Concerto DSCH

Music: Dmitri Shostakovich (Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102, 1957)
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Staging: Tatiana Ratmansky
Costume Design: Holly Hynes
Lighting Design: Mark Stanley
Duration: 19 minutes
Premiere: May 29, 2008; New York City Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: March 18, 2011

Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Concerto DSCH.
Photo © Angela Sterling

The 2011 PNB premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH was generously underwritten by Peter & Peggy Horvitz.

The first decade of the new century saw the emergence of two new major new choreographers steeped in the classical tradition—just in time to undercut the lamentations that ballet was creatively bereft, that it lacked significant heirs to the great 20th-century choreographers’ rich legacy. Christopher Wheeldon already attracted notice in the late 1990s, and before long his works were in demand by ballet troupes worldwide. A few years older than Wheeldon but making his international impact several years later, Alexei Ratmansky first made an impact with fresh, invigorating re-inventions of two 1930s Shostakovich ballets for the Bolshoi Ballet, where he was artistic director from 2004 to 2008.

He was soon invited to create works for New York City Ballet, where he seemed poised to become resident choreographer (a position Wheeldon had originated and held before leaving to launch his company Morphoses). But in a surprising move, American Ballet Theatre snapped him up; he became the company’s Artist in Residence in January 2009. His works now grace the repertories of both companies; he has made three for NYCB (and re-staged an earlier work), and already has four works in ABT’s repertory—most recently a Nutcracker that had its premiere last December, and a new production of The Bright Stream, a two-act narrative ballet he made for the Bolshoi in 2003.

Once the Bolshoi had brought Bright Stream—his charming, comedic and richly inventive new take on a long-lost 1935 ballet—to New York in 2005, no one in the city’s ballet milieu would forget his name. That ballet—with four demanding principal roles and a host of vibrant character parts—revealed two of Ratmansky’s intrinsic gifts: a respectful knowledge of ballet history and talent for making the classical vocabulary speak with a fresh, contemporary voice.

Because of his demonstrated affinity for the robustly colorful music of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) in that ballet—and the strong reports about Bolt, another long-forgotten 1930s ballet by the composer that Ratmansky brought back to life for the Bolshoi—there was much to anticipate when Ratmansky chose another Shostakovich score for his second NYCB creation. Concerto DSCH, which had its premiere in May 2008, proved to be one of the most original and impressive new ballets in many a year, one that reveals new surprises and insights on each viewing. Ratmansky displays a degree of musical sophistication in this work that is breathtaking. All of its many pleasures—whirlwind bravura, unexpected ensemble patterns, eloquently nuanced partnering, and effortless yet sophisticated craftsmanship—spring with amazing naturalness from the score. One can almost sense a choreographer and composer collaborating across the decades.

Concerto DSCH is set to Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102, composed in 1957—a far different period in the composer’s turbulent career from the two ballet scores Ratmansky had resuscitated. (The “DSCH” of the ballet’s title refers to a musical motif of four notes that form an abbreviation of the composer's name when written in German.) Shostakovich’s career had suffered greatly during the Stalinist era, but by 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, he was composing with invigorating optimism. The concerto was a birthday gift for his 19-year-old son Maksim, who was the soloist at its premiere, and youthful energy is certainly in evidence in its brisk, playful first and third movements, while its central Andante evokes longing and nostalgia.

Ratmansky’s choreography is filled playful camaraderie in the outer movements, turning reflective and quietly haunting in the middle movement. There is nothing predictable about the way Ratmansky has populated the ballet. There are five principals—a central couple and a trio (two men and a woman), and an ensemble divided into two contrastingly costumed contingents: one with three couples, the other with four. The richness of invention is such that one cannot immediately take in all the unexpected and witty ways in which Ratmansky deploys his ensemble. Costumed to evoke swimmers or athletes of an earlier era, they weave in and out of patterns that constantly redefine the stage picture. The principal couple alternates—and entertainingly interacts—with the bounding, frisky trio during the outer movements, and turn contemplative for their extended duet in the second movement.

There are delicate evocations of Jerome Robbins’ works in the natural way the dancers present themselves and relate to each other. For all of its virtuosic demands, the ballet also suggests real people and their encounters. Competitiveness, jealousy, wistfulness, and much more, are seamlessly evoked. As New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote when reviewing a recent NYCB performance of the ballet, “There seems no end to the human detail that’s woven through the piece.”

The mark of an enduring ballet is how it rewards repeated viewings. Concerto DSCH seems to expand and deepen on greater acquaintance, based on this viewer’s experience of its still-brief tenure in NYCB’s repertory. Now Pacific Northwest Ballet’s audiences can make the acquaintance of one of our era’s most important choreographers through a work that embodies his already considerable craftsmanship and innovation, leaving us to anticipate further rich delights to come.

Notes by Susan Reiter. © Susan Reiter 2011

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