It’s not often that a classical ballet performance presents the opportunity to ponder Soviet Russia history, the era’s political climate and its effect on an artist, while at the same time delivering lyrical choreography, finely integrated with its music. Add the fact that the night’s music—and the subject—is Shostakovich, and the feat becomes all the more remarkable. And Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy is remarkable indeed, meriting all the praise directed its way since its première with American Ballet Theatre in 2013 and with the San Francisco Ballet last season (the two companies co-commissioned the work). Ratmansky, Russian-born and Bolshoi trained, draws from his long time appreciation and reverence for Shostakovich, who struggled considerably under the oppressive, censorious Soviet regime. The production’s Wednesday night return to the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House stage confirmed that in Shostakovich Trilogy, Ratmansky, already a highly acclaimed choreographer, has outdone himself, creating a work of enduring genius and power.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's <i>Shostakovich Trilogy</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy
© Erik Tomasson
Symphony No. 9, the night’s first work in this triptych of abstract ballets, had been a 1945 commission to celebrate Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany. Instead of the brooding triumphalism expected, however, Shostakovich stubbornly opted for lighter fare, the lightest of his fourteen symphonies. Audiences liked it, but Stalin took offense, and the censorship board banned the symphony in 1948, citing its "ideological weakness." In Ratmansky’s choreography, cheery melodies parody regimented obedience, while gentler passages hint at despair, unease, wariness. James Sofranko opened the ballet, a confident, commanding presence, whose pas de deux sequences with the always lovely Vanessa Zahorian were sharp, clean and effective. A relentlessly energetic corps moved on and off the stage, interspersing dance passages with brisk, purposeful strides. Ratmansky's choreography is inventive, finely detailed, with an edge. Whimsy finds its way into the equation, such as when Sofranko launches himself horizontally through the air to be caught by a quartet of male corps dancers.

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham were a beguiling, more vulnerable second lead couple, their eyes uneasily sweeping the landscape before stepping into their next move. At the end of the pas de deux, Van Patten crumpled to a seated position in a tight, controlled fashion, sliding further down to one elbow, and finally to the floor, body still rigid, eyes wide open and wary, a deeply affecting pose the ensemble struck at the end of a later movement. Lighting, designed by Jennifer Tipton, makes clever use of silhouettes, where dancers seem to become backdrop, melt into scenery, before returning to movement. Hansuke Yamamoto, a late replacement for Taras Domitro, delivered a strong solo performance, particularly in a passage of ever higher, stronger, entrechats jumps and beats.

The second piece, Chamber Symphony an orchestral arrangement of Shostakovich’s 1960 String Quartet No. 8, gives us one of Shostakovich’s most personal works. Through Ratmansky’s choreography, we see it all: the man’s existential brooding, his troubled, eternally censored career, his marriages and loves, his quest to express his own art in spite of pressure to conform. Davit Karapetyan, as the lone man, was brilliant. Throughout, he commanded the stage, walking, striding, leaping, pressing his head into his hands, slumping in exhaustion, only to be swept back to his feet by the corps men, a mandate to “keep moving, never stop; you must keep up the dance.” His existential despair changed to something else when three women appeared, representing the three loves of his life. Dores André, Mathilde Froustey and Sarah Van Patten, in alternating pas de deux, each offered distinctive, distinguished performances. A blue backdrop covered with etched faces (designed by George Tsypin), served as a reminder that in this world, someone is always watching.

Sarah van Patten and Luke Ingham in Ratmansky's <i>Shostakovich Trilogy</i> © Erik Tomasson
Sarah van Patten and Luke Ingham in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy
© Erik Tomasson

The third work of the trilogy, set to Shostakovich’s 1933 Piano Concerto No. 1, displayed an intriguing backdrop of dangling vivid red shapes—stars, blocks, airplanes—suspended from above, against a bullet-grey background. Costumes, too, designed by Keso Dekker, utilized a bright, eye-catching red for the leotards of the two lead females. Lead couples Frances Chung and Joan Boada, Tiit Helimets and Sofiane Sylve, dazzled in their respective pas de deux passages, Chung and Boada’s power and technical brilliance pairing well with Sylve and Helimets’ silken elegance. The corps, a strong, effective force throughout the entire production, sported unitards that were gray in front, red in the back, a color that seemed to change with the lighting, another reminder that things are not always as they seem.

Toward the end of the concerto, the music speeds up, as do the dancers’ movements, almost a parody of forced Soviet cheer. Which quite possibly is the point: a chaotic mix of art, entertainment and the mandate to make music and dance, whatever the cost. Pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad and trumpeter Adam Luftman delivered excellent solo performances here, supported by conductor Martin West and a particularly sublime San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. 

****1