Like a force of nature, Alexei Ratmansky’s coruscating Shostakovich Trilogy has made landfall on the Left Coast, after sweeping New York last season, and San Francisco Ballet tackled it with style and moxie on Saturday night. The dance is a supremely athletic endeavor, the pace frenetic, apart from a few elegiac pas de deux, and the partnering crammed with elegant, understated feats of split-second timing. Ratmansky mocks Soviet-style bravura but never succumbs to its excesses.

Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in Symphony #9 © Erik Tomasson
Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in Symphony #9
© Erik Tomasson

The epic score kicks off with the playful, irreverent Symphony #9 – which landed the composer in hot water with Stalin, who had been expecting a pompous affair extolling the Soviet triumph over the evils of Nazism. It closes with the tumultuous Piano Concerto #1, a grab bag of musical jokes and allusions, in striking contrast to the intervening Chamber Symphony – an orchestral arrangement of Shostakovich’s brooding String Quartet #8, which he’d written while reportedly in a near-suicidal state.

Fragments of folk melodies, popular drinking songs, snippets of jazz and honky-tonk, and echoes of a military tattoo waft through the score. Musical jokes are matched by ballet jokes: a ballerina slumps lifelessly in the arms of her partner, her legs executing rapid-fire beats. A bevy of swans prostrate themselves with fists tightly balled behind their backs, as if anticipating a swan rumble. A ballerina is hustled across the stage like a wheelbarrow. Women manhandle men in gender-flipped supported pirouettes.

In a masterful unraveling of the score, dancers march like soldiers, scrape their heels in folk dance, clutch each other in a tango, then are felled by an invisible firing squad (they expire comically, as if in an early-era silent film.) This visual rendering of the music is punctuated by moments of searing drama and pathos that touch obliquely on traumas in Shostakovich’s life. If you’re so inclined, you may read into the work a sweeping condemnation of past or present political regimes, or an indictment of the malignant forces that have corrupted the august Bolshoi Ballet, or Russian society as a whole.

Or you could just sit back and cheer for these splendid athletes.  

Mathilde Froustey and Davit Karapetyan in Chamber Symphony © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Davit Karapetyan in Chamber Symphony
© Erik Tomasson

Trilogy is a gift to the individual dancers – especially to the corps, who are as much in the spotlight as the soloists. Francisco Mungamba’s elegant lines and soaring leaps graced both the opening and closing pieces. The radiant Koto Ishihara stood out in Symphony #9.

Simone Messmer, the only dancer to have appeared in the Trilogy with both co-producer American Ballet Theatre and SFB, is a firecracker in Symphony #9, flirting audaciously with James Sofranko and with the audience. In contrast, the sensual Sarah Van Patten grappled with mysterious demons; in one heartstopping moment she is paraded high overhead in a deep backbend by the heroic Carlos Quenedit, as the ensemble marches blithely to the next battlefront – possibly a symbol of Mother Russia. A Lone Ranger figure, the stern, noble Taras Domitro radiated purity in his jumps and turns. 

Anyone could see why Davit Karapetyan, in the central role of the tortured artist in Chamber Symphony, would fall under the spell of the smouldering Lorena Feijoo; when she was onstage it was difficult to focus on anyone else. 

In Piano Concerto #1, Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan channeled Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune as they sank slowly to their knees, their hands overhead in a stylized prayer that kicked off a mesmerizing pas de deux à quatre with Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz.

Saturday night’s performance was a madcap tour de force for the fearless Kochetkova, abetted by the ardent Luiz. She flew around the stage like a tiny hurricane, then was tossed, spinning, into the air, landing triumphantly on Luiz’ shoulder. The audience reaction was akin to the uproar when we learned a few hours earlier that our beloved San Francisco Giants had trounced the Los Angeles Dodgers on the archrival’s home turf.

The hijinks in the pit were led with verve by Martin West. Michael McGraw and John Pearson sparred merrily on piano and trumpet, respectively, in Piano Concerto #1. I think the trumpet won.

San Francisco Ballet in Piano Concerto #1 © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Piano Concerto #1
© Erik Tomasson

Costuming hit the only sour note of the evening – in particular, the crushed silver velvet trousers in Chamber Symphony and the metrosexual vibe for the men in both Chamber and Symphony #9. Shiny belts seem to be the “in” thing in ballet (Mark Morris used them in Gong) but they add an unwelcome aura of Star Trek to the proceedings; a more timeless look seems called for.

The two-toned revolutionary red and gunmetal grey unitards in Piano Concerto #1 were a visual treat, particularly under George Tsypin’s stunning Soviet-themed installation of what appears to be the debris from an industrial explosion suspended over the stage, as if floating undersea. The austere scenic design throughout heightens the sense of foreboding, though Ratmansky closes on a stirring, hopeful note, with his two principal ballerinas flying ebulliently through the air.