There’s so much to love about Alexei Ratmansky’s 2012 Shostakovich Trilogy, which opened Tuesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, the final program of San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 season. For classical music lovers, it’s a double treat: both dance and music are superlative, at the highest levels of their respective art. Then there are Keso Dekker’s appealing costumes, George Tsypin’s intriguing minimalist backdrops, the skilful deployment of dozens of talented dancers from San Francisco Ballet’s deep roster. And did I mention the music?

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony
© Erik Tomasson

Each the three ballets is set to one of Shostakovich’s major works, and what impresses is the depth of connection that Ratmansky sought out and utilized, between music and movement. Russian-born and Bolshoi-trained, Ratmansky has long revered the composer and his music. Shostakovich Trilogy is his homage to the man, the artist. The trio of ballets offers an abstract yet gripping evocation of life in Stalinist Russia, where the composer was watched constantly and expected to “glorify the Soviet state” through his art. Throughout his life, Shostakovich struggled to survive politically – and literally – while retaining artistic integrity, hiding themes of fear and repression into otherwise politically correct compositions. All of this, miraculously, reads clearly in Ratmansky’s choreography. And who knew Shostakovich wrote such gorgeous, evocative music?

Tensions underlie Symphony no. 9 amid music that sounds lighthearted, even flashy (Shostakovich’s rebellious response to Stalin’s insistence on a grand, solemn symphony to commemorate victory in the Second World War). Movements entertain and surprise, such as when lead dancer Joseph Walsh flings himself and is caught midair by four ensemble men. Later, he and partner Dores André pause to look intently around; they are the eyes, always watching and reporting in. In the symphony’s slower second movement, Aaron Robison and Jennifer Stahl were a more vulnerable couple, in a gorgeous, thoughtful pas de deux. Stahl continues to expand on her abilities to express much with her body language, one moment uneasy, cowed, and in the next breath, boldly launching herself forward. Wei Wang was another standout, demonstrating impressive control and refined technique in his solo. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting brought further depths to the various moods conjured by the music.

Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison in Ratmansky's Symphony no. 9
© Erik Tomasson

Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, an orchestral arrangement of his String Quartet no. 8, was one of his most personal works, and this is revealed in Ratmansky's choreography. Ulrich Birkkjaer presented an affecting portrait of a tormented Shostakovich, as he paced, leapt, slumped, was propped back to standing, and relentlessly propelled forward. Against Tsypin’s scenic design of penciled outlined faces on a blue backdrop, we encounter the three women most important in the composer’s life. Sasha de Sola danced and tempted as an early girlfriend; Mathilde Froustey held his attention as his first wife, with Yuan Yuan Tan as his second. Froustey was particularly effective, dancing with a delicacy and finesse that drew in not just Birkkjaer but the audience. When four male dancers flung her toward Birkkjaer, her airborne figure so boneless and delicate, it was aesthetically pleasing and yet unutterably poignant. She would die and he would lose her. The strong acting skills of both Birkkjaer and Froustey made it impossible not to feel stirred, somehow altered by the intensity, all set perfectly to the music.

Wona Park and Angelo Greco in Ratmansky's Piano Concerto no. 1
© Erik Tomasson

The third ballet, Piano Concerto no. 1, displayed an eye-catching backdrop of dangling vivid red shapes – stars, blocks, airplanes, a sickle – against a bullet-grey background. The ensemble dancers, a talented, energetic force throughout the entire production, wore unitards that were gray in front, red in the back, a clever design that frequently tricked the eye, another reminder that things were not always as they seemed. Among the two lead couples, the women wore bright red leotards. Particularly impressive here was Wona Park, a new corps dancer last season, now a soloist, who’s already dancing like a principal. Angelo Greco, superb in his own right, was an impeccable partner. Sofiane Sylve and Carlo di Lanno easily matched their talent as the second couple. Both men delivered impressive leaps and jumps, at one point launching themselves across the diagonal with unison double tours, very satisfying to watch. Pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad and trumpeter Adam Luftman gave accomplished performances, particularly at the end, where music and choreography sped up to a chaotic pace, concluding with an adorable blink-and-you’ll-miss-it finale that had Sylve and Park lifting their male partners, hugging each other, lights going brighter and then boom, cut to black.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Symphony no. 9
© Erik Tomasson

Kudos must go to music director Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra for a stunning performance that rivaled the talents of their San Francisco Symphony neighbors across the street. This is the San Francisco Ballet’s last program of the season, and they will be going out with a strong, rollicking musical bang. I’m already missing them.