When San Francisco Ballet undertook “Shostakovich Trilogy” in 2014, many observers held their breath. Could the company pull off this evening-length work by in-demand choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, the artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theater (which got to premiere the piece, even though it was a co-production with SF Ballet), with its herculean demands on principals as well as members of the corps? The answer was an unqualified yes. Pretty much everyone agreed that Ratmansky’s choreography (staged in San Francisco by his assistant, Nancy Raffa), worked brilliantly on SF Ballet’s smaller numbers of principals, soloists, and corps. No, audiences did not see the same version as ABT presented at the Met in New York. But their enthusiasm encouraged Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson to present the work again in 2015. It was a wise call.
“Shostakovich Trilogy” is as close to an encyclopedic work as one can find in ballet (in San Francisco, it requires participation by three-quarters of the company’s ranks). The panoply of human emotion is here on display: joy and despair, elation and fear, romance and rejection. Such emotions are intrinsic in the music of Dimitri Shostakovich, a Russian musical genius of the 20th century to whom this trilogy pays homage. That Ratmansky, also Russian, has mined the music for its emotional depths and presented it so visibly onstage is indicative of his genius on a choreographic scale. The work has such sweep and breadth that it may end up redefining classical ballet in modern times.
The evening-length program is danced to three Shostakovich works: Symphony No. 9, a modernist (most critics say satiric) take on the “triumphal” symphonies of the 19th century celebrating national character or military exploits; Chamber Symphony, an orchestration of his haunting String Quartet No. 8, which serves here as the exploration of Shostakovich’s relationships with three prominent women in his life; and the Piano Concerto No. 1, a strangely inconclusive composition that zigzags between ecstatic riffs and darker moods. All three present Ratmansky with myriad possibilities for emphasizing classical ballet while bending its constraints into breathtaking new forms.
The first work, Symphony No. 9, starts off like a foot race, with 16 corps dancers rushing onstage in diagonal patterns, criss-crossing the floor in exuberant bursts punctuated — and also cut short — by the brass blasts in the score. That ebullience is suddenly disrupted in the second movement’s melancholic tone, evident in the slow tempo of the woodwinds. Principals Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham perform their pas de deux with requisite shifts of mood, turning their heads and torsos abruptly, suggesting a mix of playfulness and fear of being watched by a censorious observer. In the final movements, the rapid pace returns, then wanes through the bassoon solo, and picks up again in the buoyant finale. On opening night, principal Vanessa Zahorian, partnered by soloist James Sofranko, managed to look imperious and aloof in what Ratmansky envisioned as a representation of the Stalinist regime. And soloist Hansuke Yamamoto, dancing a role the choreographer dubbed the Angel (a kind of escort through life’s traumas), finished the piece with a grande piroutte à la seconde, bringing the curtain down with a flourish of presto twirls. (A nod as well to corps member Francisco Mungamba, who alternates in the Angel role with impressive confidence.)
The second work, Chamber Symphony, is described as the most narrative of the program’s three parts, although the term is relative when compared to the abstract nature of the other two. There’s no real story, merely a depiction of the composer’s relationships with a trio of women in his life. Here, the central dancer represents Shostakovich and three ballerinas portray his loves: a young girl whose taunting manner invites and then dismisses romance; his first wife and mother of his children; and the younger wife who accompanied him in his senior years. Interspersed are scenes of the torment the composer endured during his several denunciations by the Stalin apparatus. The powerfully evocative music, a transcription of his String Quartet No. 8, provides Ratmansky with numerous opportunities to depict a tortured Shostakovich at various moments, both happy and overwhelmingly sad. In the role of the composer, principal Davit Karapetyan demonstrates a depth of feeling not heretofore evident in his career as a danseur noble. Clad in black trousers and jacket, his shirtless chest heaving with rage and deflating with despair, Karapetyan delivers a searing performance, his brooding visage and heavy pacing contrasted by energetic tours en l’air and grands jetés indicative of the composer’s mood swings during his tumultuous life. (Rubén Martín Cintas alternated in the role during this run, and though he manages the steps efficiently, he does not so thoroughly inhabit the part as Karepetyan does.) Of the numerous ballerinas who portray the women in Shostakovich’s life, two stood out in particular: the aforementioned principal Van Patten, who brings a delicacy and lightness of step as the second wife; and soloist Clara Blanco as the young girl, her flirtatious gestures and pointe work suggesting impending disappointment. The quartet of men who act as a sort of chorus blocking the composer from realizing his idealized connection with the women are superbly danced by corps members Steven Morse, Francisco Mungamba, Sean Orza, and Myles Thatcher. (It is particularly interesting to see Thatcher, whom Ratmansky has mentored, perform so enthusiastically in this work.)
The third and final piece of the program, Piano Concerto No. 1, marks a return to the lighter, more lilting themes of the first. Against a backdrop (scenic design by George Tsypin) of various fractured forms — red stars and other Soviet iconography — the cast of two principal couples and six couples from the corps de ballet execute Ratmansky’s decidedly acrobatic vision of this eclectic composition. In the allegretto, the formations of couples flow on and off stage in waves, with tour-de-force bits thrown in for effect, such as the perfectly synchronized back-to-front turns the six corps men perform, their two-toned unitards — gray in front, red in back (effective costumes throughout by Keso Dekker) — giving the impression of shifting blinds. With the lento movement comes a series of variations and pas de deux by the two principal ballerinas (Sofiane Sylve and Frances Chung), partnered at times by three corps dancers and then by their principal dancers (Tiit Helimets and Joan Boada). Sylve conveys a majestic air, a fluidity of movement and bearing that gives her very difficult dancing the look of effortless grace. Such is the mastery of her art that she actually draws passionate response from Helimets, an otherwise icy, if technically adept, dancer. The two of them create one of the program’s sexier interludes, including a couple of breathtaking lifts requiring Helimets to hoist an upside-down Sylve, legs splayed, over his head. (Please don’t try this at home.) As the concerto builds to its runaway conclusion, Ratmansky creates a tableau of yet another human emotion — ecstasy — as the stage fills with panting dancers. Far from exhausting the audience, this piece, along with its predecessors, engenders nothing so much as a desire to see more from the talented Ratmansky.