American Ballet Theatre’s Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in ‘Symphony #9’ Photo @ Marty Sohl

Metropolitan Opera House, New York; May 31, 2013

David Mead

American Ballet Theatre Artist-in-Residence Alexi Ratmansky clearly has quite an affinity with the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. He has already made seven ballets to the composer’s work, but a trilogy, three in one evening, is a particularly challenging undertaking. So, it is good to report that he pulls it off with some style, with much to admire in the three ballets, all of which are very much fixed in the traditional classical/neo-classical idiom. What is particularly impressive is how well they slot together as a whole evening. Some astute musical selections have led to each being different in character and certainly having a very different feeling and mood.

A programme of three works to music by a single composer and choreographer might be unusual, Balanchine and Stravinsky aside, but having two of them to symphonic music is even more so. From time to time during the last century and especially back in the 1930s there was quite a debate about just how suitable symphonies were for dance. For some music-critics in particular, adding dance to what they considered the height of musical excellence, and thereby diminishing the composer’s work, was little short of a crime. Others felt that dance struggled to live with the structure and power of the score. Whatever else one might think about this programme, it should have put that argument to bed once and for all.

Premiered in 2012 to acclaim, the one existing ballet on the programme, “Symphony #9” is actually by far the weakest. Right from the start, the choreography is largely bright and upbeat. The opening section for five men was led here by Craig Salstein in a quite tongue in cheek sort of way. Think of a bunch of friends messing around and generally having a good time. It finishes with Salstein hurling himself into the arms of his pals, which drew quite a gasp from the audience despite being rather telegraphed. The opening ideas are taken up by four women led by Simone Messerer. The footwork is crisp and there’s humour here too, notably when she too signalled a similar leap was coming, only to pull out at the last minute.

After that, scenes come and go at some pace. It’s like watching lots of snapshots of events thrown together in a collage. The ballet is filled with unexpected private moments, often involving attempts at light humour. There are little hush gestures where a dancer puts her hand in front of someone’s mouth, little signals to wait and playful pushes away. Some are mildly amusing, some are not, but then humour is very personal in taste.

Ratmansky makes some clever stage patterns. A particularly effective and repeated image sees a line of dancers in single file, either across the back or down the side while a lead couple dances in the centre. But he does like to overcomplicate matters. The dance frequently gets too busy, with too many people doing too many different things. It can be an effective device but it can look messy. It does here.

A second-movement pas de deux for Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes is quieter and more restrained in tone. Herman Cornejo’s arrival raises questions since he does not have a partner. Whatever, this interloper’s dancing was excellent with some whirlwind speed turns. One series of entrechats almost brought the house down. It wasn’t so much the number, but the height and the ballon, and the nice humorous touch that saw him bounce off stage.

Finally, a special mention for Keso Dekker’s gorgeous costumes, slightly changed I believe from the original. The dresses for the ladies are quite simply stunning, a combination of black with flashes of green, red and deep blue giving the most marvellous mottled effect.

Shostakovich was a composer who loved to fill his music with hidden meanings, codes and double messages. There is lots of this in his “Chamber Symphony”, written in the still rather desolate Dresden of 1960. Publicly, Shostakovich said the quartet was inspired by the sight of the devastated city, but private letters suggest it was written as his own epitaph; a work dedicated to the memory of his own life. It is this latter feeling that comes through powerfully in Ratmansky’s choreography.

Chamber Symphony. Paloma Herrera, David Hallberg, Julie Kent and Isabella Boylston in Chamber Symphony. Photo Marty Sohl

Chamber Symphony. Paloma Herrera, David Hallberg, Julie Kent and Isabella Boylston in Chamber Symphony. Photo © Marty Sohl

“Chamber Symphony,” the ballet, is equally full of inner meaning. It is hard to escape the sense that David Hallberg is Shostakovich, especially given that it all takes place in front of a backdrop by George Tsypin based on Pavel Filonov’s paintings and that feature a number of striking facial images. Like the composer, Hallberg’s character is an outsider who never really fits into the world of the people around him. He wanders through the ballet, more often than not lost in a private world of his own thoughts. Only when one of Isabella Boylston, Paloma Herrera, and Julie Kent appear is the mood even partly lifted. Surely it is no coincidence that Shostakovich had three wives.The ballet ends with the corps and the leading ladies forming a spectacular tableau, Hallberg quietly slipping away into an upstage wing. It has been suggested that Shostakovich was contemplating suicide at the time. A vision of death, perhaps?

“Chamber Symphony” certainly quietened the audience, who gave it a good, if merely warm reception. Yet, this was by far the most intense of the three pieces. Perhaps that tone was simply unexpected. It depends how you like you ballets, I guess. It is deeply meaningful, very enigmatic and makes you think. If you like that, you will love this. Whether it works particularly well because it sits between the other very contrasting ballets is a good question. It would be interesting to see if it has the same impact standing alone.

Many audience members undoubtedly prefer to see a few pyrotechnics, and they got plenty of those in “Piano Concerto #1.” It often has a celebratory feel to it, with no shortage of flashy lifts and jumps. The action all takes place in front of yet another startling Tsypin design, this time featuring broken imagery from the Soviet flag, a smashed up hammer, remnants of a sickle, stars, and other objects including a nut.

It got an incredible standing ovation, not least because of the fireworks from Ivan Vasiliev. However, far too often one got the sense that the steps were there because he could do them rather than because they made sense choreographically or musically. Yes his jumps were amazingly high, his spins amazingly fast. Often he turned so often and so fast that one lost count. But it does all get dangerously close to gymnastics. Of course, the now standard 32 fouettés started as a trick but, and this may be an old-fashioned view, dance is not sport where higher, faster, stronger wins. It is art. More importantly it is a combination of the arts. And that needs to be remembered. I could have done without the loud thud on his loud landings on a couple of occasions too. Vasiliev was partnered by Natalia Osipova, who was here usual spiky self, an approach that fitted the music perfectly.

Far from the star couple taking the honours, I was much more impressed by Diana Vishneva and Cory Stearns. Vishneva simply melted into the music in a startlingly fluid and beautiful pas de deux. The music and dance were as one, as it should be. Stearns’ partnering was a secure as can be and his jumps were a match for Vasiliev.

The middle section features a double duet, during which the pairs sometimes move in unison and sometimes echo one another, reflecting the structures in the score. When the former, the different placing of the limbs was quite noticeable. It’s a small but important point. Having the best dancers from around the world may be great for companies and audiences, although whether it is as great for ballet in the country the company is based in is more of a moot point, but it does restrict opportunities for others, especially home-grown dancers, and it rarely makes for a unified picture.