The only choreographic or musical contribution that wasn’t Russian on Thursday’s repertory program by American Ballet Theater was the music from Bizet’s youthful, ebullient C Major Symphony, the touchstone for Balanchine’s spirited and complex Symphony in C. Still, it was a little peculiar putting up two works by Balanchine, both of which are known for performances better identified with other companies. ABT’s recent season at the Met in New York had one terrific repertory evening of Morris, Ashton (the brilliant one act ballet, A Month in the Country) and Balanchine. That lineup seemed a program better suited to ABT’s capabilities and also, an opportunity for an infusion of one act ballets that aren’t as well known to Los Angeles audiences.
What we did see was a breezy and confident version of Symphony in C that at times felt squeezed onto the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, and a cautious showing of Apollo. The “new” came packaged as Alexei Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony which is set to a string symphony version of the best known work from the Shostakovich quartet cycle. It’s the middle work in a trilogy framed by the Shostakovich 9th Symphony and his first piano concerto. Shostakovich Trilogy debuted this season in New York.
It’s clear Chamber Symphony is all about Shostakovich. Oversized outlines of faces hang in the air as a backdrop;one is clearly his. One recuring motive from the music is a musical spelling of initials for his name. A male soloist, ABT’s remarkable new talent, James Whiteside, leads the cast and is onstage for nearly the entire work in a challenging role in which he flails and writhes magnificently, but is ultimately crushed and ignored. In his final exit he leaves the stage with hunched over shoulders and a grinding walk. The portraiture is diagnostic for the composer and his troubles as Soviet era artist.
Ratmansky is a clever choreographer and a deft craftsman as well. He possesses Balanchine’s gift for structuring ballets and moving large and small groups on and off stage. Chamber Symphony is built around a soloist (a stand in for the composer), three women with whom he enters into intimate partnering, and an ensemble of trios, each with a man and two women. Whiteside and his three partners might be seen as a reverential homage to a similar configuration in Balanchine’s Apollo. The choreography can at times seem almost too busy. But is also full of inventive evolutions as well as masterful reconfigurations of the assembled dancers.At the center of the work is a lengthy pas de deux, on Friday danced by Yuriko Kajiya. It wanted more heat than she was able to bring to the role. I liked better the subtleties of one of the slighter female solo roles danced by Julie Kent, who made more out of less. Ratmansky reserved for her dreamy, languid movements which were repeated like a signature leitmotif.
Ratmansky also has a keen ear and captures in movement music not usually thought of as dance material. Case in point, the unexpected, sexy little hip pushes that accompany the off kilter waltz excerpts. There is much to relish in this work, including the floating lifts supported by multiple dancers, and the elements of a deliberately underdeveloped narrative that find connection with the dark underpinnings of the music itself. The work was complex, elegant, and unpredictable.
Apollo, Balanchine’s signature work first staged in the late 1920’s, was not always perfect in Friday’s performance. Marcelo Gomez, one of ABT’s biggest stars and a muscled, mature dancer, seemed miscast here as the newly born God. Excellent in his partnering, his characterization felt strident; the magic too often turned rote. Of the three muses, Melanie Hamrick dancing the role of Calliope seemed the most genuine. The roles of Terpsichore and Polyhymnia were danced by Devon Teuscher and Paloma Herrera respectively. Apollo fared best musically with a contemplative and restrained version of the Stravinsky score for Apollon Musagète conducted by Charles Barker.
Symphony in C (1948) with its high spirits and a stage brimming with dancers and fleet footwork closed the program. Where Apollo aims to understate, Symphony in C loads on the complexities, classicism and generous choreography to the bursting point. Stella Abrera offered a high gear opening with her solos in the first movement Allegro Vivo. The third movement Allegro Vivace proved the most together in spirit and execution. Here soloist Daniil Simkin lofted his jumps. He was the fleetest and lightest of the men in this cast and looked almost out of place because of it. While there was plenty of sparkle in the dancing the costuming, especially the tutus, looked plain to a fault. Some fixing is needed if the jeweled metaphor of the work’s original title is going to mean something. Mark Stanley’s richer and slightly deeper blue background lighting set off the dancing spectacularly. Both Chamber Symphony and Symphony in C were led in excellent performances by music director Ormsby Wilkins.
(The reviewed performance took place July 11, 2013. Alexei Ratmansky is currently the choreographer in residence at American Ballet Theatre. Performances of Corsaire continue through Sunday at the Music Center.)