Shostakovich Trilogy, Met Opera, New York – review

The Shostakovich Trilogy that Alexei Ratmansky began at American Ballet Theatre last autumn plunges us into a single composer’s world for a whole evening without the training wheels of story, and the gambit pays off. ABT’s resident choreographer discovers in dance the music’s restless profundity.

Shostakovich’s mid-career Symphony No. 9, his precocious Piano Concerto No. 1 and even the late, saturnine Chamber Symphony leap from galloping western soundtrack or traditional Jewish melody or patriotic song to un-hummable revelation, yet not with postmodern ease but with a rattled Soviet’s wariness of mixing public and private. Ratmansky responds by juxtaposing corps and soloist with a fluidity that rivals fleet Balanchine and a charge unequalled even in punk Forsythe. The group is as organically involved as climate in our lives, but with a human poignancy.

If wide vistas and impish hope begin and end Symphony #9 from last season, this week’s Chamber Symphony maintains a brooding introspection like many a middle-movement adagio. The social element is concentrated in a single figure, an Apollo suffering a midlife crisis (in the first cast, a magnificently wrecked David Hallberg), with his muses dying or otherwise beyond reach. Shostakovich had just joined the Communist party when he wrote this music; he secretly dedicated it to his own memory, as if the concession had killed him. Sorrow is as bright as the symphony gets.

Ratmansky escapes the cheesy self-regard of the typical tortured-artist ballet by suggesting that the creator is miserable more for susceptibility to the world than for standing aloof. The corps is dizzyingly present – weaving along the margins, shooting across the stage, eclipsing our hero with its bustle and collapsing like he does. Men lie down like corpses and women fold in on themselves, hands balled into fists, like constructivist Dying Swans before everyone abandons the artist and a muse to sudden empty space.

Though the structure the artist constructs in the end from dancers looks more ramshackle than triumphant, at least he has gone back to work. Piano Concerto #1 may be the result. Perhaps fittingly, the third ballet feels unfinished and distant, as if the only place to go after despair is far away. To the concerto’s cloudy adagio, Diana Vishneva floats like an astronaut in outer space – an off-kilter ode to disorientation. Maybe there is no ground under their feet or air to breathe, but something is keeping people up. Ratmansky imagines it as stolid form. After all the flux and feeling, the corps are orderly again. At one point, two women touch a foot to the back of their heads as in a balance-beam routine: tacky but entirely recognisable.

The season continues until July 6,

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