In another era in his home country, the ambiguities in Alexei Ratmansky's new ballet, Symphony #9, would have landed him in the crosshairs of the Soviet censors and possibly earned him a one-way ticket to a really cold place faster than he could say I didn't mean nothin'; I was just funnin' y'all -- or however one conveys y'all in Russian.
The music chosen for the ballet, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, op. 70, was a bitter disappointment to Joseph Stalin in 1945 because it was not what Shostakovich had said he would write: a huge triumphant symphony that celebrated the country's victory over the Nazis and which included a massive orchestra, chorus, and soloists. Basically, Stalin and the world's music critics were expecting the equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with a Russian Ode to Joy, because that's what Shostakovich initially led everyone to believe they would get. (Exhibit A for never letting artists do their own PR.)
After a couple of false starts, Shostakovich's creative path and political conscience led him to compose a bright, cheery symphony with dark ambiguous subtexts dedicated to the brave, long suffering, ordinary people of Russia instead of the victory symphony expected by Stalin. Ambiguity in any art was forbidden in the Stalin era when all art had to clearly project the party line. Consequently, Shostakovich was severely censored for composing this symphony, and the work was banned from performance for several years.
While there is no narrative to Ratmansky's new work, there is plenty that points to Shostakovich's risky subtext. Dancers cavort merrily -- but carefully -- while always checking for potential danger around them. A hand to the mouth of another to quiet him, sideways glances to see who might be watching or following, dancers solemnly "getting in line" perhaps signifying that they are following the party line -- but the dancing continues. In the end, one dancer -- on this evening, Jared Matthews -- spins fast turns in a la second under a light in the middle of a darkened stage as everyone else retreats out of sight-- perhaps signifying a real victory of the common Russian people over the oppression of their leader or perhaps signifying that regardless of the oppression, their dancing will go on. It is a very hopeful, nearly jubilant ending.
In addition to Jared Matthews, two lead couples Veronika Part & Roberto Bolle and Stella Abrera & Sascha Radetsky create two very different dramatic pages, but on first view, it was difficult to read all of the differences. The passion, vulnerability, and theatrical guardedness that Veronika brought tonight to her PdD with Roberto was a contrast to the bold, risky dancing of Stella and Sascha who suggested that they were more confident that they could dance as they wished and get away with it. There was also a suggestion of subversion but that, too, will require another viewing to understand.
Stella was simply gorgeous in every step. She has become quite the vehicle for Ratmansky's style and seems instinctively able to meet the challenges of his work while imbuing it with a deep musicality. Roberto managed surprisingly well for his first shot at Ratmansky choreography, and it must have been a shock to him to experience just how energetically and freely Veronika embraced the fast and complicated PdD. It ain't White Swan, that's for sure. Sascha seemed very comfortable with everything thrown at him choreographically, and in the beginning of the ballet actually threw himself sideways into the arms of his fellow dancers.
The choreography was jam-packed with steps and fast changes of direction, as we have come to expect from Ratmansky, with grand sweeps of the upper body and port de bras. Some of it was a bit too quick for the corps dancers tonight to execute neatly, but as we have learned from Ratmansky's previous work at ABT and NYCB, it can take time to settle into his works.
The costumes – black and white dresses for the women and dark pants and sleeveless shirts for the men – had images on them, but it was impossible to tell what the images were. If it's important for the audience to see them, then reworking will be needed.
The symphony is a truly gorgeous piece of music. There is an exquisite bassoon solo in the fourth movement that is impossibly sad and beautiful at the same time, and then it seamlessly continues into the joy and hopefulness of the final movement. Haglund is happy to have become acquainted with Shostakovich's 9th.
The rest of the offerings on the program didn't add up to much tonight. Morris' Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes with the first night's cast yielded the same empty result. The central PdD from Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading was danced by Xiomara Reyes and Cory Stearns to no effect. It will always have no effect without the rest of the ballet. A second viewing of Daniil Simkin and Sarah Lane in Balanchine's Stars and Stripes PdD yielded even more to object to this time. Since when does El Capitan march around with his toes turned out like a freakin' ballet dancer? At least Sarah was trying hard to get the Sousa rhythm into her bones and there was more acceleration and energy in her movement. Simkin was making a joke out of it –– while changing the choreography and inflicting dismal partnering on Sarah. Honestly, why is the Balanchine Trust allowing this guy to run roughshod over Balanchine's choreography, spirit, and intent? ABT should just make up a dance called "Daniil's favorite tricks to any music anywhere anytime," and trot it out for its rep program. Let Herman and Jared give the deserved respect to Stars and Stripes.
It's really time for more tough love for ABT, but Haglund is too tired for it tonight. The HH Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon Stella Abrera and Veronika Part who really made Ratmansky's Symphony #9 interesting to watch and worth a repeat visit: