Running Like Shadows
Ratmansky’s collaborators all agree that the Chamber Symphony is the trilogy’s aching center. According to the company’s musical director, Ormsby Wilkins, “Shostakovich figures very largely in the piece; it tells you a lot about Shostakovich himself, though Ratmansky’s not going to put up a sign saying, ‘I’m Shostakovich.’” A theme of collapse looms over the proceedings.
The ballet is dominated by a lone male figure. When it begins, his arms are held by a cluster of men. Are they holding him up, or restraining him? When he breaks free, the effort pushes him to the ground. Angelic figures—women held aloft, their legs extended like swallows’ tails behind them—swoop toward him. Over the course of the ballet, the man interacts with three women; they may or may not represent women in the life of Shostakovich (who was thrice married), or muses. One of them shares a tender pas de deux with the man but then crumples in his arms and rolls across the floor. Later, he too lies down in a row of bodies—corpses?—as if choosing to die. Death, which is only hinted at in Symphony No. 9, becomes an insistent motif here. The woman from the pas de deux hovers over him, held by four men, like a ghost. Each time he reaches for her, the men lift her away in a swooping arc. The man twists and spins on his own axis, as if trying to escape his skin. He turns his back to the audience and faces the other dancers, seeming to mold the ensemble with energy from his arms. Suddenly, the cluster becomes a resplendent, though asymmetrical, figure: some dancers lie on their sides, others are bent forward within a kind of Art Deco swan pose. Two kneel, covering their faces, and others pull away from each other. A limp body is hooked over a man’s shoulder. In the center, a woman is held aloft, high above the rest, with one arm extended upward as she looks toward the heavens, like a Bernini statue. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for artistic creation. In any case, it’s a stirring image: a freeze-frame that seems to contain an entire world.
In late April, Ratmansky made a sudden switch, replacing the First Symphony (1925) with the Piano Concerto No. 1, composed almost a decade later (1933), a few years before Shostakovich’s denunciation. By then, he had choreographed about half of the ballet, but things were going slowly. “More and more, I felt that something was wrong,” Ratmansky said recently. He took two days off. He decided he needed different music—something lighter, brighter—and chose the first Piano Concerto, a more familiar work (it has been used in ballet before, by Christopher Wheeldon, among others). In a couple of weeks, Ratmansky was done. In the piece, the trumpet is like a joker trying on different personas, from boozy clown to cartoon cop. Ratmansky had just the right dancers in mind: Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, two powerhouses he discovered when he directed the Bolshoi. Each time the music began to skitter and skip, Vasiliev and Osipova rushed onstage, moving at lightning speed. But the concerto also includes a slow, desolate waltz for piano and violin. He gave this to Diana Vishneva—a Russian ballerina with a sultry, natural rubato—and Cory Stearns, a handsome and rather grave American dancer with long, elegant lines and impeccable technique.
Echoing the cat-and-mouse game between piano and trumpet, the two couples alternated entrances and exits, occasionally interacting with each other and the corps. (Across the three ballets, Ratmansky has used practically every dancer in the company.) At one point, Vasiliev chased after one of the women in the ensemble, Lean Underwood, in a brief, flirtatious duet. Men fell down or were flung through the air. Vasiliev pawed the ground like a bull and circled a chain of men in a series of flying jumps in which his feet beat together like hummingbirds’ wings. The two women were left to stand, unsupported while hovering en pointe, their upper bodies extravagantly arched. Meanwhile, echoes of the other two ballets bubbled to the surface: the Art Deco swan, the suggestion of hidden threats, collapsing bodies, groups carrying a dancer through the air in elegant arcs, lines of women being pulled apart by the ensemble. Even so, the final installment of the Trilogy also felt stylistically different: more parodic and crystalline, silly and stylish and razor-sharp, as if a huge blast of energy had been released. It was a thrilling finale to a complex evening of dance.
At the end of May, the ballet had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House. As is often the case with Ratmansky’s new works, the first experience was almost bewildering in its complexity and speed. It can be difficult to absorb so many ideas at once: ideas about music, about movement, about storytelling and character, about the interlinking of themes. It all comes rushing out, leaving little time to make connections. At a second viewing, things began to fall into place. There was something deeply exciting about the sheer sweep of the ballet. The designs (by George Tsypin) offered extra hints about mood and intention. Grim, skeletal faces loomed over the Chamber Symphony. The semi-ironic backdrop of Symphony No. 9 was littered with zeppelins, airplanes and heroic athletes carrying red flags. During the Piano Concerto No. 1, bright red industrial objects, nuts and bolts and Constructivist shapes, were suspended above the stage like fragments of a Soviet cosmology. Like the earlier Concerto DSCH, this ballet has a decidedly post-Soviet feel. The costumes (by the Dutch designer Keso Dekker) varied from sundresses to a black suit for the hero of the Chamber Symphony to sleek, sporty red and gray unitards in the Piano Concerto No. 1.
But the ballet also succeeded on a basic kinetic level: the movement was, in itself, captivatingly complex, often surprising and completely ungeneric. Every step had been molded to fit the contrasting textures of the music. In one evening of dance, Ratmansky had rendered a world—Shostakovich’s world. Perhaps he has now said everything he has to say about Shostakovich, a figure who has loomed large in his artistic development, though I tend to doubt it. “All my knowledge about what has happened in twentieth-century Russia will be somehow reflected, but I don’t want the audience to look for it,” Ratmansky told me. “They’re just colors to create tension inside the structure… I will tell these stories.”