“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.