Alexei Ratmansky: For the Love of Shostakovich

ALEXEI RATMANSKY, the artist in residence at American Ballet Theater since 2009 and one of the most sought-after choreographers in ballet, has made at least seven works to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. That list is about to grow significantly longer. On Thursday at City Center, Ballet Theater will present the debut of “Symphony No. 9” the first in a trilogy of dances to Shostakovich symphonies that will be brought together during the company’s 2013 season at the Metropolitan Opera House. A work for 21 dancers, “Symphony No. 9” is, in Mr. Ratmansky’s words, “storyless but not abstract.”

It was, in a sense, a Shostakovich work that gained the St. Petersburg-born Russian choreographer the artistic directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet in 2004, turning heads in the West. “The Bright Stream” — a comic ballet set on a collective farm, which Mr. Ratmansky rechoreographed — had not been performed as a ballet since its 1935 premiere, when Soviet authorities expressed their potentially lethal disapproval. Russian themes and composers are core preoccupations for Mr. Ratmansky, as evidenced this year by his version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” But in his Shostakovich pieces especially, he seems to be grappling, often gently and subtly, with the system under which he lived the first two decades of his life.

Recently the ever-busy choreographer, 44, discussed the composer and the new project with Brian Seibert at American Ballet Theater’s offices in Manhattan. Mr. Ratmansky, who is always springing to his feet in rehearsal, retains some of that steady energy in talk. He chooses his words carefully, and not just because English is not his first language. He has the self-deprecating humor of the justifiably confident. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Q. What draws you to Shostakovich’s music?

A. He’s very Russian. You can learn the history of the country from his music. He was very sensitive, very true, even if he had to have a mask on. Like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, on that level of diving deep into the soul and the time. His music answers so many questions.

Q. About what?

A. He was the child of the Russian avant-garde, super brave and grotesque, almost evil. And then in the ’30s he went through such pressure, it crushed his self-importance. He expected arrest every night. His friends and relatives were arrested and killed. It changed his ideas of what the artist should be. It was the fate of most of the sensitive people in Russia in the 20th century: They went inward. But I think he also felt a responsibility to be the voice of many people.

Q. Do you?

A. No. Well, we don’t know about the future, but for now it’s comfortable. What our grandparents went through, though, it’s terrible. My grandmother still lives with my parents in Kiev. She was born in 1908, with Nicholas II and Tolstoy and Petipa still alive. She lived through all of it, so it’s not so far back. This music speaks important things to me.

Q. More than other composers’ work?

A. Yeah.

Q. Has it always?

A. I was listening from a very early age. It taught me a lot. Especially his grotesque stuff. He was doing absolutely crazy things. I’m not as courageous. Things like “The Nose” — it’s hooliganism. He did whatever he wanted.

Q. You mean humor?

A. It’s much stronger than humor. It’s nihilism. He destroys things. He takes something very seriously, and then he crushes it with the most vulgar melody from the street. He plays with the expectations of the listener. He started playing for silent movies, so he learned the correspondence between action and sound.

Q. Why the Ninth Symphony in particular?

A. When I was 13 or 14 I got a stipend as a good student: 30 rubles, a huge amount. I spent it on records, and “Symphony No. 9” was one of the first. Since then I’ve been waiting for the right moment.

Q. What about it appeals to you?

A. It has very danceable pages, just running or sailing with the wind to your face. But it’s full of contrasts, and there’s something underneath the surface. After the political success of Symphonies No. 7 and 8, everyone was expecting Shostakovich to give the triumphal celebration of victory — this was 1945. But he didn’t. There is everything in it: melancholy, romance, grotesque, heroic, banal — very strong contrasting colors.

Q. The range is what’s important?

A. Also that it’s short. You can’t really sustain the interest of the audience with just dancing for more than 20 minutes, 30 maximum for me. Then you need some special effect or story.

Q. Can you describe how you listen to the music?

A. When I hear the music I think steps, trying different steps like different gloves. It feels like a crossword puzzle: it exists, you just need to find the right words. I prepare, but there is no useful system to write it down, so I need to have it in my head, and then I’m rushing to give it to the dancers. As soon as they have it, we can shape it together.

Q. Are you thinking of particular dancers when you listen?

A: Yes. I can’t really separate the dancers from the steps. I don’t think it works. If I can pull the personality from the dancer, that’s best.

Q. And you’re trying to connect that to the music?

A. The process starts with the music, then shifts more to the dancers. This dance will reference Shostakovich’s life, the Russian realities of that time — not literally, just colors. But I also hope the trilogy will be a portrait of the company. By now I see what they are and where they can go.

Q. The trilogy is supposed to work as a whole?

A. This is the trickiest part. Each symphony will probably work on its own. These dancers — even with nothing, they’ll do something. But as a whole it’s hard to predict. This is a crazy project. People listen to a few symphonies of the same composer in a concert, right? So in any case, you can close your eyes and listen.

By Brian Seibert, NYTimes

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