Running Like Shadows
Before joining ABT in 2009, Ratmansky had served as the artistic director of the Bolshoi for five years. Now 44, he’s in the prime of his career. He began making short works when he was dancing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, after completing his studies at the Bolshoi School in 1986. He realized early that he wouldn’t become a star, at least not as a performer, though a video recently shown at a lecture-demonstration at the Guggenheim revealed him to be an extraordinarily musical and expressive dancer, if not perhaps one with the ideal physical proportions. (Ballet is terribly cruel in this respect.) Partly for this reason, “by the time I was 14 or 15, I had already decided I wanted to be a choreographer,” Ratmansky told me earlier this year. This realization coincided with his discovery of Shostakovich’s music. “I was playing the piano, spending a lot of time improvising, and an older student said, ‘You should listen to this.’ I went to the record store and bought two LPs, symphonies six and nine. I put the first one on the record player and felt that it spoke to me personally.”
For Russians of a certain age who lived through the Soviet period, the connection to Shostakovich’s music was direct, personal and, to a certain degree, political. His “music reflected our life,” a friend of the composer’s, Flora Litvinova, says with great feeling in the film Shostakovich Against Stalin. The Leningrad premiere of his Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, performed in 1942 during the devastating German siege that would eventually kill more than a million people, was a major wartime event. Undernourished musicians, some carted back from the front, performed before a packed house; the grave, march-like music was also broadcast throughout the city and across the front line in the direction of the German soldiers. It became an anthem for Russia’s survival.
In the introduction to his book Testimony, a disputed memoir of the composer, the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov described his first experience of hearing the Eleventh Symphony: “For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself. To this day, this is the main strength of Shostakovich’s music for me.” Indeed, Volkov identified so strongly with Shostakovich that, in Testimony, he practically became his alter ego. The book purports to contain the composer’s dictated memoirs, written in the first person, but in his introduction Volkov admits to having selected and reordered the material obtained through interviews. Many scholars, among them the Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay, believe that the book is a composite of Volkov’s interviews with the composer, secondhand accounts, rumors, excerpts from essays by Shostakovich, and Volkov’s own heartfelt interpretations of the music. But the portrait remains undeniably compelling, and has colored the approach of many musicians.
Volkov’s book describes an artist who uses double-entendres, false naïveté, twisted clichés and sarcasm to speak truth to power. The portrait is convincing, in part, because Shostakovich did use these tools (they are clearly audible in the music), and also because he did so under the nose of a Soviet regime that expected art to offer uplift and heroism. The contradictions in Shostakovich’s music seem to directly reflect the Soviet experience. At the same time, one should be careful not to take this interpretation too far, detecting political resistance in every note. As the American musicologist Richard Taruskin has written, “what made Shostakovich’s music the secret diary of a nation was not only what he put into it but what it allowed listeners to draw out.”
Testimony gratifies the desire to see artists as heroic figures and absolves Shostakovich of the historic stain of having acted as the “official” composer of a totalitarian regime, which in many ways is what he became. His works were given patriotic titles (the aforementioned Leningrad, To the Victims of Fascism and War, The Year 1917), and over the course of his career he was awarded countless prizes and honorary posts. In 1949, as part of the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace, he was paraded in New York City as the jewel in the Soviet Union’s cultural crown. At other times, he and his music were publicly lambasted, accused of anti-revolutionary attitudes. Twice, in 1936 and 1948, he was officially rebuked, in the harshest terms and at the highest levels. In 1936, in an article in Pravda, he was warned that if he continued on his mistaken artistic path, things “may end very badly.” In the second instance, after being criticized by the party apparatus for his “formalist” tendencies, Shostakovich was forced to publicly apologize. Both experiences marked him and changed the course of his musical career, prompting him to write melodic, straightforward works for public consumption (film scores, symphonies, cantatas) alongside more personal, less easily digested pieces (like the quartets) for more intimate settings.
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The view of Shostakovich’s music as a dense weave of hidden subtexts has become part of what Elizabeth Wilson, the author of the widely admired oral history Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, calls “the legend of Shostakovich.” Ratmansky is aware of it and wary of falling into the cliché of reinforcing it: “His music is bigger than his experiences,” he says. But the music is also more varied than many imagine. In addition to epic symphonies like the Fifth, the Seventh and the Eighth, Shostakovich wrote devilish dances, anguished and playful quartets, sentimental choral works, mocking arias, lively film scores and even, on occasion, completely straightforward popular music. Often, he would nervously jump from one mood, tempo or tonality to another and back again, as if unwilling to commit to a single idea. This quality also appeals to Ratmansky: “It’s so much more true to life than something grotesque or something moving and deep and sad, because life is always mixed—someone dies and, at the same time, something funny happens.”
In Shostakovich’s third and last ballet, The Bright Stream (1935), a caper set on a collective farm that Ratmansky re-choreographed in 2003 for the Bolshoi, the music is upbeat, almost flippant. How could one take its succession of catchy tunes—a pastiche of polkas, tangos and foxtrots interspersed with crescendos worthy of Rossini—at face value, given the horrors committed in the name of collectivization? Ratmansky laughed when I asked him about this, slightly uncomfortable with the question. “The ballet is not about collectivization; it’s a classic vaudeville,” he said. “And if you look at it from afar, I think the story is very universal.” In 1936, an unsigned editorial in Pravda condemned the work as a “balletic falsehood,” insufficiently respectful of the heroic experience of the Russian peasants. The ballet was banned, as were many subsequent works. Despite its fraught history, Ratmansky made a very conscious choice to preserve its fizzy tone. The tension between the cheerfulness of the fiction and the historical reality becomes part of the experience of watching the performance. (“It’s an ethical position,” according to Morrison.) It’s meant to be uncomfortable. At one point a dancer dressed as the Grim Reaper joins in a topsy-turvy waltz with the other characters. As he whirls his scythe, the other characters fall to the ground, dead. But then they get up again and dance some more.