Shostakovich Trilogy is Last But Not Least in SF Ballet's Season
May 7, 2019—San Francisco Ballet ended the season with a performance of Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy that was vibrant and lively in both dancing and music. This season's SFB Program Notes aptly describes Shostakovich's music as "Often not particularly melodic" and seemingly not danceable. Ratmansky has created a very dance-worthy series of ballets that fit like a handmade Freed or Bloch. Although all three of these ballets by Ratmansky were premiered individually by American Ballet Theater, where Ratmansky was artist in residence, in 2012 and 2013, San Francisco Ballet premiered them together as Shostakovich Trilogy in 2014. Fortunately for us, it has returned as a "last but not least" ending to the season.
Shostakovich was often at odds with the Soviet communist leadership's demands, a dangerous attitude in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Ratmansky honors Shostakovich with choreography that channels Shostakovich's vibrant expression of life in a totalitarian regime.
Symphony #9 is Shostakovich's response to Stalin's expectation of a glorious symphony celebrating the Soviet victory in WWII is a lighthearted piece that Ratmansky opens with joyous frolicking by the strong corps de ballet. Contrasting with this frivolity is George Tsypin's backdrop depicting a Soviet-era style celebration of Soviet achievement, with red flags and aircraft, and civilians walking or marching confidently forward. An often playful ballet, there are peeks of suspicion, as though afraid of being watched. Perhaps the highlight is the beautiful pas de deux by Aaron Robison and Jennifer Stahl. Wei Wang's solos as the Angel, expressing hope, demonstrated powerful and masterful technique.
Chamber Symphony is a story ballet that looks back at the loves in Shostakovich's life. Danced by Ulrik Birkkjaer as Shostakovich, and Sasha de Sola, Mathilde Froustey, and Yuan Yuan Tan as his love interests: an infatuation he didn't act on, his first wife, and his wife of later years. Set on Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8, the score contains elements of more traditional Russian music. Birkkjaer's movements spoke eloquently of Shostakovich's angst. Especially poignant was Froustey's expressive portrayal of the first wife, whose death traumatized and haunted Shostakovich. As his second wife, Tan is exquisite at being sympathetic and expressing their relationship as evidently lacking in warmth compared to his first marriage.
Piano Concerto #1 is rightly described in the Program Notes as "the most abstract ballet in the trilogy." Featuring piano played by Mungunchimeg Buriad and trumpet played by Adam Luftman, the score swings emotionally. The riveting backdrop was maybe too distracting, a collection of red, Soviet era objects, such as pieces of a hammer and sickle. Keso Dekker's clever costumes for the ensemble dancers were unitards with a grey front and red back, which was visually confusing as the dancers turned, maybe hinting that their Soviet redness is only skin deep. The two principal women, Wona Park and Sofiane Sylve, wore bright red leotards that managed to stand out against all the other red on stage. Park trained at San Francisco Ballet School and joined the Company in 2017 in the corps de ballet. She was quickly promoted to soloist the following year and apparently for good reason. The caliber of her dancing is impressive, especially her phenomenal grand jeté. Carlo di Lanno and Angelo Greco executed their typically impressive turns and jumps.
Shostakovich Trilogy has a lot going on and a lot to be said for it. Here's hoping San Francisco Ballet brings it back again soon.