By strange coincidence, I saw the film The Death of Stalin on the evening prior to this performance. It proved to be an instructive preamble to Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, which opened the much anticipated return to London, after an absence of seven years, for America’s oldest ballet company, from San Francisco.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's <i>Chamber Symphony</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony
© Erik Tomasson

The link between Shostakovich and Stalin is fundamental. Ironically, composer Christopher Willis was heavily influenced by Shostakovich (and Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin) for his film score. Not ironic in terms of style, since Shostakovich composed for many films, but because the composer was continually under intense scrutiny of his artistic principles which, as the San Francisco Ballet’s Music Director, Martin West, has summarised succinctly, were about “trying to create music for all time, not just for Russia”. The blackest comedy in The Death of Stalin revolves around the randomness of the “lists” of people to be executed and Shostakovich narrowly avoided that fate, being denounced by the Soviet State on several occasions.

Ratmansky’s credentials as standard-bearer for choreographing modern classical ballet that remains true to its heritage are evidenced in many ways but it is in his homages to Shostakovich (eleven ballets to date) that this flame is seen so vividly. The composer is the toughest choice for ballet and his music has inspired some dreary and insipid choreography as anyone who might recall the Mariinsky’s disastrous Shostakovich centennial at the Coliseum in 2006 (The Lady and The Hooligan and The Bedbug were as dire as the titles suggest). It seems only in the fluid musicality of Ratmansky’s choreography that Shostakovich’s music is captured and tamed; the multiple layers of Russianness (that the Soviet authorities clearly could not see) and the plethora of human emotion provide a rich abundance of visual imagery, mostly in movement but also in George Tsypin's spartan set designs.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's <i>Symphony no. 9</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Symphony no. 9
© Erik Tomasson

This trilogy, made as a co-production for SFB and American Ballet Theatre in 2012/13, is a full-evening work comprising three distinctly separate elements, each of which occupies around half-an-hour. Symphony no. 9 has an undercurrent of biographical narrative. The opening couple (a welcome return for Aaron Robison, recently at English National Ballet, partnering Jennifer Stahl) represent Shostakovich and his wife; and a second principal couple (Dores André and Joseph Walsh) are a cipher for the Soviet State. The former are alert to danger, mutually supportive and expansively expressive – Shostakovich’s innovative music represented in Robison’s bold extensions and graceful line; the latter imbuing meaning into hidden caricatures embedded within this music, which set out to be a triumphal celebration of Russian victory over the Nazis but turned into a gleeful, jazz-age symphony, interpreted as a two-fingered “salute” to Stalin (but with the fingers pronated from the Churchillian V-for-victory). In the choreographic mix, there is also a solo male role, referenced by Ratmansky as The Angel, symbolising hope and redemption and danced with a wholesome lightness by Wei Wang (a great contrast from his most recent role in London as the Creature in Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein).

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's <i>Chamber Symphony</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony
© Erik Tomasson

The Triptych’s middle panel is also autobiographical, choreographed to Shostakovich’s intensely personal Chamber Symphony , an orchestration of his String Quartet no. 8, with the central dancer (Ulrik Birkkjaer) created as an image of the composer, surrounded by the three women that he loved (his first unfulfilled infatuation plus two wives). There is a simple, beautiful, lightness to the choreography, which flows with Requiem-like sorrow in haunting melodies that hint at other great Shostakovich compositions (familiarities with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Russian folksongs) and also contrasts effectively with the music’s surging force and abrupt changes. Sasha De Sola, Mathilde Froustey and Yuan Yuan Tan are the three loves: all divine, but it was a special pleasure to be able to revisit the sublime grace of Froustey’s exceptional artistry and Tan is another of the great ballerinas of our time.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's <i>Piano Concerto no. 1</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Piano Concerto no. 1
© Erik Tomasson

Finally, to Piano Concerto no. 1, with Tsypin’s allegorical set designs, a backdrop of what appears to be the prow of a sunken ship, embellished with the hammer, sickle and stars of Soviet symbolism. This work appears to be void of narrative meaning, the choreography illustrating the myriad changes of mood – sometimes mellow and often frantic – in this capricious music. Throughout the trilogy, the performance of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – conducted by West – was a delight but one must single out the pianism of Mungunchimeg Buriad and the trumpet playing of Michael Allen for special praise. Two ballerinas – Sofiane Sylve and Wona Park – are conspicuously clad in bright red leotards, offset by the men’s’ silver-grey unitards. It was a luscious end to a delicious evening of dance in which every movement appeared to own a special meaning in this emotional and personal tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

****1