Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

May 11, 18, and 19 evening, 2016
The Shostakovich Trilogy: Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, Piano Concerto #1
Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (Ratmansky world premiere), Seven Sonatas, Firebird

Jerry Hochman

How do you recognize a ballet masterpiece? To me, a masterpiece must have more than choreography and staging that clearly says whatever it is saying (whether in the form of a story or not) and that does so in an interesting and entertaining way. And it’s more than simply being the style du jour or a very fine example of its genre. One way or another, a masterpiece doesn’t just ‘present’ something to an audience, it resonates with an audience’s mind or its heart or both. If that makes deciding what may or may not be considered a masterpiece somewhat subjective, albeit a subjective opinion shared by most everyone, so be it. But as with other works of art, it’s a determination that works not only for its time, but for generation after ballet-going generation.

ABT opened its 2016 Season at the Metropolitan Opera House with a week long run of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, followed by a week of Alexei Ratmansky pieces – a Ratmansky Festival, ABT called it, including the return of his Shostakovich Trilogy and a world premiere, Serenade After Plato’s Symposium. Aside from some noteworthy performances, including Blaine Hoven in his first leading role, the ballets themselves were the focal points of post-performance critical discussion, and the word “masterpiece” was liberally applied.

James Whiteside and Dancers of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "Chamber Symphony" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

James Whiteside and
Dancers of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Chamber Symphony”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

The two evening-length pieces are very different ballets. Ashton’s is a minor mythological story brought to life. Ratmansky’s is a social/ historical/ biographical observation and commentary. Evaluating them on that basis alone wouldn’t make much sense: a masterpiece doesn’t depend entirely on its subject matter or style. And each is considered relatively innovative for its time.  But evaluating them on their timeless impact does make sense.

This may be considered heresy, but only one of these ballets, to me, is an undeniable masterpiece: Ratmansky’s Trilogy.

I’ve reviewed Sylvia in depth twice previously, and I’ve described it as too fussy, too busy; too modern to be classic, and too old-fashioned to be modern. There have been performances in the lead role that have elevated it – Diana Vishneva and Gillian Murphy come quickly to mind – but my problem with Sylvia has never just been performances. It’s the story and the choreography. Sylvia looks comic-book silly, because to a large extent, it is comic-book silly.

Part of the problem is that Sylvia, as a ballet, straddles ballet stylistic time periods. The original version, to the same Delibes score, premiered in Paris in 1876 as Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane. A new version by Lev Ivanov and others, to the same score, premiered in 1901 in Russia. It’s no wonder, then, that so much of the ballet, with its creatures of the forest in a woodland glade, Amazon-like huntresses, intoxicated bad guy, and final act divertissements, resembles so many Romantic and Classical ballets of those periods, and suffers by comparison.

Blaine Hoven of American Ballet Theatre in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Sylvia" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Blaine Hoven of American Ballet Theatre
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Sylvia”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

And part of the problem also is that there’s no character to these characters. Even for a ballet based on a myth, the characters are cardboard. I’ve long since given up on the story and pace of the ballet, but for those who don’t routinely focus on performances, a lot of it is a bore. At the performance I attended, aside from observing the house being emptier than I can ever remember, I saw innumerable audience members with their cheeks and chins buried in upraised hands, looking weary; as if trying to stay awake and waiting for something to happen. The ballet did come to life somewhat after intermission, in Acts II and III, as did its Sylvia, Maria Kochetkova, who did a fine job with Ashton’s wicked choreography for her Act III solo.

But lots of ballets have weak stories and cardboard characters. With Sylvia, it’s something else.

I’ll grant that Ashton’s choreography is crystalline – but, aside from the huntresses in Act I and Sylvia’s solo in Act III, there’s little of the power of Petipa or the energy of Balanchine here. It’s superb craftsmanship to be sure, but – and again with the exception of that Act III solo – one doesn’t necessarily see that unless one is looking for it. To a large extent, the choreography looks prissy – which I find to be the case with many Ashton ballets. As a pastiche, it works (and that’s my recollection of Vishneva’s approach to it – she was having a blast, and the fun was infectious), but I don’t think that was what Ashton intended as a garland (as Clive Barnes put it) for his muse, Dame Margot Fonteyn. It was meant to be taken seriously – which is unfortunate.

As for the performances, Hoven did a fine job as the shepherd Aminta, with a secure technique and a combination of gentleness and strength that made his character almost believable – which, for this character and this ballet, is more difficult than it sounds. I don’t know whether he can be a danseur noble, but based on this performance it’s a chance worth taking. Arron Scott, when he wasn’t being a statue, danced a commanding Eros, and Daniil Simkin was a fabulous comic book villain as Orion. However, memories of Sylvia don’t last beyond the performance.

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "Piano Concerto #1" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Christine Shevchenko and Calvin Royal III
of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

The Shostakovich Trilogy, on the other hand, is difficult to forget.

Ratmansky’s Trilogy is no less than some forty years of Russian history seen through sociological, psychological, and individual prisms; a three-part ballet suite that examines, and reflects on, the impact that Soviet Union orthodoxy, and particularly that Stalin’s tyranny, had on individuals in general, and on Shostakovich himself. Although each component of the suite can be appreciated individually (as, for example, can each gem in Balanchine’s Jewels), it is as a whole that it is meaningfully complete. And I keep referring to the three component pieces as Ratmansky’s Trilogy, because I suspect that in many ways this is personal: there’s too much heart and soul in this to be otherwise. The Trilogy is shattering and uplifting; a tragedy and a joy; a vivid presentation of how it feels to be hopeless, and then to have that sense of hope restored.

Following its premiere in 2013, I reviewed the Trilogy in depth. There’s no need to rehash all of that here. Suffice it to say that thematically, the first piece, Symphony #9, relates in abstract terms the “triumph” of the Soviet Union – and the superficial happiness of a public unaware that it is suffering a gradual loss of liberty. However, the lead couple, here Devon Teuscher and Marcelo Gomes, are well aware that the freedom they had no longer exists. The second piece, Chamber Symphony, is an examination of Kafkaesque individual loss of freedom on a more personal level, as one by one everything the persecuted man has is taken from him. And the third piece, Piano Concerto #1, takes place after the fall of Stalin, and illustrates the ensuing giddy happiness. And overall inventiveness aside, certain images are so perfectly honed that they’re seared into the memory: people looking over their shoulders to make sure no one is watching them, even though they’re always being watched; bodies losing control as they angle to the stage floor as if being pounded into submission; the brutality of unattainable temptation; the empty face of a man who has lost everyone and everything; and the peoples’ triumph as corps ballerinas are carried on the shoulders of their male counterparts, their faces illuminated by light finally filtering through the somber gray sky (perhaps coincidentally, from stage right – the West).

Part of what makes the Trilogy a masterpiece is not just how Ratmansky integrates his theme into the ballets, but how utterly and unexpectedly wonderful they are just as dances. The Trilogy is endlessly inventive to the extent that describing it is would require a book-length review.  Nothing is seen the same twice, except when Ratmansky wants to make a choreographic point of repeating it.  There’s no surplusage, but there are continuing surprises.

Daniil Simkin and Dancers of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "Piano Concerto #1" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Daniil Simkin and
Dancers of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Through it all, Ratmansky uses the music, somewhat cryptically perhaps, to reflect the observations and suffering of its composer. Each piece is perfectly chosen: Symphony #9 with its almost macabre happiness coupled with an ominous sense of foreboding; Chamber Symphony with its brutal desperation; and Piano Concerto #1 with its triumphant exuberance. And I must once again recognize the contributions in all three pieces of Keso Dekker for the beautiful and intelligent costume design, the lighting by the justifiably renowned Jennifer Tipton, and most emphatically by George Tsypin for his sets, which were as haunting and pitch perfect as Ratmansky’s choreography.

The performances were commensurate with the ballets’ quality. In Symphony #9, Stella Abrera, Craig Salstein, and particularly Joseph Gorak were marvelous secondary leads, but Gomes and Teuscher nailed their roles.  I’ve seen Symphony #9 many times, but never have I seen those roles executed better. In Chamber Symphony, while my opinion from 2013 still holds that James Whiteside does not exhibit the same intensity as David Hallberg, who originated the lead role (to me, Whiteside’s sense of hopelessness is more external; Hallberg’s was internal, and permeated every pore), but it was a fine portrayal nonetheless. Isabella Boylston and Hee Seo, representing the protagonist’s more mature relationships, did excellent work, but their characters were less intriguing (intentionally) than Sarah Lane’s young temptress/tease, which was executed superbly. In Piano Concerto #1, Christine Shevchenko (replacing Gillian Murphy) and Simkin danced with extraordinary joyful ferocity.

Following its premiere, I wrote that Chamber Symphony is an undeniable masterpiece. But having seen the superb performances in Symphony #9, and a considerably tighter-looking Piano Concerto #1 (perhaps after some minor tinkering – some images that I recall seeing before no longer appear), the entire trilogy is at the same level. It is brilliantly crafted, with an abundance of intelligence and a profound respect for humanity. Although it reflects a specific period in time and specific individual responses to events, its impact is timeless and universal.  And it must be seen.

Dancers of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "Serenade After Plato's Symposium" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Dancers of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s
“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Ratmansky’s new piece, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, is another stunning piece of work – but it’s not without flaws, and a masterpiece it isn’t. The title and mini-program notes provide something of a key to Ratmansky’s intent, but insufficiently: Ratmansky is exploring, abstractly, the topic of discussion reflected in Plato’s Symposium – love. The problem is that you wouldn’t know that from watching the piece.

But besides that, the dialogue captured in the Symposium involves seven men only. Why in this ballet is there a woman (Hee Seo)? The answer, I think, is that she is to be seen as the embodiment of a loved object – perhaps a representation of Beauty, one of Plato’s ‘Forms’. But why would a woman be summoned as a representation of Beauty (and an object of Platonic love)? To me it’s a cop out.

Aside from these observations, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium is a memorable piece for seven male dancers, and should be seen for the quality and variety of its male choreography alone. Although they appear as a group or in sub-groups, each man also has an individualized solo (reflecting, abstractly, the speeches given in the Symposium), each of which was magnificently executed. I’ve noted Jose Sebastian’s evolving and imposing characterizations previously, but here, delivering the most emotion-laden of the solos, he was simply outstanding. In more physically extravagant solos, Tyler Maloney (noteworthy in what I understand to be his first role as a member of ABT), Alexandre Hammoudi, Thomas Forster, Gorak, and particularly Herman Cornejo and Scott, all gave impressive performances.

I’ve observed previously that Ratmansky’s pieces are often infused with the sense of humanity evident in many ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins. In few pieces is that clearer than Seven Sonatas – a piano ballet that is akin to Robbins’s Other Dances, but for three couples, and to music by Domenico Scarlatti. It’s a wonderful piece, and the six-member cast shined.

Dancers of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "Firebird" Photo Gene Schiavone

Dancers of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Firebird”
Photo Gene Schiavone

I did not like Firebird during its premiere season. In particular, I didn’t like the characterization of the Firebird or the choreography for her – she’s essentially portrayed as an emotionless bird, without any sense of the inherent nobility and splendor of a phoenix, or any ‘specialness’ beyond having red plumage and somewhat magical feathers. But on second view, I’m beginning to warm to it a bit now – because I see Ratmansky’s humor. When I realized that at one point Ratmansky has his entire flock of firebirds hunched over what might be a body of water, looking like a gaggle of foraging red geese (or swans), I almost broke out laughing:  the imagination and scientific precision of the final images of the falling snowflakes in his The Nutcracker, applied to a flock of birds looking for food.  Hilariously brilliant. After that, I could handle the weird possessed maidens and the silliness, which reached a crescendo with a stage full of Daenerys Targaryen lookalikes emerging from emotional captivity. In previous lives perhaps they were nymphs populating a woodland glade. Boylston and Hammoudi were fine as the Firebird and Ivan, and Cassandra Trenary and Roman Zhurbiin were super as Kaschei and the Maiden (their roles were reversed in the program too – although maybe that was intentional silliness). A ballet that can reflect the story and poke fun at it and itself at the same time, and unlike Sylvia, intentionally, isn’t really all that bad.