Running Like Shadows
“We do one more time, please.” In a large rehearsal studio on the third floor of a rundown building in lower Manhattan, the Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky calmly presides over a scene of barely controlled chaos. He is in the process of composing the second of three interconnected ballets set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, to be performed together during the company’s spring season. About an hour into rehearsal, Ratmansky is red in the face and a little glassy-eyed, but his focus seems to grow more intent as the minutes pass. During the union-mandated five-minute breaks, he listens to his iPod with eyes closed or staring straight ahead.
As if to lower expectations, he has chosen the understated title Shostakovich Trilogy for his new work. The first ballet, set to the cheerful Ninth Symphony, was finished in the fall and has already been performed on its own, at City Center in Manhattan and on tour. Next, he’s tackling the Chamber Symphony in C minor—a symphonic version of the turbulent String Quartet No. 8, from 1960—and the youthful First Symphony, written when Shostakovich was a 19-year-old enfant terrible on the Russian scene. Ratmansky will end up replacing the latter for another early piece, the Piano Concerto No. 1, but he doesn’t know that yet. On this cold, gray January afternoon, he is hard at work on the second movement of the Chamber Symphony.
“Let’s listen to it,” he says calmly at a session two days later. The pianist plays a few bars. Then Ratmansky shows the dancers a short sequence of steps. “You don’t need to count here,” he advises, singing the melody as he travels from one step to the next. His movements are accented, stretched and tilted, with a juicy, three-dimensional quality. His arms complete the lines of the body, extending them or pulling his torso around with a powerful twist. The dancers stare at him in slight disbelief. They do their best to imitate him, but at first their versions are timid and comparatively square. At one point a dancer slips slightly, skittering across the floor and into another dancer’s arms. Ratmansky’s eyes widen with a mischievous spark. “Can we keep that?”
Ratmansky is politely pushing the dancers, and ballet technique, to a new level. He tends to complicate the movement, speeding it up, taking it off-balance and introducing multiple shadings into each step. “His ballets are so hard; you do so many steps,” says Isabella Boylston, a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, where Ratmansky is the artist in residence. “But you can also have a sense of abandon, and I think he likes that.” Ratmansky likes the unexpected. Each day, he comes into the studio with a few ideas, which he has developed early in the morning before rehearsal, and a black notebook full of musical cues, but without a firm plan. His rehearsals are remarkably tension-free, even when the dancers look wan and spent and he asks them to repeat everything just one more time. They ask questions and make suggestions; he listens and takes their input. But he is also implacable in his desire for them to exhibit certain nuances, and he demands they use their imagination: “Run like you’re shadows, with no weight.” Though Ratmansky’s choreography is almost exclusively built out of the usual ballet vocabulary—steps developed in the French court, with names like coupé, passé and brisé—under his direction they look less formal, more free, almost newly minted. “In my experience,” says Julie Kent, a ballerina who has worked with a multitude of choreographers over nearly three decades with ABT, “he’s extremely—to a level I’ve never seen before—articulate with the exactness of the steps. He wants you to speak with your body.” By pushing the dancers, he brings them out of their shells.
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What sparks Ratmansky’s imagination is music. This may seem obvious, but there are plenty of choreographers who take their cues from nonmusical sources and ideas. In Shostakovich, he has an ideal partner. The composer’s sound world offers a vibrant spectrum, from cartoonish chases to crashing dissonances and swooning melodies, often spliced together with very little transition from one mood to the next. Without being programmatic, the music seems to suggest images and stories, though usually discontinuous and jumpy, or layered one on top of the other, and full of mischievous play. As the musicologist Simon Morrison told me not long ago, “The phrases are sometimes misaligned, and cut in different ways. If you listen to his music and think about silent-film technique, it’s the musical equivalent of that.”
The technique of cutting and splicing—shot, countershot—is one Shostakovich picked up on early. After the Russian Revolution, the young composer earned his keep by improvising on the piano during silent movies—as did George Balanchine—and later wrote scores for modernist Soviet films such as New Babylon (1929). His music sometimes has the feel of several films spliced together, with a Tom and Jerry chase perhaps followed by a moonlit ride down the Elbe, a passionate kiss, a witch’s dance, a soccer match and a close-up of laughing faces.
Similarly, when Ratmansky translates what he hears in the music, the results are never completely abstract. “It’s always about something, even when there is no story,” Mikhail Baryshnikov has said of his ballets. Take the pas de deux in the recent Symphony No. 9. After a bright, snappy march led by flute, violin and snare drum, an enigmatic clarinet slithers downward in a minor key in the second movement as a man and woman curl around each other like two snakes, occasionally turning their heads sharply to peer through the surrounding darkness. Their movements are oblique and stretched, tango-like, echoing the clarinet’s plangent melody. A threat seems to loom beyond the wings. (The peering motif has already been introduced, in passing, in the first movement.) Ratmansky tends to deflect questions about content, but with a little prodding he offers hints. When asked what is vexing the pair, he tells me that the clarinet motif puts him in mind of the central couple in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. (“They’re outsiders, living in a little room beneath the level of the street… they’re protective of each other, not part of the momentum of life. They can’t be part of it because they’re different,” he says of Bulgakov’s characters.) Later, the couple’s stealthy movements are picked up by the ensemble and become a structural element, a color in the ballet’s palette. Content is form.
Ratmansky also pays close attention to the qualities of individual instruments within the orchestration and to minute musical motifs one might not otherwise notice. Two emphatic notes ending a phrase might suddenly be made “visible” by a muscular opening of the arms, for example. In this way, the music and the movement become tightly entwined in one’s memory. Or a sound quality might lead him to cast a particular dancer. A heroic trumpet theme in the third movement of the Ninth Symphony led him to choose Herman Cornejo, one of the company’s most ardent, virtuosic dancers, for a role that highlights what Ratmansky calls his “unaffected purity.” Here again, chance also played a part: Cornejo was originally supposed to have a partner, but when she was injured, Ratmansky decided to cast him alone, as a kind of angelic figure leading and protecting the other characters, a loner who stands apart from the crowd. Because the seraphic quality of the movement is closely in tune with Shostakovich’s writing for the trumpet, the image sticks.
Classical ballet tends to favor clarity of form and hierarchical structures. A ballerina moves in exalted isolation, backed by an elegant but self-effacing cavalier and a cadre of dancers framing and complementing her actions. One of the great joys of Balanchine, even in his most modernist works, is the absolute legibility of every moment. Not so with Ratmansky, whose ballets tend toward extremes of complexity. In any given tableau, there are often three or four hives of activity humming simultaneously; at times, it can be overwhelming. His ballets invite second and third viewings, and they force the eye to see more. Afterward, other ballets can look too simple, too neat, with all those straight lines, crisp steps and symmetrical patterns. At a point during a rehearsal of the Chamber Symphony, I saw a group of dancers jumping, several couples engaged in complicated traveling lifts, and a few free agents zooming through the remaining space. Another ensemble repeated an earlier phrase, but in reverse. At first, there were traffic jams, but the effect was startling: a complex moving figure had come to life. Nothingness had become chaos and now this, a kind of crazy machine with pistons flying.
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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.
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?”
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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?
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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.”