BWW Reviews: American Ballet Theatre Presents New Ratmansky Ballet
First the good news. Alexei Ratmansky's Piano Concerto #1, set to the Shostakovich piece of the same name, is as bracing as ever. Now, the bad news. Ratmansky's The Tempest, set to a Sibelius score, is in a state of choreographic disorder. It sets out to tell a Shakespearean play in 45 minutes, and even with the input of dramaturg Mark Lamos, the ballet can't dance, let alone move.
Not being a scholar, academician, psychiatrist or bartender, I can't imagine what made the play an attractive vehicle for Ratmansky's talent. What was he thinking when he decided to choreograph the ballet? Another prestigious assignment, or one that was owed to ABT and had to be executed quickly. I decided not to read the play before attending the performance, as I wanted to be able to decide for myself just what was transpiring. The program notes describe the ballet as a "...once fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare's play. " This is fine. But if all you are left with is a ballet without coherence, structure, or even logic, you know that you have not achieved the desired effect.
Here's what I saw, and forget the program notes and the original play. There is a man named Prospero who lives on an island with a flying creature dressed in Kabuki makeup and a small monster. There is a woman who seems to be his daughter. There's another man who's a prince, but he doesn't wear a crown. Then more people come on stage and there seems to be a great deal of confusion. Then the prince and the woman dance a pas de deux and Prospero sails home to Milan. The last piece of information I got from the playbill notes.
If I didn't have the synopsis in front of me, I would be hard pressed to figure out what was happening. In the old Broadway days, a show doctor such as Jerome Robbins would come in and fix things up. But I ask: wasn't anyone looking in?. Couldn't someone say that the piece was beyond comprehension? Meditation or not, what was the ballet about? It didn't matter if you were familiar with the play. A piece of work stands on its own, and should never be compared to another source. Think of Carmen or even The Sound of Music.
Unlike Limon's Moor's Pavane or Ashton's Dream, which slimmed the Shakespearean plays to only a few characters, or even Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream, which is also something of a muddle in the first act, but then dispenses with the story entirely in the second act, The Tempest wants to have it both ways. Overloaded with a story, introducing characters for short stays only to have them disappear quickly, the ballet has no reason for being on the stage. And I blame this on Ratmansky, Did he read the libretto on which Mark Lamos worked? He's a smart man; couldn't he see that he was given even less than a skeleton to work with.<
All the dancers acquitted themselves admirably, but they too seemed on a quest for the ultimate answer: what's this all about?
Ratmansky's Shostakovich Piano Concerto #1, is a work that you can view multiple times. I like to see it in its historical context; it adds more drama, and I wouldn't be surprised if Ratmansky himself draw some inspiration from it. Shostakovich introduced this work just three weeks after his 27th birthday. He was already a well respected composer with a burgeoning international reputation. He had behind him not only his extraordinary First Symphony, but another two symphonies (premiered after the death of Stalin), two ballets, several film scores and the satirical opera The Nose. He had completed his second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which would have its premiere in Leningrad (St. Petersburg as it was called then) in January 1934, Although initially a great success, it provoked Stalin into a rage. Hating the music, he wrote an article in Pravda, Muddle Instead of Music, which has since gained fame as one of the most obtuse and ridiculous critiques ever written, and by a person who knew nothing about music. But in the fall of 1933, Shostakovich was in good standing with the authorities, having survived some criticism for his Tahiti Trot, an amusing orchestration of the Vincent Youmans song Tea for Two.
The Piano Concerto #1 is witty and reflective. It features a trumpet that has an independent voice that almost talks to the piano. They seem to be doing their own pas de deux at times, while breaking away every now and then for a solo.
Ratmansky seizes, should I say, pounces, on this immediately and the results are astonishing. Not only does his choreography replicate the music, in a way it comments on iT. Fast, giddy, driving it draws on the subtle sarcasm that Shostakovich wrote into the music.
The choreographic motifs, sweet and soft at times, explode into high voltage energy at others, revealing the real Ratmansky. Shostakovich is not the music of old Russia; it is the witty, bitter and frustrated music of the twentieth century. Ratmansky's creative juices go when he hears the music. It's his muse. He has already choreographed many ballets to Shostakovich, and they are among his finest. But there are other composers besides Shostakovich, and I have not seen the fervor and drive he exhibits with others.
The dancers were excellent, especially the leading quartet: Gillian Murphy, Skylar Brandt, Calvin III and Gabe Stone Shayer. When such excellent dancers match the choreographic vision there is bound to be an eruption when the curtain falls, and that's exactly what the ballet received. And it deserves every clap of the hand.
What's next for Ratmansky? I don't have a clue, but I hope he does a ballet to the Shostakovich Violin Concerto 1. I'm sure there will be a bracing discourse between choreographer and composer. If only I could listen in!
Skylar Brandt in Piano Concerto #1. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.