Tag Archives: dmitri shostakovich

American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’

1 Jun

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 #9Chamber 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 CorsaireDon QuixoteFirebirdLes 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.

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Alexei Ratmansky: A Quiet Guardian

18 Mar

First off, a quick apology for the lack of writing!  I don’t want to get into it too much because I have far more interesting things to tell you, so I’ll save it for another time.  I’m sure you would all much rather hear about some of the discussion topics from the most recent event in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lecture Series, a conversation with world renowned choreographer and American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky.  The lecture was optionally paired with a dress rehearsal viewing of his Concerto DSCH, which I actually chose to skip because I had dinner plans and also because I’ll be writing a review for Seattle Dances on opening night and when writing I prefer (if possible) to view a complete work for the first time.  Obviously, if it’s a piece I’ve seen before I’m not so concerned, but there’s an exhilaration with getting to see a finished product that simply doesn’t exist in a dress rehearsal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dancers themselves felt the same way…the occasion counts for a lot.

Ratmansky is actually quite unassuming—when the conversation between he and Peter Boal began, I noticed how soft-spoken he is.  I thought I had a voice that doesn’t carry (and often find myself in situations where I think people want me to enunciate when really they just want me to speak louder) but even with a mic it wasn’t always easy to make out what he was saying, and I was sitting in the second row.  Coincidentally, he was dressed in black with a blue pinstriped shirt, a color scheme that happened to blend in extremely well with the similarly colored royal blue curtain behind him and the shadows between the rippled velvet.  Obviously, that’s not something he planned and it’s not like he can change colors like a chameleon but it did add an air of mystery and elusiveness.  I think that’s cool though, because if you have that kind of aura, people actually take you seriously.  He is however, witty too, just in an understated kind of way.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Ratmansky’s history as a dancer, he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, but what was not accepted into the company, a “drama” as he called it that would eventually send him through the ranks of the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.  At some point in Kiev he began choreographing, finding inspiration in music and visualizing movement to it.  A few factors contributed to his journey towards becoming a premiere choreographer; a great love for ballet history, reading in general, and unused scores with a special affinity for composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Though famed Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was the first to ask him to do a ballet for her, it was The Bright Stream that catapulted him into the spotlight and sealed the deal in attaining directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The Bright Stream has a Shostakovich score, the ballet itself having been lost, banned actually in 1936 because the myth goes that Stalin didn’t like it.  A recording of the score was made somewhat recently (I think he mentioned the 90’s) and it wasn’t long after that Ratmansky heard it, was obviously touched by a muse and set about researching/choreographing the ballet.  He actually mentioned later on that at that point there were a few people still alive who may have danced it or knew bits of it, but he made a conscious decision not to seek them out because choreographing an entire ballet around a few remnants just didn’t make sense.  You know that scientifically impossible explanation in Jurassic Park they give when they say they found prehistoric dinosaur DNA in the abdomen of a mosquito in fossil amber and filled the “gaps” with frog DNA in order to recreate dinosaurs?  First of all, this is heinously wrong because reptiles and amphibians are far from the same thing and any salvageable DNA is going to be so deteriorated by fossilization and I don’t know, the millions of years that have passed since the Cretaceous period that genetically engineering a dinosaur (via that method anyway) is impossible.  In that sense, what could Ratmansky realistically do with a handful of phrases, which may not even be remembered with complete accuracy?  I wonder if that’s how the Bolshoi felt about it because while they obviously let him proceed with staging the ballet, he did say that they were skeptical it would be received well by the audience.

However, The Bright Stream was indeed a success as well as Bolt, and of Ratmansky’s tenure as director of the Bolshoi he had to say that it was like going to war (with a virtual horde of around two hundred and twenty dancers, a third of which he said he basically never saw), but when things went well they were absolutely satisfying.  While at the Bolshoi he had the precarious responsibility of guarding a strong ballet tradition while also somehow shaping it, with these new ballets and also with the recognition of certain dancers.  Ratmansky was the one who noticed jumping phenom Natalia Osipova at a graduation performance, and interestingly pointed out some of the controversy surrounding her (her strengths and weaknesses of which she is fully aware of), also noting that she has more popularity in the West.  Apparently, many purists feel that she isn’t classical enough, and doesn’t have a balletic body in the Russian sense.  I don’t think she looks so drastically different from her compatriots, but perhaps it’s part of the reason why her partnership with Ivan Vasiliev stands out—not just because they can jump better than anyone else but he is also known for having an atypical body type so they’re a pair of dancers who surely understand each other.

As with any choreographer, it is pertinent to point out some of Ratmansky’s influences, one of the early ones being watching legendary prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, still dancing in her sixties while he was a student at the Bolshoi academy.  He admired the way she used her back, arms, and her fluent lines but most of all her musicality, saying that she made distinctions between dancing to rhythms and then the sounds coming from the orchestra.  As an amusing anecdote, he told a story of partnering her as the faun to her nymph in Afternoon of a Faun, which apparently wasn’t so nerve-wracking an experience as one would expect.  In terms of choreographers, he of course mentioned being introduced to Balanchine in the 80’s by VHS tapes (remember those?), which was kind of an obligatory comment anyway, since Ratmansky was in the house of PNB.  He mentioned three choreographers he is currently infatuated with (perhaps indicating that this is something of a phase); the first of which I didn’t quite catch but I think was Igor Moiseyev, then Rudolf Nureyev and Pierre Lacotte.  He does categorize himself as a classical choreographer, as in ballet with pointe work, and having no interest in barefoot dance, though he did say that there are more interesting things being done with modern ballet these days.

Now, although the question and answer session was at the end, I want to throw this down right now because it pertains to Lacotte.  Ratmansky was a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet after all, meaning he danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, so the question came to mind of whether he had a preference for the Bournonville or the Lacotte, a question I managed to ask (after getting over my own stage fright related to public speaking) on Bag Lady Emilia’s behalf…I immediately thought of her because it is one of her favorite topics after all!  Well, Ratmansky actually likes both; he loves Lacotte’s phrasing and attention to details, as well as the use of antiquated steps that no one else uses anymore.  He does of course recognize the authenticity of the Bournonville Sylphide, and said earlier that the Bournonville style is the most ancient and unique with a special method applied to acting, but really sees the two Sylphides as entirely different ballets and doesn’t have a strong preference for one or the other.  In fact, he seemed a little surprised when I told him afterwards that this is a hotly debated topic amongst us balletomanes.  I guess we’re all a little more opinionated or a little more crazy than he knows…but isn’t crazy just a precursor to enthusiastic anyway?  Or should that be the other way around…

Regardless, the other Ratmansky ballets that were deliberated on were his new Nutcracker and Concerto DSCH, since the latter is the piece PNB is performing.  The Nutcracker story was an interesting one, because it was a rather tumultuous journey.  He had wanted to do a new Nutcracker long ago, but the Kirov asked him to work on a version for them and because of difficulties with the designer of the production, after two years he found himself no longer a part of that project.  In 2001 he was asked by Thordal Christensen (artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the time) to salvage their production after their choreographer quit.  It was of course completely different from what he was doing at the Kirov, but it was an opportunity to prove himself.  Ultimately, it left him unsatisfactory and it wasn’t until Kevin McKenzie asked him to do the production that debuted with ABT this past winter that Ratmansky’s Nutcracker was fully realized.  Oddly enough he didn’t talk too much about Concerto DSCH, just a little bit about its debut with New York City Ballet, and also setting it on the dancers of PNB (which was apparently done in three days, thanks to a spectacular ballet mistress).  ‘DSCH’ stands for Shostakovich’s initials in German, and the music (Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102) was a birthday present for his son, written in a time of great hope in the Soviet Union’s history.  After seeing the work myself tonight, I hope to elaborate some thoughts on it, but until then…too bad.

As far as looking towards the future, Ratmansky has several debuts, with Russian Seasons (a three act story ballet) as well as Lost Illusions for the Bolshoi, which he didn’t mention but I did as a part of my second question for him (I had to appear researched after all, even if I myself have never really sat down and watched his choreography!).  I asked him what was beyond that, and though it has been formally announced elsewhere, just to recap he will be doing a new Romeo and Juliet to debut in Toronto, a new Firebird with ABT, but what was most interesting was that his dream is to do more ballets to Shostakovich symphonies, reiterating his passion for that composer’s music.  It seems Ratmansky is the latest in a line of ballet choreographers who derive something special from a particular composer not in collaboration, but well after the composer’s death.  There was Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, Robbins and Chopin, and now it seems Ratmansky and Shostakovich, which I think is absolutely fantastic.  He said that when it’s his choice, music serves as the inspiration for new works and Shostakovich is one of the all-time greats.  When it’s not by choice, it’s somewhat dictated by the needs of companies (ABT in particular) but he’s lucky to be a busy man, even if he admits to biting off more than he can chew.

I wanted to go all “Anderson Cooper” on him and do that thing where AC wrinkles his brow and tilts his head ever so slightly on an angle while asking a series of hard-hitting questions, but I didn’t want to monopolize his time and settled for a humbled handshake and a show of appreciation on my part.  Perhaps more will be revealed about the “quiet guardian” of classical ballet, in the book he plans to write…eventually.