With two repertory programs this season comprised entirely of his choreography, Alexei Ratmansky looms large over American Ballet Theatre's current creative œuvre. The range and complexity of his work is such that we will be watching and talking about it for years to come, sorting out what it all means. The Shostakovich trilogy is a deeply personal statement of Ratmansky’s relationship with the composer and his life experience in Russia. Whose experience in Russia? The answer would be both Shostakovich and Ratmansky. The latter's tenure as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi had to be substantially difficult, whilst Shostakovich lived and created through some of the worst years of the Soviet Union’s existence and the aura of desperate longing and paranoia never quite leaves any of the three pieces on this program. There are numerous high points and there is joy in these works but these are always tempered by watchfulness.

Marcelo Gomes in <i>Symphony #9</i> © Gene Schiavone
Marcelo Gomes in Symphony #9
© Gene Schiavone

Beginning with Symphony #9, the ambience was dark and edgy. Joseph Gorak, filling in early (he had been scheduled to debut in the role on Friday) for injured Herman Cornejo, was terrific. He has a way of always seeming to know where he is in relation to everyone else and it makes him a focal point whenever he’s on stage. His presence is strong and calming. Craig Salstein was remarkable with his exceptional clarity. I don’t remember ever seeing him dance with such authority and grace. Devon Teuscher was beautifully paired with Marcelo Gomes. Their pas de deux is the central event of the ballet and it contains all the longing of a lifetime with the flickers of paranoia that are central to this work. They keep looking around, concerned that they’re being watched. In the corps de ballet, Cassandra Trenary kept drawing my eye. In conversations with choreographers and dance teachers, Trenary’s name pops up whenever I hear people talk about the future of ABT. It has to do with a singular quality of movement that no one else seems able to reproduce. As I watched her I kept thinking, yes! That’s the right inflection for the hands after that step! Her way of movement is such that she is speaking the language of dance. Each step follows so seamlessly and logically from what came before that it all makes perfect sense. Visually, I am seeing the music when she’s on stage and it’s coming from a Stradivarius.

Chamber Symphony came second and was the weakest of the three pieces on the program. It also had the worst costumes. The men were dressed in velour track pants that wouldn’t look out of place in Brighton Beach. It would probably be in trouble as a stand-alone ballet. I had difficulty investing in James Whiteside in this role which is full of despair. As his muses he had the enviable trio of Sarah Lane, Isabella Boylston and Hee Seo. He danced with them together and then each got a separate pas de deux, each of which had its own flavor. They all did well and I was especially struck by how incredibly well Seo held her positions in lifts. Even when she was high overhead she maintained her pose with elegance. Lane hit all the right notes as the fickle lover and Boylston gave real pathos to the lover who died. But I still couldn’t manage to fully embrace Whiteside in this role. His melodrama didn’t feel authentic.

Maria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin in <i>Piano Concerto #1</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
Maria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin in Piano Concerto #1
© Rosalie O’Connor
Piano Concerto #1 closed the show with an emphatic bang. In this piece Ratmansky seeks to remind us of the greatness of Russia and everything here was on the mark. It was fast-paced, effervescent and bombastic. A big part of the effectiveness of this piece comes from the unitards that the corps de ballet wear for this. They are gray in front and maroon in back so that when they face to the rear it creates a dramatic change in the look of the choreography, which faces primarily front or back and the movement looks strikingly different when the colors change. It may represent the dual nature of life in Russia – moments of joy and despair, each experienced in the extreme. Christine Shevchenko filled in for the injured Gillian Murphy and was quick and assured paired with Cory Stearns. Shevchenko works from a solid center that allows her to move with terrific speed. Their pas de deux is one of Ratmansky’s best. Less fun to watch but still technically impressive were Daniil Simkin and Maria Kochetkova. They tossed off the tricks with ease but failed to resonate with me. They seemed to be doing their own performance independent of everyone else on stage. The action was fast and furious in the closing movement and in the end, the sheer energy carried the audience away. The red objects hanging above the stage looked like they were copied from Soviet propaganda posters and cast yet another shadow over the proceedings.

An all Shostakovich program is a tough sell for the dance-going public. His music is not well known by most people. Marina Harss quoted Ratmansky as saying about his trilogy, “I think the audience is going to have to work a little bit.” There were a lot of ballet insiders in the audience and I had to wonder if regular audiences were willing to work so hard to enjoy a show. That would be too bad because the Shostakovich Trilogy is full of interesting and complex ideas but it requires close attention to derive the maximum pleasure. There are themes that repeat from one piece to the next giving them continuity and the overall structure is highly complex. Since becoming ABT's resident choreographer, Ratmansky has injected new life into the company.