You do not have to be an admirer of Shostakovich or a ballet junkie to be moved and exhilarated by San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy. This co-production with American Ballet Theatre looks and sounds spectacular in the golden warmth of the War Memorial Opera House, with eerie sculptural backdrops by artist George Tsypin, the SFB dancers delivering a slightly more restrained performance than ABT, though just as compelling.
The evening veers between mocking paeans to Russian athleticism, outbreaks of paranoia and mistrust, and grief over love lost and ambition strangled. Whether you believe that Shostakovich was a Soviet lapdog or a closet dissident, whether you read into this work coded subversive messages from an artist struggling under a repressive regime, or a defiant riposte to the manifesto of postmodern dance, or none of the above, you are liable to find yourself on the edge of your seat, marveling at the sheer nerve of the dancers, at the extreme yet refined physicality of their interactions onstage.
No strong narrative thread runs through the pieces, although the character of at least one tormented artist figures throughout. The ensemble at times appears to embody the ordinary people, and at other times the dreaded authorities in a police state. Movement motifs link all three pieces, notably swooping lifts and throws, including a heart-stopping handoff in which one dancer, bowing forward at the waist, is tossed high overhead into the outstretched hands of another.
Unexpected twists on traditional ballet technique abound: jumps, turns and lifts that stop abruptly, the movement thwarted by unseen forces; women supporting the men at the waist in pirouette; heads jutting at odd angles; classical shapes like arabesque penchée deliberately stiffened; jumps with the emphasis on reentry rather than take off. Importantly, Ratmansky subverts the traditional ballet hierarchy, giving the corps de ballet as much, or even more, challenging material than the soloists, and as much time onstage, weaving them into complex architectural formations that quickly unravel, rather like temporary shelters in a refugee camp.
The notion of shelter becomes increasingly important in the final piece. Piano Concerto #1 closes the Trilogy with a dazzling competition between Michael McGraw's piano and John Pearson's trumpet, as two female figures in fire engine red leotards - Yuan Yuan Tan and Maria Kochetkova on Thursday night - connect in a wary but tender, sisterly duet under the menacing shards of an industrial explosion suspended over the stage, and then in a smashing double pas de deux with their respective partners - the princely Damian Smith and dashing Vitor Luiz.
Ratmansky's movement language is one of precision execution - rather like the elements of a superior defensive strategy in baseball: the outside slider for a strikeout, the double play, picking a runner off base. Split-second timing, the ability to turn on a dime, gutsiness, trust - all were amply on display on Thursday night, notably in the intimate pas de deux between Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in Symphony #9 and Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Piano Concerto #1, and especially in the riveting solos by Simone Messmer (of all the dancers, the only one to have performed the same role while at ABT and now at SFB.) Messmer galvanized the ensemble with her ebullient hitch-kicks, stabbing pointework and proud upper body carriage. Whether she represents a force of salvation or a figure of mischief was one of many entertaining enigmas of the evening.
Like Messmer, the daring Yuan Yuan Tan with her racehorse physique looks like she was born to dance this language, as does Lorena Feijoo in Chamber Symphony, all fire and ice. Among the corps, Miranda Silveira stood out for her fearlessness, her trenchant lines and dynamite jumps.
In Chamber Symphony, Sasha De Sola and Mathilde Froustey joined Feijoo as the artist's muses, or wives. The delicate and charming Froustey melted hearts as Shostakovich's first wife, Nina, whose death drove him to despair, but unlike Yuriko Kajiya in the same role at ABT, Froustey did not distinctly transform into a ghostlike figure when she came back to haunt the artist. She continued to channel Giselle, whereas Kajiya became an unsettling apparition.
Both Froustey and later Maria Kochetkova in the final piece deployed a coquettish épaulement that seemed somewhat incongruous in this stark modern work.
The spunky Kochetkova seemed to take her variations a hair slower than the tiny tornado Skylar Brandt in ABT's production, but she completely captivated us with her wicked grin as she was wheeled onstage like a rocket-powered wheelbarrow.
James Sofranko and Taras Domitro were standouts in the opening Symphony #9 with their brilliant jumps, Domitro closing the piece and bringing down the house with his extended series of grands pirouettes finishing with a heroic double tour en l'air before he collapsed onstage, shrouded in Jennifer Tipton's moody lighting.
In the striking, mournful Chamber Symphony, Davit Karapetyan, bare-chested under an unbuttoned black velvet jacket, conveyed a noble anguish, equal parts rock star and tortured artist. After creating a final majestic tableau he stumbles offstage, bowed in pain and angst.
Ballet to the People recalls that ABT's James Whiteside turned his back on the ensemble and walked off stoically; she wondered at the time if this mirrored Ratmansky's turning his back on the Bolshoi some five years ago after putting up with the vile political intrigues that have plagued that institution and Russian ballet more generally for generations. What could have transpired since ABT's première to drive the artist deeper into misery? - Look no further than the scandal of the acid attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director Sergei Filin, and Russia's invasion of Crimea, masterminded by another bare-chested icon, intoxicated by Sochi.
And yet Ratmansky chooses to close out the evening with an image of raucous hope as the debris that floats over the stage lifts, the trumpet riots, and Tan and Kochetkova fly high over the stage.
All photos by Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet:
1. Yuan Yuan Tan and Maria Kochetkova in Piano Concerto #1 from Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy
2. Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in Symphony #9 from Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy
3. Lorna Feijoo and Davit Karapetyan in Chamber Symphony from Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy
4. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Piano Concerto #1 from Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy
5. San Francisco Ballet in Piano Concerto #1 from Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy