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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