Shostakovich Trilogy
San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky's “Piano Concerto #1” from “Shostakovich Trilogy.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Shostakovich Trilogy

San Francisco Ballet performs Alexei Ratmansky's masterpiece

Performance
San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky's “Shostakovich Trilogy”
Place
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, May 7, 2019
Words
Rachel Howard

There’s a devastating moment that arrives about two-thirds into “Symphony #9,” the first and most powerful panel in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy,” danced by Mathilde Froustey and Luke Ingham during one of the final performances in San Francisco Ballet’s spring season. The ensemble rushes in with their happy little flexed-foot peasant dances, their movements—penchée splits like ironing boards, hands touching the floor—becoming unabashedly vulgar. Amid the creepily murky lighting, Ingham lifts Froustey, and her feet beat in twittering exuberance as her head, neck and arms hang dead above. The image sears: rarely has art shown us more powerful testimony to the horror of the soul killed by coercion.

Of course the power lies not in the one image, but in the way Ratmansky’s choreography has led us inexorably towards it, inevitably onward from it. By now any description of “Shostakovich Trilogy” must read like the placard next to a great painting at a museum, because enough time has passed since its premiere in 2013 (when it was danced first by American Ballet Theatre, then San Francisco Ballet, in a co-commission) for recognition of a genuine masterpiece. The ballet—one of 11 Ratmansky has made to Shostakovich’s music—paints an abstracted portrait of the composer’s agony under Soviet censorship, and investigates the insidious ability of political pressure to turn free individuals into conformist zombies.

It begins by depicting post World War II brainwash, poignantly using the 1945 symphony that Stalin demanded be a great ode to Soviet triumph (a symphony that Shostakovich instead wrote as a dissonant circus romp) to show us two couples always looking over their shoulders, one couple easily adjusting to the enforced gaiety, the other couple crushed by it, as a mysterious figure in black (arrow-shot Lonnie Weeks, at this Saturday matinee) zooms through like a dark angel.

It then shifts to balletic biography with the “Chamber Symphony,” where a black-jacketed Shostakovich figure (Joseph Walsh finding the perfect precarious point between drama and melodrama) encounters his life’s three great loves, each leaving him with comingled guilt and pain, and yet he stumbles on.

Wona Park and Angelo Greco in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto #1.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

It ends with an eighties-esque spectacle of Cold War competition, two ballerinas in red gymnastics leotards rocketing through fearless feats to the insanely complicated rhythms of the “Piano Concerto #1” (dispatched with fierce elegance by pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad and trumpeter Adam Luftman).

2019 is not 2014. Speaking personally, “Shostakovich Trilogy” galvanized me as a cautionary tale against an upwelling of polarization, propaganda, and fascist nostalgia when I first saw it in San Francisco; last weekend it hit me very differently, as a saddening description of current worldwide realities. At the same time, the strength of “Shostakovich Trilogy” is that it is not current events-driven political art. It manages to be powerfully about the political rather than partaking of the political. It is clearly driven by Ratmansky’s passionate engagement with Shostakovich’s music, and profound empathy for his life. If the ballet in its after-effects causes us to essay connections to the militant nostalgia of “Make America Great Again” or the perils of posting political incorrectness on Twitter, that is because Ratmansky found the precise intersection between the life of the individual human heart and the pressures of politics and kept his finger there in every phrase.

On Saturday, the trilogy imparted a rare sensation: That I couldn’t imagine any other steps to this music; that the music seemed made for these implied storylines. Credit stager Nancy Raffa, working with one of the strongest SF Ballet corps in recent memory. Every individual on that stage understood every step and gesture. It has been a banner year for promotions within San Francisco Ballet, and several younger dancers in principal roles proved the deservedness of their recent rise or showed themselves ready for ascension. Tall, regal, and glamorous Wanting Zhao, recently made principal, zipped with queenly confidence through the piano concerto; Isabella DeVivo, still soloist, did far better than hang on for dear life, while not matching the dazzling clarity (but who could?) of the role’s originator, Maria Kochetkova. I have seen other casts of the piano concerto count the beats aloud, so treacherous is the final canon; Zhao and DeVivo seemed immersed, a considerable feat. Meanwhile, in the “Chamber Symphony,” soloist Jahna Frantziskonis brought a touching innocence to the role of Shostakovich’s young mistress, and Elizabeth Powell shone with tender dignity as his first wife.

As I write this, across the country from San Francisco, American Ballet Theatre is days away from a gala to commemorate Ratmansky’s 10th year there as choreographer in residence. His latest creation, “The Seasons,” will premiere there next week before coming to SF Ballet, its co-commissioner, for 2020. Now that he’s been recognized with everything from a Rolex sponsorship to a MacArthur “genius” grant, this hardly needs saying, but he is one of the few beacons of highest artistry that ballet has, in this moment or any.