To celebrate the end of the second world war, in which the Soviet dead exceeded 25m, Stalin “wanted . . . a majestic fanfare from me”, Shostakovich later noted. Instead, the tyrant got a work whose central motif sounds as rat-a-tat and rinky-dink as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Played first on the piping piccolo, this imp of misplaced optimism pops out of frozen landscapes (where the dead are likely buried) and waves the flag of shiny happiness from the peak of frenzied crescendos. In an atmosphere of death and lurking danger, inane cheer has triumphed.
In Ratmansky’s Symphony #9 – the highlight of American Ballet Theatre’s very rich, much too short autumn season and the first in a trilogy of Shostakovich ballets that the resident choreographer will unveil in the spring – it is the speed with which the stage pictures dissolve that lends an air of absurdity to the proceedings. How little of the real drama do we ever catch!
Among the constant comings and goings, the roiling steps, the lush push and pull between dancers, and arms that joyously waved and windmilled, signs of trouble slipped by. The women glanced over their shoulders to Shostakovich’s “thief in the night” melody, and new ABT principal Polina Semionova – of sinuous back and lovely, unaffected manner – led Marcelo Gomes, at once full-bodied and finely calibrated, away from a menacing wall of men to lay a hushing, loving finger on his lips.
The ballet is ultimately less dark, however, than comical – in the keys of delirium and haplessness – and less comical than ambiguous. Take, for example, the flying Herman Cornejo. As helpmate to the central couple, he huddled with them in council and danced with them in camaraderie. As ministering spirit to everyone, the invaluable virtuoso jumped like a winged god. But at the end (and on Saturday he didn’t get to finish, his performance cut short by injury), he whipped through the same pyrotechnics as any thick-thighed Bolshoi hero. At the other extreme were the women who fell to their knees in a patriotic salute but then kept going down. Joint by rusty joint, they jerkily descended until they were laid out on their backs, staring stiffly at the ceiling as if practising for the dire future.