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American Ballet Theatre

'The Shostakovich Trilogy'

by Jerry Hochman

May 31 and June 1(m), 2013 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

Anyone familiar with Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography knows that he has a special intellectual and emotional relationship with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, perhaps similar to the relationship that George Balanchine had with Tchaikovsky. Mr. Ratmansky has choreographed several different ballets to Shostakovich’s music, including The Bright Stream, which American Ballet Theatre presented a few years ago, and the glorious Suite DSCH for New York City Ballet. Now he has created the Shostakovich Trilogy, which may be Mr. Ratmansky’s ultimate homage to Shostakovich. A suite of three ballets that had its world premiere performance on Friday, and the first performance by its second cast on Saturday afternoon, the Shostakovich Trilogy is a fitting memorial to that relationship, but it is considerably more important a work than that. It is significant for what it says, for how Mr. Ratmansky says it, and for the fact that it exists at all.

Consisting of Symphony #9 (composed in 1945), Chamber Symphony (composed between 1954 and 1960), and Piano Concerto #1 (1933), the Trilogy is, collectively, a work of intelligence, depth, choreographic creativity, and emotional inspiration, one component of which, in this viewer’s opinion, is a masterpiece (the second segment of the trilogy: Chamber Symphony). It is also an evening that, although clearly Russian in emphasis, has universal relevance and appeal. However, Mr. Ratmansky has chosen not to share his intentions with the audience (there are no program notes), and he can be maddeningly opaque as to what he’s trying to say. [It’s not essential for a choreographer to ‘say’ anything other than to create dances that, for whatever reason, resonate, but Mr. Ratmansky is much too intelligent a choreographer to have put together a trilogy of dances to Shostakovich music without intending that there be a connection among them (beyond the common denominator of the composer) in some thematic way.]

That having been said, to this viewer Mr. Ratmansky’s intent is clear – though not always clearly expressed. In a broad sense the Shostakovich Trilogy is a visualization in a non-narrative framework of the impact of Communism, and more particularly of Stalin, on the Russian people, as reflected in Shostakovich’s music. It’s not just ‘see the music’, it’s ‘see the themes in the music’. Though the compositions used are not presented in compositional sequence, they permit, and facilitate, sequential choreographic commentary. Symphony #9 provides a broad summary of the insidious, and relentless, nature of repression; Chamber Symphony a more focused, individualized exposition on life in a repressive society, and Piano Concerto #1 hints at tyranny’s endlight at the end and the ultimate triumph, individual and collectively, of the human spirit. Each segment’s connection to the overall theme is embedded to varying degrees in an abstract form, with the first segment clearly transmitting a thematic message, the second segment being the least abstract – and consequently the most easily accessible, the last being the least clearly connected to the theme – but nevertheless containing stunning thematic references. There are bumps along the way, but the Shostokovich Trilogy is a work of art that not only invites the audience to intellectualize its contents, it requires the audience to probe beyond the movement and the images to see what’s really there – just as, to fully appreciate Shostakovich’s music, it’s necessary to listen beyond the notes.

Although I will discuss the Trilogy’s two casts in the course of this review, I must at the outset acknowledge Christine Shevchenko, an ABT soloist. Apparently an understudy for the role of the ballerina in the ‘first couple’ in Piano Concerto #1, Ms. Shevchenko was suddenly called upon at Saturday’s performance to replace Gillian Murphy when Ms. Murphy suffered a last minute injury – too late even to prepare program inserts or to post an announcement at the theater entrance, both of which are routinely done when there is a late lead cast change not reflected in the scheduled casting. Ms. Shevchenko’s performance was memorable – both for the fact that she executed as well as she did [she beamed at the piece’s conclusion, well-aware of her accomplishment; was heartily acknowledged by the Met audience (her reception, as measured by my built-in applause meter, was the most enthusiastic); and was deservedly applauded from the stage by the entire cast], but also because it serves to reemphasize the quality of ABT’s ‘home’ dancers, and the absence of opportunities for talented ABT soloist and corps dancers (of which ABT has an abundance) to dance in lead roles and to gain essential performing experience.

On the other hand, ABT deserves credit for presenting this piece at all. Non-narrative ballets do not usually sell tickets, particularly at the Met, so the decision to commission a full-length abstract suite that doesn’t have the surface sparkle of jewels (it was commissioned both by ABT and by the San Francisco Ballet) in lieu of a new story ballet that might generate more ticket sales could not have been an easy one. [It’s certainly possible that ABT’s motives were less altruistic, and that its decision was prompted by its desire to accommodate its celebrated choreographer and/or by the artistic whims of its investors, but even if the production and its performances are underwritten in toto and in perpetuity, which I doubt, in the end it doesn’t make the artistic decision less commendable.] At this point I’m not aware of the Trilogy’s critical reception, and it’s possible that good reviews might generate additional sales when the piece is performed again (if history is a guide, the Shostakovich Trilogy will be performed again during next year’s Met season). Regardless, it’s probably going to be a tough sell. That would be unfortunate, because the piece should be seen.

In its totality, and aside from the high quality of the overall choreography and the performances, the Shostakovich Trilogy is memorable for the indelible visual punctuation marks that Mr. Ratmansky integrates into the choreographic flow throughout the piece – from the over-the-shoulder looks to see if anyone’s watching; to citizens falling to the floor in stages as if they’re gradually being beaten into submission by some unseen force; to the image of a tormented citizen losing his friends, his, loves, his hope, and his sanity, as one by one everything is taken away from him; to the image of a young man staring out at the future and seeing light at the end of the tyrannical tunnel, followed by dancers triumphantly carried into the sunrise. Included in the panoply of striking images is the choreographed portrait of a woman being lifted into a typical propaganda ‘Victory’ pose in anticipation of the government’s wartime triumph, countered by a woman being lifted in the same manner at the conclusion of the piece, but the image this time is not ‘victory’ propaganda, but is representative of the peoples’ triumph over tyranny. Whatever one thinks of the nuts and bolts of the choreography in each individual piece that together comprise the Trilogy, these overall images alone, and how Mr. Ratmansky arrives at them choreographically, are so novel and dominating and haunting that nothing else really matters.

Shostakovich (1902-1975) is a curious composer in many respects. His musical style initially emulated early Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and subsequently Mahler, but to this uneducated ear his music is more eclectic, at times incorporating parody and sound juxtapositions that appear strange, contradictory, depressing, uplifting, comedic, and even eerily macabre – all in the same piece. By way of capsulation, as a young man Shostakovich initially achieved some measure of success under Communism (he is one of few composers to have composed entirely under Soviet sovereignty). Eventually he became one of Stalin’s artistic whipping boys, being condemned for incorporation of ‘Western’ styles and artistic deviation in a Pravda editorial in 1936 (which was thought to have been instigated by Stalin) in reaction to his opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District,” which had considerable popular success but which Stalin ridiculed. Subsequently, Shostakovich’s work was banned, and he came to feel that he or his family (or both) would be arrested or worse. He lost commissions and income, and friends and relatives were imprisoned, sent to camps, or killed. In the frenzy to avoid being labeled ‘formalistic,’ the code for being pro-Western, the atmosphere became Orwellian, with a pervasive mood of distrust and suspicion, not only among the population as a whole, but also among artists who would accuse other artists of ‘formalism’ to avoid being deemed formalistic themselves or otherwise being accused of ‘un-Soviet’ activities. Shostakovich was subsequently ‘rehabilitated’, became a Party member and an artistic spokesperson, though whether he was a believer or a ‘forced convert’ is unclear (the consensus appears to be that he did what he had to do rather than what he wanted to do).

Symphony #9

Symphony #9 premiered during ABT’s week-long City Center season in October, 2012, and was performed again at the ABT Opening Night Gala on May 13, before taking its place as the initial piece in the Trilogy. There appear to be some changes from the original incarnation – it seems tighter than it did previously (though that may be the result of greater familiarity), and the costumes appear to have changed somewhat, but the overall impression has been consistent throughout. To this viewer, Symphony #9 is an introduction to indoctrination, mass subjugation, and totalitarian conformity, camouflaged amid feigned, forced, or ignorant cheerfulness. A darker, urban, The Bright Stream.

Although I found the choreography to be endlessly interesting to watch, with novel movement patterns and a broad choreographic vocabulary (a characteristic of all three pieces), there is so much movement hitting the viewer from different directions that, although the stage isn’t crowded, it appears overly busy. And its message, to the extent the audience believes it has one (and I do) appears inconsistent without first taking logical leaps. [This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it just makes the piece less comprehensible to audience-members less willing to engage in mental gymnastics.]

Symphony #9 has a lead cast of five – a ‘first’ couple on stage (Simone Messmer and Craig Salstein on Friday, and Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky on Saturday); a second couple (Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes on Friday, and Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle on Saturday afternoon), and an eight female/eight male corps. It opens with a somewhat silly but entertaining initial movement featuring a lone male dancer (Mr. Salstein or Mr. Radetsky), who is quickly joined by other male dancers, followed by corps women. They all seem to be having a wonderful time, and the movement becomes yet more playful when Ms. Messmer/Ms. Abrera joins the fun, at one point mimicking the action of a drummer playing to accompany some unseen marching band. Or marching army.

Although this introductory scene is somewhat farcical and comic (at one point, at the culmination of a period of revelry, Mr. Salstein/Mr. Radetsky leaps, sideways, into the arms of waiting comrades – to the the audience’s delight), to this viewer, the clear significance is calm/euphoria before the storm (one of those leaps of logic that I mentioned): A celebration, perhaps, of Communism’s initial popular appeal, or, if the intent is less general, of the likelihood of a glorious military triumph. But ominous signs are ahead, signaled by the overall dark lighting and dark grey costumes, and by the backdrop that includes a greyish amorphous ‘force’ that moves in stages and looms larger as the dance progresses. [As I watched, I thought of Martha Graham’s Chronicles, without the stridency.]

Into this mix wanders the second couple, and the mood changes. Although they appear to join the festive atmosphere, they’re aware that things aren’t what they seem. And they’re afraid – first of some unseen force (presumably the government), and then of their fellow citizens. Their attitude becomes guarded; they look over their shoulders to see if anyone is watching who could report their deviant thoughts. And they soon find their freedom limited, their ability to act or think independently defeated, as they are beaten into the ground. Literally – their bodies descend sideways toward the stage floor incrementally, as if they were nails being pounded by a hammer, until they finally reach bottom and turn flat. [The image is repeated by other ‘citizens’ later, to represent that this repressive force was not limited to one isolated couple.] A final ‘lead’ character, Herman Cornejo on Friday and Jared Matthews on Saturday, joins the dancers at some point, but it’s not clear to me what this dancer’s ‘purpose’ is, other than to provide an opportunity for some spectacular dancing.

The initial movement segues into an adagio pas de deux involving the second couple, in which their unease is amplified and further explored choreographically. When this couple is again metaphorically beaten into submission, the backdrop changes to reveal a repeating assortment of images of Red Army soldiers, and to my recollection flags and weapons as well, against a bright background, and the couple is rejoined by other citizens. They feign happiness, but know that the situation is dire, and that they have no control over it.

For this viewer, the power of Symphony #9 is in its relentless and increasing sense of loss, within the counterpoint of overall jubilation and ‘making do’ with circumstances as they are. The latter extreme is exaggerated – perhaps too much – by the humorous actions of the first couple and the overall sense of jubilation, On the other hand, the contradictory images [humor/ depression; the Salstein/Radetsky character jovially leaping sideways and being caught before his body hits the floor/the second couple falling sideways and hitting the floor] are necessary to show the insidious face of repression.

On Friday, as the first couple, Mr. Salstein and Ms. Messmer did an excellent job transmitting the comic/jubilant/’patriotic’ sense. On Saturday, Ms. Abrera and Mr. Radetsky did the same (with Ms. Abrera being somewhat more crisp technically), but Mr. Radetsky is not the comedian that Mr. Salstein is, and for that reason his portrayal seemed to lack that quality. As the individual ‘wild card’, Mr. Cornejo was technically superb, with entrechats (alternating six and huit, by my observations) among the finest I’ve seen. Although his personality was flat – I saw no emotional registration at all – I thought that this was Mr. Ratmansky’s intent. But on Saturday, Mr. Matthews, though less technically perfect, added character nuance - at once smiling weakly, and at the same time acting somewhat aggressively - suggesting perhaps that he was not simply one of the unknowing revelers, but that he was exploiting the situation. [But then, perhaps I think too much, and his purpose in the piece is just to be an entertaining additional presence.]

On Friday, Polina Semionova limited what appeared to me to be excessive 'happy' smiling at the Gala, and did a fine job, but as good as it was, her performance suffered in comparison to that of Veronika Part. Clearly, the ‘second’ couple is supposed to convey a tragic loss of freedom, and Ms. Semionova was relatively vacuous. Ms. Part, on the other hand, was shattering. She knew what was happening all along, knew that she was losing her freedom, and knew that resistance was futile. Her ‘smiling’ moments weakly camouflaged her despair. When she hit the stage floor, it was not as a statue falling, but as an individual losing all hope. As I’ve previously written, no ABT dancer delivers ‘pathos’ like Ms. Part, and no ABT dancer is a finer interpreter of Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography. Mr. Gomes and Mr. Bolle were both fine partners, with Mr. Gomes’s portrayal appearing more seriously repressed, and adding a sense of loss that Mr. Bolle’s characterization lacked.

Chamber Symphony

While Symphony #9 is flawed, but brilliant, Chamber Symphony is clear as a bell, choreographically inspired, and to this viewer a masterpiece in or out of the context of the Shostakovich Trilogy. Chamber Symphony is a stunning choreographic visualization of the impact of tyrannical terror on an individual. We don’t know why the individual at the center of Chamber Symphony is being tormented, or even who he is supposed to represent [Shostakovich?, Ratmansky?, any artist?, any citizen? For this review, I’ll call him ‘A' – for agony.] The overall sense is of a man tormented by outside forces – government; his neighbors; whatever; and tempted by what he cannot have, cannot keep, is afraid to lose, or has already lost. Although it is specifically ‘about’ the repression under Stalin, it could be representative of any equivalent period of government-mandated and societally-condoned torment.

But if an individual’s suffering and torment is all we see in Chamber Symphony, the piece would be significantly less memorable than it is. What makes Chamber Symphony important, and in my opinion a masterpiece, is in its haunting and beautiful visualization of repression and terror in an environmental and societal, as well as individual context: Torment and terror described as individual agony, but also as a nightmare environment, a sense abetted by a backdrop consisting entirely of steely, gaunt, grey identical faces [Stalin? Shostakovich? It doesn’t matter], assembled visually like a fortress of faces staring down in icy silence on the city.

In Chamber Symphony the individual is plagued not only by personal anguish and by the sense that Big Brother is watching (as are neighbors ready to report signs of deviance), but by the temptation to simply conform. This temptation takes the form of sexual inducement by women citizens in general (by hip gyrating sexual innuendo), but it is distilled further by the depiction of three relationships, all within the context of A’s terror. The interactions between A and his three love interests are the choreographic heart of Chamber Symphony, and are representations of his agony that help to figuratively kill him, but do it softly.

Initially, the three women appear on stage and interact with A collectively, all while the city’s citizens go about their regular tasks (including keeping their eyes on what others are doing). To this viewer, the women were presenting themselves; offering themselves; tempting him. A dances with all of them collectively (sometimes appearing to pull all three concurrently, as if they were links in a chain), briefly with them individually, and then again with them all. Subsequently he dances again with the three women in individual duets, but with the other two offstage. The duets are clearly distinctive, as if the women are promising different potential choices – the first is girl is sweetly affectionate and seductive; the second promises a mutually fulfilling emotional relationship, but it is a relationship that appears to be manipulated by outside forces; and the third appears respectful but more empathetic and platonic. To me, based on the way in which the ‘relationships’ are presented as sequential temptations in the context of unimaginable fear and hopelessness, the segment looks like Balanchine’s Apollo as choreographed by Kafka.

Whether the three women and the relationships they suggest are different choreographic descriptions of three different relationships, or one relationship’s progression over time, is unclear. I don’t think it’s the latter, although that’s the impression provided by the first cast. Rather, I see the three women as a choreographically convenient representative summary of different types of relationships and temptations and illusions of happiness and normalcy, which may roughly correspond to relationships in Shostakovich’s life. Shostakovich was married three times: to Nina Varzar in 1932 (they divorced in 1935, but remarried shortly thereafter when it was discovered that she was pregnant); to Margarita Kainova in 1956, but they divorced three years later; and to Irina Supinskaya in 1962, who was less than half his age, but that is the relationship that reportedly was a happy one. During the period of his first marriage, he also is said to have had relationships with two of his students Galina Usvolskaya and Elmira Nazirova. If I had to guess, I’d say that the women portrayed are Usvolskaya, Nazirova, and Supinskaya, but it doesn’t really matter. The common thread is that A is tormented, the relationships do not help (in fact, they seem to make him more distraught). If A could scream, he would but he can’t scream because someone may hear him and report him. At the end, A falls to the floor, overwhelmed. [That ‘fall to the floor’ image again, from Symphony #9, stated differently.]

The quality of Chamber Symphony is embedded in the choreography, but the strong performances delivered it. On Friday, David Hallberg as A was brilliant, somehow squeezing multiple facets of torment out of one tormented soul. Saturday’s A, James Whiteside, did very well, but was monochromatic, and his performance suffered by comparison to Mr. Hallberg’s. As the first woman on Friday, Isabella Boylston was playful and flirty and seemed exactly right. But Sarah Lane on Saturday played down the flirtatiousness somewhat, and ramped up the dark sensual temptation, appearing to be a much more complex character. I preferred Ms. Lane’s characterization, but the distinction isn’t critical, and both were wonderful. On Friday, the second woman was Paloma Herrera. She did the steps perfectly well (the first and second girls have the most interesting choreography, with that of the second girl appearing to be more complex because it is not just between the girl and A – the second girl is carried and tossed by other citizens also), but was emotionally blank. Yuriko Kajiya on Saturday was magnificent – it was a perfectly executed and emotionally nuanced performance. As the third woman, Julie Kent on Friday and Hee Seo on Saturday both were compassionate and caring companions.

Piano Concerto #1

Piano Concerto #1 is the most difficult of the three pieces for me to absorb on an intellectual level because it is more abstract, and because its thematic content appears to be limited to certain isolated images rather than carried continuously throughout the piece. Visually and choreographically it’s wonderful to watch, but, except for the isolated images, it’s just another excellently-choreographed dance without substance, in which the integral parts don’t completely mesh. [This may be a reflection of the ballet’s relatively hasty preparation. ABT announced roughly a month ago that the original musical inspiration for this section was being replaced by Piano Concerto #1.]

The piece looks stunning. The overall ambiance is brighter: the lighting is sunny, not only conveying a sense of liveliness, but also a sense of warmth; the backdrop is composed of multiple recurring red three-dimensional ‘cut-outs’ floating in space (stars, for example); the costumes for the lead women are red leotards and white tights; the lead men are dressed in grey, and the corps wears unitards that are red on one side and grey on the other. [The extraordinary sets, costumes, and lighting for each of the three Trilogy pieces were by George Tsypin, Keso Dekker, and Jennifer Tipton respectively.] The piece looks somewhat celebratory, and there is an overall sensation of relief (as in Stalin’s dead, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel), but there is no coherent mood, choreographically or otherwise, and at times the ambiance is somber.

Nevertheless, there are images that ‘connect’ with the theme dramatically, and appropriately. At one point, the second male character falls to the floor, upstage left, then rises, sitting upright, and stares into the distance. Shortly thereafter, the six corps couples walk upstage left to right, with each man carrying a woman upright straddling one of his shoulders, with each woman’s arms uplifted, as if walking toward the sun and into the future. It’s a stunning combined set of images.

Structurally, Piano Concerto #1 focuses on two couples, who enter the stage shortly after the action begins. The couples dance together, as couples, and individually, and the two women share the stage themselves. Each dance is inventive and distinctive – the movement for the first couple, performed by Diana Vishneva and Cory Stearns on Friday, and by Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III on Saturday, is somewhat smoother; more lyrical. The choreography for the second couple, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev on Friday, and Xiomara Reyes and Daniil Simkin on Saturday, is more staccato and angular. To this viewer, the first couple has the better of the choreography, although the different choreographic details for the couples complement each other.
At Friday’s performance, Ms. Vishneva and Mr. Stearns had the better of the execution. Although Ms. Osipova executed brilliantly, with her usual attack. Mr. Vasiliev appeared, to this viewer, to be somewhat out of place. It also appears that Mr. Ratmansky allowed some measure of individual choice for the dancers – Mr. Vasiliev performed one of his ‘tricks’ suddenly, which seemed to startle the audience, many of whom had come to see such tricks, into reflexive applause. Mr. Stearns was superb – he partnered Ms. Vishneva with skill and attentiveness. Indeed, I concede that I didn’t realize it was Mr. Stearns until I checked the program to see who the guest artist was – he looked that different, and was that good. The Saturday cast for the first couple was very good as well. I’ve already mentioned Ms. Shevchenko, but her partner, Calvin Royal III, is another promising corps dancer, who is new to the company. He is tall, lanky, and has arms that seem to reach his knees – perfect for partnering. And, though a little rough around the edges, he did a very good job partnering Ms. Shevchenko.

To this viewer, Ms. Reyes and Mr. Simkin were more impressive than their opening night counterparts. Ms. Reyes couldn’t do the turns and jumps as explosively as Ms. Osipova, but she seemed more comfortable with the choreography and executed admirably. Mr. Simkin, however, was merely remarkable. He was appropriately serious throughout, with none of the pasted-on demeanor that I’ve seen previously. He toned down his bravura technique, electing for whatever reason not to insert one of the tricks for which he is justly renowned as Mr. Vasiliev had done – it wasn’t necessary. He partnered Ms. Reyes well, and even had a sense of understanding the gravity of the piece’s theme, and dancing appropriately. To this viewer, this was Mr. Simkin's finest performance.

For example, there is a point in Piano Concerto #1 where the Vasiliev/Simkin character, surrounded by the four male corps dancers, acts like a bull ready to charge a matador (he leans forward and scrapes his feet against the stave floor). It’s a little funny, and perfect for Mr. Vasiliev, who thoroughly enjoyed mimicking a bull. Mr. Simkin’s take was a little different. Mr. Simkin was more an energized citizen eager to experience freedom. And in that critical scene where the Vasiliev/Simkin character falls, raises his upper torso and stares into the future, Mr. Vasiliev, based on what I saw, raised his upper body up in one gradual movement. On the other hand, Mr. Simkin raised his upper body in increments until he sat up straight – a perfect counter-image to the image in Symphony #9 of citizens incrementally falling to the ground. Dynamite.

Finally, two additional sets of performances should be acknowledged. The corps work in all three pieces was extensive, with the work in Piano Concerto #1 requiring more movement uniformity and having less margin for error than the others. Each of the corps dancers performed magnificently, and the corps in Piano Concerto #1, to this viewer, was flawless. And the conducting (at both performances, David LaMarche led Symphony #9, and Ormsby Wilkins the other two pieces) was very well done – the orchestra, which I have often criticized, performed brilliantly.

Though flawed, the Shostakovich Trilogy is nevertheless a remarkable evening of dance. When it surfaces again, it should be seen – several times.

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