his work fascinating, and it always seems to be the appropriate amount, seamlessly incorporated into swells of intricacy. In a piece that hears echoes of war, Veronika Part was especially intriguing—she captures wisps of melloncholy and fervency with an aura of secrecy, like a glamorous actress from the Golden Era of Hollywood and its incredible to watch when combined with Ratmansky’s equally esoteric style.
My only issue with Symphony #9 is that the use of a backdrop, a cloud filled sky with faded imprints of Soviet people, some carrying red flags, perhaps too blatant a reference to militarism and the juxtaposition marred the poetry of Ratmansky’s choreography. You get absorbed in the enigma of it all and then all of a sudden you’re clocked on the head with something overt, which created some inconsistencies between narrative and abstract. Thus, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s something missing in Ratmansky’s editing process that hinders his work from communicating with the audience more efficiently.
The second piece, Chamber Symphony takes the audience on a somber journey, a psychological foray into the mind of a tormented man, presumably, Shostakovich himself. The program notes quoted Ratamansky as saying: “He was a survivor, who wore masks to create and live”, a theme emphasized by a backdrop of several translucent stony faces stratified upon one another, again, bordering on explicit but the monochromatic lineaments, inspired by a painting by Pavel Filonov did less to detract from the choreography itself. Still, there is some conflict with the abstract and narrative again, this time with characterization; I didn’t know Shostakovich had three wives until somebody told me, which would’ve drastically changed my perspective. This is not to say Chamber Symphony is in fact an allegory for Shostakovich’s personal life, but it does give a frame of reference for the motif of the central character and his three female companions. It’s a common practice in contemporary dance to simply title a work and let the audience take away from the experience what they will, but additional program notes aren’t obsolete—like museum placards, even just a hint of information can enhance a viewer’s observations. Whereas the backdrop in the first piece said a hair too much, in this case I know I needed a little help.
The angst-ridden soliloquy belonged to James Whiteside in the matinee, with Sarah Lane, Yuriko Kajiya, and Hee Seo phasing in and out of his haunting memories. Whiteside gave the role gumption and resignation, and a gripping flair for drama without grandstanding. Lane brought a flirtatiousness to her interactions with Whiteside, while Kajiya moments of serenity, and Seo a voice of reason. The choreography for the corps de ballet was as frenetic and jarring as the music, and nightmarish when it needed to be. Like the oppression Shostakovich faced as an artist, Whiteside often found himself at the mercy of others, lifted, manipulated, and swarmed by the unnervingly blank faces of those around him.
The concluding work, Piano Concerto #1 indulged in (and perhaps relied a bit too much) on virtuosity, which had been present but understated more tastefully in the preceding works. Piano Concerto #1 plays out underneath blocky, red, misshapen Soviet symbols—the hammer, sickle, star, and other miscellaneous shapes—suspended in the background like the broken bits of a charm bracelet and giving off the aura of a great Russian circus. While certain aspects of Concerto are indeed exhilarating, there’s a novelty about it that is a bit gimmicky—like the corps de ballet being dressed in unitards that are a steely chrome color in front and a deep scarlet on the back, creating an array of dizzying color changes that become less interesting as the piece continues on. Still, as with all of his Shostakovich work, Ratmansky captures the peculiarities of the score, and creates engaging choreography that the dancers clearly enjoy doing. Corps member Christine Shevchenko stepped into the principal role due to an injury, steadily partnered by Calvin Royal III, and not only did they nail it, but they really proved how much talent exists in all of the ranks at ABT.
While a certain sense of Soviet propaganda pervaded the evening, I do think Ratmansky wanted to say something about eschewing homogenization in favor of celebrating the individual. He celebrated qualities unique to different dancers in the company and while there are times when his work is symptomatic of a choreographer who still thinks like a dancer—where he throws the kitchen sink at you and there’s too much happening on stage and not enough time to process it all, the strength of ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’ lies not in its potential to move the soul, but instead to move the mind. Anything that convinces the audience to come back for another viewing is a wonderful thing, even if they’re not entirely sure why they want to.