Like ABT’s other all-evening ballets, Shostakovich Trilogy is an extremely valuable introduction to ballet itself, their Artist in Residence/MacArthur Genius, and his composer of choice. Unlike his contemporaries Igor Stravinsky and Serge Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is not readily identified with ballet music. There are a few from the Soviet era, including Bolt, The Golden Age, Bright Stream, and Leningrad Symphony – a head-shaking attempt of dancing incalculable loss. When Ratmansky was the Bolshoi Ballet’s Artistic Director, he re-set Bright Stream (the original choreography was lost), and the 2003 work is now in ABT’s repertory. For the New York City Ballet, he used the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for the luminous Concerto DSCH.
Volumes, including Julian Barnes just-published The Noise of Time, explore Shostakovich’s persecution under Communism. Neither imprisoned nor executed like the millions of artists, military personnel, and civilians during Stalin’s purges, the composer nonetheless endured public humiliations and calculated contact with the West. His symphonies, string quartets and song cycles personify the Soviet era – yet at the same time are searing musical autobiographical essays. A Western listener can emphasize and appreciate this fragile genius because so little is unexplored in his music, for suffering is culturally universal.
Shostakovich Trilogy begins with Symphony #9. Written to mark the end of World War II, it is alternatively celebratory and sad. Ratmansky works with rather than against the music as the unseen character the dancers keep looking over their shoulders for. The corps du ballet and another dancer (Joseph Gorak) keep separating the central couple (Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle). Still, the two, whose extreme physical beauty are the Mosfilm logo come to life, maintain a sense of humor. Part showed her annoyance when Bolle picked her up with a series of fast changements (one calf beats against the other before the pointed feet change position in a tight position). Bolle, an excellent partner, found himself partnered, even lifted, by male corps members. The two collapsed melodramatically to the floor at the end of their duet.
As in his other ballets, Ratmansky put every dancer center stage. Symphony #9’s cast got theirs during the finale. They paralleled each other, added steps, moved in opposition, broke off into groups or solos with increasing speed, notably Gorak, Luciana Paris and Aaron Scott.
Of the three ballets, Chamber Symphony is the only one with a narrative structure. A ‘Man’ (Jeffrey Cirio) is obsessed with three women (Cassandra Trenary, Isabella Boylston, Devon Teuscher). Ratmansky’s slow movement is heavy with grief. The corps takes on the responsibilities of an ancient Greek Chorus, watching, commenting, lamenting. Shostakovich had three wives. The three Chamber Symphony ballerinas represented the first who dies, the second who leaves, and the last that stays. Yet, if the Man also represents ‘The Artist’, they could be Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the goddesses who tempted Paris, the Three Graces, or even three personality traits of one woman. Ratmansky’s suggestion creates possibility.
An abstract character in Chamber Symphony were details from the painting The Shostakovich Symphony by Pavel Filinov, an avant-garde artist who died during the Siege of Leningrad. Set designer George Tsypin synchronized changing the colors and shapes with the live stage picture. Shostakovich Trilogy serves as another worthwhile introduction to those unfamiliar with Tsypin’s considerable work.
Tsypin’s scenery for Piano Concerto #1 is Soviet kitsch of red stars, sickles, rockets and missiles cut out and hung against a black backdrop. The look is playful. So is the choreography. Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings is dance-friendly, jazzy (Shostakovich’s film scoring career began as a pianist/in-house conductor for silent movies) music, and Ratmansky runs wild with it. He brilliantly takes the muscular style of Soviet Ballet and makes it lighter and even more virtuoso. The choreography acknowledges the past without glorifying it. The big jumps and slides across the length of the Met stage the audience cheered and gasped over were perfectly appropriate for both the music and the dancers.
Piano Concerto #1’s is built around a double pas de deux featuring Christine Shevchenko/Calvin Royal III and Skylar Brandt/Gave Stone Shayer. From Odette’s ‘lieutenants’ in Swan Lake, the strong women on both ends of the conflict in Spartacus to the regal ballerinas commanding Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2, dual female leading roles are a ballet tradition. Ratmansky honors it, with high, one-handed lifts where the men daringly tossed the women in the air for a few seconds and later partnered with the ballerinas. The couples’ timing and placement were sharp. The two soloists, the tall, technically flawless Shevchenko and deceptively delicate-looking Brandt, made quite a pairing in their attractive shiny red leotards designed by Keso Dekker.