A New American
Alexei Ratmansky immigrated to the United States from Russia in 2008; he became a citizen in 2015. You wouldn’t really call him an American unless you understood how American ballet has always been under the spell of Russian ballet. First, Marius Petipa, who dominated the nineteenth-century Imperial repertory and whose classics Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and many lesser-known story ballets are still being reproduced and refashioned as the test of a ballet company’s mastery. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century spawned a generation of expatriates who carried Russian aesthetics into European modernism and throughout the world. The Diaghilev offshoots, the variously and confusingly named Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of Serge Denham and Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes, carried that repertory into the 1940s. Enthusiasm for Schéhérazade and Firebird and the symphonic ballets of Léonide Massine created a core ballet audience in this country. George Balanchine came to New York via St. Petersburg and the Ballets Russes in 1934 and started a school and company. As he developed his own choreography, he resorted to the old classics only occasionally (Nutcracker, Coppélia), but he preserved them as living metaphor in countless new ballets and often reworked or streamlined them to suit the New York City Ballet audience (Baiser de la Fée, Swan Lake, Firebird, Don Quixote). He was getting started on a full-length Sleeping Beauty at the end of his life; it was completed by his successor, Peter Martins. Along the way there were the Soviets, who installed acrobatics and mass characterization into the technical lexicon for today’s hybrid forms of contemporary ballet.
Ratmansky carries on this lineage and extends it. His ballets are crammed with steps, with action, with musicality and also with human expressiveness. He hasn’t succumbed to contemporary notions that subordinate the classical conventions to physical distortion and theatrical staging. He works in more styles and attitudes than a single dance company could contain. Fortunately, he’s had the chance to stage his ideas on a dozen different companies; as the hot artist in ballet right now, he’s taking advantage of the moment. By some miracle, his unprecedented productivity hasn’t resulted in automatism.
I’ve been wanting to write about this prodigy ever since I first encountered his work, in Le Carnaval des Animaux, in San Francisco in 2003. Then Russian Seasons for New York City Ballet, in 2006, when he was still artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. These were as different from each other as if they’d been made by different people. All I remember about Le Carnaval now is that I thought it was delightful, a comic ballet with serious overtones. Russian Seasons was unique: an ensemble piece that featured solo dancers without setting them apart as superior beings. Since then there have been other dances of his, all fascinating. But I’ve never seen any of them enough times to figure out what makes them so. Now, twenty years after leaving New York, I regret that I haven’t been on the scene to get to know his work well.
Two performances by American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in May gave me a glimpse of six Ratmansky works I hadn’t seen before. No more than a glimpse. Here I’ll insert a plea that video recordings be made available for study. ABT didn’t provide them on request; neither did New York City Ballet when I was last trying to account for my inadequate understanding of a Ratmansky work. In response to the sample I was able to access this time, I’ll have to skim the surface of what I know is a deeper well of information. I was unable to be in New York for repeat performances of the two repertory programs discussed below, or for his 2015 Sleeping Beauty, which was to close the two-month season, or the remake of the Michel Fokine Coq d’Or (1914). Now retitled The Golden Cockerel, it was first created at the end of the soon-exhausted string of exotic ballets that made the Ballets Russes a sensation with the audience in Paris and London and was the last that Fokine made for Diaghilev.
One of Ratmanksy’s great distinctions is his respect for his heritage in dance history. Among other ventures, he’s staged Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Paquita, Don Quixote, Le Corsaire, and Swan Lake. He’s revisited the Diaghilev Ballet for Le Baiser de la Fée and Jeu de Cartes and looked at the Soviets in Bright Stream and Bolt. Some of these were step for step restorations; some were outright deconstructions. His Wikipedia entry calls all but Paquita “choreographed works” as opposed to “revivals.” His Firebird, shown during Ballet Theatre’s second week last spring, seems to be a parody. Perhaps I’m wrong. Ratmansky’s ballets, new and old, don’t declare themselves right away. One of the many pleasures of his choreography is how you can’t get everything in the first five minutes.
It took me weeks to gain some sense of the Firebird. Ratmansky seems to have rethought the original ballet, made by Fokine for Diaghilev in 1910. He had choreographed Stravinsky’s score in 2002 for the Royal Swedish Ballet. The ABT version, made ten years later, is new again. It opens with the Tsarevich Ivan asleep in front of a blank wall with two squared-off openings in it. Ivan (Alexandre Hammoudi) wakes up, looks around, and warily goes out through one of the openings. You see his shadow passing along, then re-entering through the other opening. This is disorienting, as I’m sure Ratmansky means it to be: don’t expect the ballet you know, but think of the music and the staging in a whole new way.
Soon the wall flies up, and we see a forest of lumpy grey shapes with smoking tubular tops. (Scenery was by Simon Pastukh.) They reminded me of oversized cigarettes or unspeakable phallic shapes. The garden where Ivan encounters the Firebird (Isabella Boylston) is first populated by a troupe of male and female birds in red costumes, and they dance together like the Swans in another familiar ballet. The Firebird separates from the flock, dances with Ivan as his prisoner, gives him the magic feather in exchange for her escape. Later he encounters another flock, a group of women in identical green getups, who act strangely—-I thought they might be drunk. Gone are the traditional Russian folk dances they knew a century ago in the original ballet. Turns out they are the captives (the only captives, forget about Fokine’s monsters) of the evil Kaschei (Roman Zhurbin).
Many encounters later, there was a strange sighing I’d never heard before in the music. Later on, during the lullaby when the Firebird puts the monsters under a spell, I realized the sibilant sounds were coming from the woman next to me, who had fallen deeply asleep. She woke up for the inscrutable double duet Ratmansky made for the Firebird, Kaschei, Ivan and the “Maiden” (Cassandra Trenary).
Stravinsky’s apotheosis music, a grand wedding procession, has always stumped choreographers. It brings the story to an end and covers a choreographic hiatus, when the cast of monsters and maidens have to change into elegant costumes for the wedding of the Tsarevich and his bride. Ratmansky solved this problem by having Trenary slowly slip out of her green outfit; underneath she was wearing a white silk shift. All the other characters return in white, and the wedding is accomplished.
I don’t object to making fun of historical icons, but I’m not sure of Ratmansky’s intentions here. The blank wall at the beginning prepared us for something different, but it’s not clear what. Maybe he’s making a political statement. Then who is Kaschei, and who are the enslaved? And is restoration of the monarchy a goal we can take seriously? I was unable to escape my image of the Fokine/Stravinsky Firebird I’ve seen interpreted live and on video by the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet. The music doesn’t necessarily require a literal reconstruction, but Firebird doesn’t lend itself to parody as Ratmanksy’s rendition of the utopian Soviet Bolt does. There’s something inherently obsolescent about a machine-age ballet, but fairy tales are timeless.
Ratmansky does more than revisit the past. His original works, like Russian Seasons, are surprising at a time when ballet choreographers seem more attracted to collage and farce. Ratmansky chooses real pieces of music and sticks to them. He hears the music for its tone, structure, rhythms, and even its underlying meanings. But his dance isn’t contained by the music in the overlapping way Balanchine’s was.
Leonard Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton questioned the usefulness of the composer’s title and extensive program notes for his Serenade (1954), wondering why Bernstein didn’t simply call it a violin concerto. The music carried an elaborate set of program notes referring to a conversation among Plato and his friends at a banquet. Bernstein apparently meant the music to describe the aspects of love. Ratmansky’s ballet Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, which I saw at its official premiere on 18 May, with Benjamin Bowman as the solo violinist, is similarly encumbered. Ballet Theatre supplied the press with Bernstein’s program notes, relating sections of the music to the individual Athenian characters, but the dancers weren’t tied to these identities in the house program. The dance is so full of action, I couldn’t sort out the dancers, let alone see how they related to the ostensible program descriptions or the assertion that each solo variation was built on material from the previous one.
The ballet is a gathering of gentlemen in variegated costumes by Jérôme Kaplan. At the beginning, Kaplan had hung a lopsided panel above the stage with the word SYMPOSIUM in Greek letters, leading me to think each solo would be similarly identified, but the panel merely tilted away with nothing on it for the rest of the dance. What I did see is how wonderfully Ratmansky preserves the classical ballet vocabulary and how his choreography impels dancers to surpass themselves. The seven men group together convivially or in argumentative pairs. Individuals move apart and dance solos while others watch them. There’s much coming and going and the casual air of a social occasion.
Herman Cornejo began the piece, skittering and stopping on Bernstein’s abrupt music as the other men clustered around him. Jose Sebastian did a thoughtful adagio, with low pliés and soft small jumps. In a sudden revelation, the black curtains in the background parted to reveal Hee Seo, standing still like a goddess in a white light. She danced with Alexandre Hammoudi—mostly he manipulated her. Then she was gone, and the men resumed their comradely struggles and clusters. They lined up facing the audience for what looked like a final pose. Seo reappeared downstage right, and they acknowledged her soberly on the last note.
All three ballets in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy had been choreographed for ABT before; the company put them together in 2013. A coup of sorts, possibly more demanding for the orchestra than the dancers. It took two conductors (David LaMarche for Symphony #9, Charles Barker for Chamber Symphony and Piano Concerto #1), with solo instrumentalists Barbara Bilach, piano, and Carl Albach, trumpet, for the last piece. Ballet Theatre’s skimpy program note makes reference to the “severe restrictions” the composer underwent under the Soviet regime, right up to his death in 1975. Shostakovich is a sad figure who was censured, humiliated, and exploited by the Soviet rulers and their operatives. He fell in and out of favor several times during his long career, but his compromises allowed him to survive Stalin’s purges. He submitted to the dictates of social realism, producing a huge body of symphonies, chamber music, operas, ballets and film scores.
The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s recent biographical novel about Shostakovich, portrays a deeply neurotic soul who caved in to the regimes of Stalin and Khrushchev in order to do his music. Barnes doesn’t talk much about the music but thinks the composer had a sense of irony that “. . . might enable you to preserve what you valued. . . .” The music is approachable, deeply classical, sometimes gaudy, sometimes mournful or meditative. Shostakovich had spent some years as a young man accompanying silent movies on the piano and wasn’t above inserting low humor and raucous showy bits into his music. It could join the circus or the dance hall without warning. Historians still disagree about whether his many musical jokes and allusions encoded political resistance or if he was using classical music’s resources to deploy a sardonic sense of humor.
According to music critic Alex Ross, “To talk about musical irony, we first have to agree on what the music appears to be saying, and then we have to agree on what the music is really saying.” The same could be said about dance. Ratmanksy gave the biographical Shostakovich a low profile for most of the three ballets. The one clear moment of irony I saw in the Trilogy came at the end of the Chamber Symphony. Below a backdrop of enormous, forbidding faces, James Whiteside has danced with three women, each different (Isabella Boylston, Sarah Lane and Hee Seo), who seem to represent the composer’s successive wives. He turns his back to the audience and conducts the twelve men and women of the corps in a series of heroic phrases, then he plods away, head bowed, as the corps assumes a triumphant pose.
Following the music’s hints and associations, the opening and closing ballets of the Trilogy are relatively less ponderous and sometimes even lighthearted. Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony contradicted expectations and precedents. He surely was aware of history’s extraordinary Ninths: Beethoven, Mahler, others. Perhaps he was supposed to top them, or at least to follow the wartime grandeur of his own Seventh and Eighth. But instead of extolling Stalin or the Allies’ victory in 1945, his Ninth was often playful, temporarily militant. Ratmanksy closed the Trilogy with the highly successful and comic Piano Concerto #1 (1933), a virtuosic caper in which the solo instruments joust with each other and the ensemble and finish in a supersonic race.
These works, coming at the beginning and the middle of Shostakovich’s career respectively, were initially recognized and later condemned. The Ninth was attacked a year after its premiere for not being serious enough as a tribute to the fallen of the war; it was banned in 1948. The Concerto rode his early success as a beloved composer until 1936, when he was forced into the ranks of the disapproved because of his satiric opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
I can only give impressions of these ballets after a single viewing. The Chamber Symphony’s references to Shostakovich’s life are fairly readable, but the Symphony #9 and Concerto #1 are large, non-narrative compositions. They’re expressive on a more abstract level, through Ratmansky’s use of the step vocabulary and the grammar of the stage. Like a novel, a ballet of his initially throws out a huge amount of beguiling information, hints at layers beneath the surface. It gets more interesting but doesn’t reveal itself or resolve until the end, and then you need to re-view it, to appreciate how he put everything together.
This sense of mystery comes about partly because of his unusual sequencing and his frequent disregard of ballet’s conventional clues. He doesn’t set up groups of dancers according to hierarchical ratings: soloists versus corps, principals in front, with movement of decreasing difficulty for each level. He arranged the opening of Symphony #9 for two groups of four couples, each with two leading dancers, to Shostakovich’s circusy music. Combined, they become a corps de ballet. Later a solitary man (Joseph Gorak) appears: I thought of him as the Outsider. He seems to want to join the other twenty closely coordinated dancers, but doesn’t conform. Sometimes breaking into smaller units, the groups rush through the space, as if in pursuit or flight. There are overtones of menace and suspicion in the way they shadow each other. At the end of the ballet, the Outsider man is alone, spinning with one leg out to the side, creating his own vortex. According to Cheryl A. Ossola’s interesting program notes for the San Francisco Ballet’s performances of the Trilogy in 2014, Ratmansky thought of this figure as the Angel, the survivor of chaos.
Another of Ratmansky’s distinctions is the way he elaborates the vocabulary without making it decorative. He pushes dancers to use their classical training beyond what we’ve seen them do before. The steps are rigorously classical, lots of them, and in Shostakovich’s case they’re speedy and rhythmically demanding. But the choreographer often asks something more—-a severe tilt or a bend of the torso, a nontraditional use of the arms, a supported slide or an unexpected lift. He’ll start a fast passage with small steps; then, as the music goes on, have the dancer stretch or suspend the movement over several beats.
His partnering is way past predictable. When you think of classical ballet partners, you visualize them standing at arm’s length, the man showing the woman off to the audience at different angles, their arms framing their bodies. Ratmansky makes duets that seem to bond the dancers to each other, rather than offer them to the audience. He often decrees that the supports be accomplished with one partner’s arm around the other’s waist, to draw her close instead of holding her apart. He makes companionable, side-by-side movements where the partners are doing equal things. In an echo of Ratmansky’s own past experiences with post-Soviet ballet, lifts can be tricky: a woman is thrown in the air, she spins, and lands in her partner’s arms in a perfect pose. What could be mere bombast serves a choreographic purpose. In the Piano Concerto #1, he devised a series of spectacular running lifts, with the woman perched in attitude on the man’s shoulder. Before you have a chance to get over this, six couples cross the stage in a procession doing the same thing.
Seven Sonatas (2009) was on the same program as the Serenade and Firebird. As another example of Ratmansky’s versatility and his musical range, the seven are drawn from the enormous catalogue of works by the Italian Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti. It’s a chamber ballet—-clear and unaffected like the music. Ratmansky limited the dancers to six (Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Luciana Paris, Arron Scott, Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster). There’s no scenery. Barbara Bilach played the onstage piano. Superficially, one might think of Jerome Robbins’ piano ballets, but Robbins choreographed about feelings and relationships. His characters romance each other, walk around looking, gather like pals. Ratmansky choreographs music. His relationships grow out of steps and patterns. In 2010, he told Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman: “I asked the dancers not to dance in response to the music, that the music sounds because of the movement. . . . As opposed to portraying people who come together and start dancing.”
The small scale of this ballet seems to iris down on the dancers after the expanded populations and crowded information we find in the Shostakovich works. It was made when ABT was performing at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, which is a concert hall rather than a theater. Ratmansky adapted to the situation by putting the pianist onstage with the dancers and by plotting some of the movement on diagonals. The piece begins with a double line: women facing the men. When the music repeats, the choreography does too, but not literally. Ratmansky uses this device throughout the dance for duets and ensemble numbers. Sometimes you see the diagonal only in fragmentary form, or it’s tilted in a different direction in the space. In duets and solos later on, he hears the small variations in Scarlatti’s repeating musical phrases and transfers that idea to the dancers. So instead of feeling you’re caught in some long string of sameness, you feel ideas growing and linking onto one another. There are moments of play between partners, small jokes and rearrangings of personnel. Movement material you’ve seen before returns in new ways.
In the end, all six dancers line up and face the audience, kneeling. On a big ritardando in the music, the men lower the women by gently pushing on one shoulder. When the women are lying down on their sides as if going to sleep, their partners are slowly bending over them, and the lights go down.