San Francisco Ballet
Program 8: Shostakovich Trilogy – Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, Piano Concerto #1
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
7 May 2019
San Francisco Ballet (SFB) opened the closing program of its 86th repertory season, with Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, on 7 May. Had the choreographer been present, he may have been delighted that the audience applauded the dancing but broke into cheers when conductor Martin West and the SFB Orchestra took their bows. For while Ratmansky is a dance artist of the first order, his longtime obsession with his countryman Dmitri Shostakovich, which dates back to his student days at the Bolshoi Academy, runs far deeper than presentational art; it seems to be a fundamental force.
Ratmansky has profound compassion for the terror Shostakovich endured – active from the 1920s until his death in 1975, Shostakovich was alternately lionized and denounced by the government and the press – and for his artistic defiance in spite of enormous risks. The full reality of those experiences are incomprehensible from the outside, an unresolvable mystery and an unending source of inspiration for Ratmansky’s choreography. The dances he creates to the composer’s music – the trilogy’s Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony and Piano Concerto #1 are his 9th, 10th and 11th, and the ticker is still running – bubble up from an underground river that Ratmansky, no matter how many Shostakovich ballets he creates, may never fully map.
The choreography in Shostakovich Trilogy, which was co-commissioned by SFB and American Ballet Theatre and premiered in 2014, is as frustratingly capricious as the music. Symphony #9 (1945) whipsaws from triumphant fanfare that harks to Aaron Copland’s 1942 Rodeo. It calls to mind lines of comrades doing calisthenics, hinted at by 16 corps dancers in rows of unison. Like everything else in the Trilogy, that construct is momentary; in Ratmansky’s kaleidoscopic choreography, lines become couples become quartets become solos in an instant. Ratmansky follows every minute shift in the music: big brass means big gestures, and seconds later sorrowful strings cue largo partnering.
Joseph Walsh and Dores André portray Symphony #9’s central couple; André devours every role with so much attack, that you feel its dimensions even if you can’t define them. Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison portray a couple hiding from the mob; what they fear is undefined yet menacing, which must have been the experience of many Soviets. As a solo protagonist who weaves in and out, Wei Wang was all beautiful clarity. It’s easy to get swept up in Ratmansky’s sweeping staging and George Tsypin’s Socialist Realist backdrop of banner-waving citizens, but the choreography is larded with technical difficulties; the audience seemed not to notice Wang’s series of entrechats, which would have garnered ovations in the second act of Giselle; granted, Ratmansky sideline them at far stage right, subsuming virtuosity into the service of the whole.
Ulrik Birkkjaer portrays Shostakovich more directly in the mournful Chamber Symphony, set to an orchestration of the 1960 String Quartet No. 8. Tracing the composer’s tortured romantic life, it reunites him with his three wives, typecast here with a demure Sasha De Sola as his first wife, Nina Varzar; Mathilde Froustey in seductive glances and daring trust falls as his second wife, the activist Margarita Kainova; and a maudlin Yuan Yuan Tan as his widow, Irina Supinskaya. Birkkjaer seemed distanced from the material; he gestured anguish, but seemed engaged more in mind than in heart. In the lead women’s unison dancing, Froustey danced distractingly, to a beat of her own choosing.
Piano Concerto #1 revives the rousing mood with marchable beats, a lively musical conversation between Mungunchimeg Buriad’s piano and Adam Luftman’s trumpet, and a backdrop of day-glow red stars, hammers and airplanes. The corps’ red-and-silver unitards create a dynamic palette behind two lead couples, danced on opening night by Sofiane Sylve with Carlo Di Lanno, and Wona Park with Angelo Greco. Undefined as characters, they nonetheless lead the parade in duets and solos that are immersed in the corps, who sometimes circle them in directional sissone-assemblés. The SFB corps can always use more clarity and more unison; in a particularly egregious row of six couples, the men’s dégagés looked haphazardly marked, and one was so late that it barely qualified as an afterthought.
Sylve proved once again (not that it needs proving) that watching an exceptional dancer is a pleasure in itself, regardless of the material; I’ve seen Trilogy three times now, and I’ve never connected with it, but Sylve’s electrifying stage presence and technical command, combined with Di Lanno’s juxtaposition of liquid movement and classically refined turns and jumps, were mesmerizing. Greco trained at La Scala like Di Lanno, and shares his mastery and dramatic presence. Park is a very capable dancer, but is just 19 and still getting her feet in principal roles; with more experience she might bring the overweening confidence that such a big role, with loads of lifts and jumps, requires.
On-the-note choreography tends to get tiresome, and at times during Ratmansky’s Triolgy I have to stifle a peevish sigh. Yet it’s also fascinating to think of Ratmansky, poring over Shostakovich’s scores day after day, until all hours, trying to pick apart and decipher the composer’s overt and hidden intentions, then reconstitute them through his own danced language. The best dancers turn it back into music.