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American Ballet Theatre: Shostakovich Trilogy

Three moody works by a master choreographer all to music by the Russian master.

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aria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1” (Photo credit: Rosalie O’Connor)

Maria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1” (Photo credit: Rosalie O’Connor)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

It was All-Shostakovich/All-Ratmansky/All the time at the Shostakovich Trilogy on the Metropolitan Opera House stage.  Part of the two-month long American Ballet Theatre season (which will include another, completely different Alexei Ratmansky program in the coming weeks), this was a special event assembled with love and passion by ABT’s Artist-in-Residence and his right-hand “man,” Nancy Raffa.  To say he is an asset to that beloved ballet troupe is an understatement.  He is responsible for a good chunk of the company’s repertoire, including full-length ballets (Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty) and a number of shorter works.

His Shostakovich Trilogy may have been too much of a good thing, somewhat weakened by too many overlapping themes, generally dark moods (with some bright moments, of course) and a sameness of choreographic technique.   However, these three ballets displayed his talent for moving dancers around the stage with musicality and dramatic expressiveness and a good ear for Shostakovich’s quick-changing musical themes which often go from ponderous to lighthearted within a few measures.

Each work featured alienated figures suffering from some unknown angst with only the slimmest of resolutions with the third work, “Piano Concerto #1,” the lightest in mood.

All three Shostakovich scores were played lavishly well by the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra conducted by David LaMarche (first work) and Charles Barker (second and third work) with fine solo work in the Concerto by Barbara Bilach on piano and Carl Albach on trumpet.

“Symphony #9” pitted an anxious lead couple—Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera—against a constantly pulsating corps de ballet.  George Tsypin’s scenery was all black verticals until suddenly the backdrop lit up with images of banner-carrying beings.  Keso Dekker’s chic black costumes added to the dark mood of Ratmansky’s choreography.

Marcelo Gomes in Ratmansky’s “Symphony #9” (Photo credit: Gene Schiavone)

Marcelo Gomes in Ratmansky’s “Symphony #9” (Photo credit: Gene Schiavone)

The opening movement was the lightest, with four couples playfully lunging, bending and having quiet fun until the aforementioned couple entered.  Mr. Gomes and Ms. Abrera leaned against each other languidly, but were clearly ill-at-ease.  They glanced around furtively as they made their way down a long diagonal, soon joined by four men, then four women who almost mocked them with exaggerated, amplified versions of their steps.  At one point each of the two were held aloft and spun about and then allowed to recombine in their darkly anxious duet which ended with the two sinking to the ground as if giving up.  There was some messy looking corps de ballet activity at the back of the stage in which all sorts of lifts never quite gelled cohesively.

Two male soloists, Joseph Goran (whirling about as if visiting from another, happier ballet) and Craig Salstein, and the lovely Devon Teuscher, fine dancers all, zoomed almost aimlessly through “Symphony #9,” displaying fine ballet technique but not adding much to the central drama.  They each seemed attached to a different group of four dancers as these quartets were attending to the soloists.  At the end, Mr. Gomes and Ms. Abrera, who established a definitely intimate relationship of gestures, sat down front facing the rest of the cast, winding up alone together, as they were fated to be, while a windswept Mr. Goran kept going as if he were in a different ballet.

“Chamber Symphony” also had an alienated character:  James Whiteside, all in black—costumes by Mr. Dekker—but bare-chested under a vest, who wandered about tempted by Sarah Lane, Isabella Boylston and Hee Seo in ways that ranged from outright sexual flirtations to short-lived faux comforting.  Two of them oddly kept collapsing in his arms as if dying, causing more angst and frustration.

All the while, the corps de ballet ignored Mr. Whiteside, tempted him or outrightly teased him, sometimes even covering their eyes so as not to look at his suffering.  Never finding satisfaction, Mr. Whiteside remained an isolated figure plodding through the ensemble as the curtain came down.

Mr. Whiteside managed not to drown in sadness.  He constantly pushed back against his dark fate, making the most of his limited movement palette.  His three female muses were clearly cast for their individual qualities, but danced beautifully together as they taunted him.

“Chamber Symphony” featured Mr. Tsypin’s slightly overwhelming backdrop of moody drawings of the same gaunt face, overlapping and ominous, almost like a godlike figure (Shostakovich?) observing Mr. Ratmansky’s efforts at interpreting his music.

James Whiteside in Ratmansky’s “Chamber Symphony” (Photo credit: Rosalie O’Connor)

James Whiteside in Ratmansky’s “Chamber Symphony” (Photo credit: Rosalie O’Connor)

If the first two works had a darkly sardonic take on life and on Shostakovich’s ever changing music, the final work, “Piano Concerto #1,”  seemed, at first, to be a happy work and, indeed, much of it was up tempo, particularly the choreography for Daniil Simkin and Maria Kochetkova, a diminutive couple who were playful in their virtuoso partnering.   In front of a backdrop of hanging red geometrical sculptures which suggested an industrial society—nuts and bolts, hammers and sickles—the corps de ballet kept sweeping across the stage in fantastical patterns, sometimes stopping to take frozen poses.  In fact, the entire work ended with the corps posing behind the two lead couples, holding one dancer upside down by his ankles.  It was odd, a bit jolting, but whimsical in a work that generally was short on whimsy.

The corps all wore Mr. Dekker’s unitards, gray on the front and red on the back – making for some eye-catching color-shifting as the dancers twirled and whirled –  while the two female soloists (Ms. Kochetkova and a statuesque Christine Shevchenko) were in bright red leotards.  Ms. Shevchenko’s partner was an ardent Cory Stearns whose terrific partnering skills were overshadowed only by his smooth ballet technique.

Each couple took the stage separately:  Simkin/Kochetkova displaying bravura technique with double-air-turn catches and Stearns/Shevchenko softer and more overtly romantic.  When they finally got to dance together at the end and momentarily changed partners, the effect was unexpectedly pleasant and very human.

“Piano Concerto #1” was the most complex of the three works and the most accessible emotionally.

Jennifer Tipton, an absolute master, lit each work brilliantly.

Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s longtime Artistic Director, clearly knew what he was doing when he grabbed Alexei Ratmansky to bolster a classic-heavy repertoire.

American Ballet Theatre (May 9 – July 2, 2016)

Shostakovich Trilogy (May 17-23)

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-362-5000 or visit http://www.abt.org

Running time: two hours, including two intermissions

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (308 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

1 Comment on American Ballet Theatre: Shostakovich Trilogy

  1. Dear Mr. Benjamin,
    While I enjoyed your critique of the ballets. I believe there is an error. Symphony #9 lead couple was not danced by Stella Abrerra and Marcelo Gomes. Instead the two dancer’s are Devon Teuscher and Marcelo Gomes as the lead couple. Please make the correction.

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