The Perils of War—Ratmansky’s New Shostakovich Ballet at ABT

Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Symphony #9.” Photo by Andrea Mohin for the New York Times.

The opening of Alexei Ratmansky’s new “Symphony #9” American Ballet Theatre (Oct. 18) was a moment of real excitement—ballet is alive and well, and has a lot to say. Like much of Ratmansky’s work, the new ballet is witty, grand in design, and full of detail. It seems to spring organically from the music, Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. One keeps discovering sounds one might never have noticed because Ratmansky has brought them to the surface and revealed them in the choreography. Sometimes his methods are clearly illustrative—as when the woman in the first movement “plays” the drums—but usually, the dialogue between music and movement lies at a deeper level. Shostakovich and Ratmansky understand each other, they get along. The ballet is also an impressive vehicle for the dancers—they look absolutely radiant in it. Especially Herman Cornejo; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him pushed so far. What more can a dancer ask for?

Here’s my review for DanceTabs.

On second viewing, with a different cast, the ballet offered up even more layers. Different details emerged, and the performances of Roberto Bolle and Veronika Part—particularly Veronika Part—revealed a thematic thread I had not noticed before. The symphony was commissioned as a celebration of Russia’s victory over the Nazis. It is essentially upbeat, snappy, even frenetic in its good spirits (at least at first). But it protests its cheerfulness too much, thus introducing a darker undertone. In the first slow movement, there is a sinuous clarinet melody that Ratmansky clearly hears as an intimation of danger. The tango-like pas de deux that dominates this section is furtive; the man and woman constantly turn their heads to make sure they are not surrounded by spies or enemies. A creeping crescendo in the strings seems to evoke great forces encircling the couple.

Here and in the movement that followed, the alternate-cast Veronika Part—a great dramatic ballerina—revealed powerful undercurrents of sadness. Where Polina Semionova’s twisting, supple body had given the duet the feel of an illicit tryst, Part’s powerful back and shoulders made it clear that the peril came from without. She communicated fear, desperation, and the desire to protect her lover from harm. Thus, it made even more sense to see the lone male figure—Jared Matthews, in this cast, Herman Cornejo in the first—as a guardian angel protecting the couple.

The feeling of conflict was echoed in the second slow movement (the largo), in which Part’s partner, Bolle, appeared to do battle with a group of men. He fended them off powerfully at first, but gradually lost steam and finally collapsed. Part gently touched his chest, his face, his mouth, with great intimacy. She tended to him. Across the stage, a row of women, reclining in horizontal poses, held fingers to their eyes, the mimed gesture for crying. The moment passed and then all was well again. Of course, none of this was as blatant or as heavy as it sounds from my description. But it was there—the story, deconstructed, braided into the glorious patterns and exhilarating dances. Ratmansky’s ballet, and, perhaps, Shostakovich’s music, is a deconstruction of war: the empty euphoria at the beginning, the danger in the middle, the shadow of death, and, finally, the jubilation of victory. As the ballet ends, the “angel” spins eternally, in an endless spiral; life goes on. Who knows what will happen in the other two Shostakovich ballets that will make up this trilogy? I can’t wait to find out.

On the evening of Oct. 19th, the company also gave an extraordinary performance of Mark Morris’s “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” The dancers have settled into the ballet’s casual, limpid, touchingly awkward choreography. They looked relaxed. The warmth flowed from the dancers onstage to the audience—one of those quiet, almost charmed moments at the theatre when all is well with the world. The whole company, but especially James Whiteside (who recently joined from Boston Ballet), Herman Cornejo, and Isabella Boylston, danced with total lack of reserve, their steps blending with the notes from the piano as if the music were pouring out from their bodies. It was a joy to behold.

* Comments are welcome!  If you would like to receive an alert when new pieces are posted on the Dance page, please drop me a line at dancinginthefastertimes@gmail.com. You can also check my updates on Twitter @MarinaHarss or peruse my personal page at http://marinaharss.wordpress.com/

One thought on “The Perils of War—Ratmansky’s New Shostakovich Ballet at ABT

  1. Dear Marina,
    I love reading your reviews, but I find them even more interesting when you are reviewing a performance which I had seen. I attended on10/19 at night. I think that performance and the cast of dancers was the best that I had ever seen done by ABT at City Center. I was so impressed by Herman Cornejo’s performance which was better than ever.
    Best,
    Barbara Thau

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