Running Like Shadows
Until the end of the nineteenth century, choreographers commissioned music from specialized composers for the express purpose of dancing. Delibes and Tchaikovsky were among the first “serious” composers to write for ballet, and even they were expected to follow the choreographer’s instructions. (“I need a mazurka here,” Petipa might say. “How about, say, a hundred and ninety bars?”) In Russia, the practice of using symphonic music began in the first decades of the twentieth century, introduced in part by Isadora Duncan, who performed free-flowing dances to Chopin, Beethoven and Bach in tours across Europe. Her first visit to Russia, at the end of 1904, made a deep impression. Under her influence, Michel Fokine, who was based at the Mariinsky (and later made dances for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), began to create ballets that explored a sentiment or a mood (moonlight, for example) rather than a concrete story and used nonprogrammatic music, such as Chopin nocturnes. After the Revolution, in the 1920s and 1930s, choreographers like Lopukhov, Goleizovsky and Vasily Vainonen did their best to extend the range of content and technique in ballet. “I was very curious,” Ratmansky says, “because almost nothing has survived from these people working in the ’20s, but you can sense that this new athletic style was hugely influential.” Lopukhov, the original choreographer of The Bright Stream, is also credited with the creation of the first ballet set to symphonic music, in 1923. He used Beethoven’s Fourth and called it The Magnificence of the Universe (no less!). Though his “dance symphony” was performed only once, it marked an important new development in the history of the art form, in part because its cast included George Balanchine, who would make an entire career out of creating “abstract” ballets based on symphonies, concertos and whatever other music he felt like using. Ratmansky considers Balanchine’s Serenade to be “the best ballet ever made,” as well as a model for his own approach. “It’s just dance, and at the same time it has narrative, which can be interpreted in very different ways. This, I think, is the specialty of ballet, more than story ballets or completely ‘abstract’ works.”
The Bright Stream, however, was a straight comedy, full of riotous ensembles, silly gags and crisp, witty steps. Its set pieces include a miniature dance lesson, a parody of the athletic 1920s Bolshoi style (Ratmansky makes frequent references to ballet history in his work), a Valentino-style tango and a scene with a cross-dressing sylph. One of the ballet’s most winning features is its total lack of pretension, proof that ballet can be enjoyed in a very direct, uncomplicated way without sacrificing any of its sophistication. The characters are completely human, exhibiting all the usual quirks and weaknesses: jealousy, stupidity, false pride, lust, vulnerability, braggadocio, genuine contrition and forgiveness. Ratmansky is not interested in ideals. In the studio, he often suggests little vignettes or situations to fire up the dancers’ imagination. This is the case even when, as in the Trilogy, there is no explicit story. “Ignore him, but everything you do is for him,” he says to a dancer to bring out more expansiveness in one scene. He wants the characters to breathe. In this, his approach is somewhat at odds with that of Balanchine, who, at least in theory, preferred that the dancers refrain from overinterpreting or explicating the steps. To Ratmansky, the idea of asking the dancers not to act is like “switching off half of the lights in a room, deliberately. It’s a tool—why not use it?”
* * *
Instinctually, his choreographic approach appears to be in sympathy with Shostakovich’s musical character, even if the edges are less sharp. After all, he grew up in a different time. He seems like a happy man. He did not suffer the pressures that Shostakovich did. Perhaps this helps to explain why, so far, he has gravitated toward Shostakovich’s lighter, earlier music. “He’s continuing a mode of capricious experiment that we associated with the young Shostakovich,” says Morrison. Before the Trilogy, Ratmansky had made seven or eight ballets to Shostakovich. A few were small-scale pieces at the very start of his career, when he was still performing with the National Opera of Ukraine in Kiev. “I would grab someone in a corridor and go into a studio. We would have one or two rehearsals, and then they would of course disappear, because there was no prospect of performing it. I would go to the artistic director and he wouldn’t really listen. So I had to find my way.” He used the short Scherzo for Orchestra, Op. 1, as well as a little gavotte, both of which were danced by his wife Tatiana (then his girlfriend) at charity performances. These are light, delicate pieces, written when the composer was in his teens and a brilliant student of composition at the conservatory. There’s no video, so we don’t know what the dances looked like.
Other Shostakovich ballets followed. In 2005, Ratmansky choreographed The Bolt, from 1931, the second of the composer’s three ballets, also for the Bolshoi. With the help of Simon Morrison, he was able to dig up the original score, which was filled with notes in the hand of Lopukhov, the original choreographer on the project. Though Ratmansky made up his own steps, he took inspiration from Lopukhov’s ideas. “You can’t really go to the university and learn choreography, but staging another choreographer’s ballet is a great, great school,” he says. In 2008, he tackled Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in his second work for New York City Ballet, Concerto DSCH. In it, the sportiness of the choreography is in tune with the youthful exuberance and reckless speed of the music, which was written as a showpiece for the composer’s 19-year-old son. Ratmansky’s rollicking finale includes passages that have the feel of speeded-up newsreel, performed alongside dancers moving in slow motion. A mock-heroic tone alludes to the mood of Soviet poster art; the dancers hold their fists to their chests and gaze upward, toward a bright future. (This quality is also present in the Shostakovich Trilogy: Soviet aesthetics are intimately entwined with this music, at least in Ratmansky’s mind.) But the ballet reveals another, more human register as well: in the second movement—one of Shostakovich’s most ecstatic melodies—a man and a woman struggle to find intimacy away from the others (as in the second movement of Symphony No. 9). Time and again, the woman slips through the man’s fingers until, in the end, they are separated by the other dancers, reabsorbed into the collective.
The current project, a full evening of ballets set to Shostakovich, is much riskier. “I don’t know if it will work,” Ratmansky told me during the rehearsals, with modesty and a hint of nerves. A little over a week before the premiere, he is still unsure of the order. The looming question is the lugubrious Chamber Symphony. The string quartet on which it is based, No. 8, was written over the course of three days in 1960, at a moment of crisis, after the composer had visited the ruins of Dresden in preparation for a film score he never wrote. Shostakovich had been cajoled, perhaps while drunk, into joining the Communist Party. He was still in mourning for his first wife, and his unhappy second marriage had just come to a sour end. The composer’s bleak state of mind seems to find its reflection in every note of the quartet, which is plagued with repetitive motifs, sobbing melodies, dogged drones and jabbing chords. With an insistence that verges on obsession, the music repeats a four-note lament: D, E flat, C, B natural. This chromatic cluster, which the composer often embedded in his music, is a kind of signature, a musical transliteration of his name based on German musical notation. (In German, the notes spell DEsCH, pronounced DSCH, the first letters in the German spelling of his name: Dmitri Schostakowitsch.) In essence, the music repeats the words “me, me, me, me.”
The music is also peppered with quotations from various earlier pieces, as if the quartet were meant to offer a despondent reminiscence of Shostakovich’s life and career. Officially, the quartet was dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war,” but the references are almost all to himself. In the first movement, a much slower version of the First Symphony’s nervous opening whimpers, like a sigh. In the second movement, a wild klezmer dance recalls the Second Piano Trio, written in response to the death of one of his closest friends and defenders, the music critic Ivan Sollertinsky. In the third section of the quartet, Shostakovich once again returns to the DSCH motif, now in the form of a demonic little waltz. An aching melody from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (“Seryozha, my love”), his first work to be banned by Stalin (in 1936), haunts the ending. In the midst of this desperate self-portrait, Shostakovich drops a series of three loud, banging, dissonant chords, a chilling interruption of the musical flow. What do these crashing sounds represent? The work is dark, but how does one express such darkness through the medium of dance without reverting to melodrama?
* * *