San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial House
San Francisco, CA
April 2, 2014
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano 2014
Unlike another recent co-production of a full-evening ballet, this one with American Ballet Theater is worth every penny San Francisco Ballet invested in it. The company premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's "Shostakovich Trilogy" was a major event--musically, choreographically and in terms of challenging SFB's dancers. All emerged with (invisible) laurel wreaths around their heads. The sheer complexity of this triptych means that it needs to be seen again. And SOON.
Ratmansky has openly spoken of his admiration for Shostakovich -- both the man and his music. The remarkable part of this deeply thought out work is Ratmansky's telling of the story -- and there is a story, though a fractured one -- in the composer's own language. He chose three of Shostakovich's scores and structured them along classical symphonic lines, with an opening, expository movement followed by a slow, adagio section and a lively scherzo finale. The choreography rises so astutely from the music that it often amplifies the scores to the point where it makes us see the music quite apart from whatever else we are looking at. He couldn't have done it without SFB's brilliant corps, often deployed in multiple, simultaneous passages that create the turbulent subtext in front of which Ratmansky put his soloists.
'Symphony #9' opens on a note of exuberance, led by James Sofranko throwing himself with gusto into the empty space in front of him. He and Simone Messmer acquire cohorts in their skipping, sliding, and kicking encounters with just a touch of Russian-style couple and line dancing included. For all the sunny energy, Shostakovich feeds brassily discordant notes into the festivities, not unlike those in "Petrouchka."
The slow movement's Pas de Deux for Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit resonates with plangency. Their dancing portends tragedy almost from the beginning. He carries her like a corpse; leaning against him or giving into a deep cambré, Van Patten's slight smile seems to foreshadow what lies ahead. So when she falls, she knowingly gives into it. Quenedit joins her but remarkably, like a tree growing, he resurrects himself secretly behind the corps. Perhaps he is a life force, as embodied in Taras Domitro who at first shadowed the couple but then took to the air in sharply imprinted leaps and turns until at the end he becomes a force of almost pure energy.
'Chamber Symphony', heavy in parts with Weltschmerz, is the most clearly imagistic part of this trilogy. In his black velvet suit -- that, however, beautifully catches the light -- Davit Karapetyan appears to be at loss, dragged about and finally put on his feet by a quartet of assertive male dancers. Esteban Hernandez, Steven Morse, Myles Thatcher, Raymond Tilton roam the earth like malignant spirits. Karapetyan is ever so romantic a figure -- Ratmansky here skirts melodrama, but then so does Shostakovich -- as the outsider who doesn't fit in. Sasha de Sola, Mathilde Froustey and Lorena Feijoo could refer to Shostakovich's three wives but -- especially in SFB's casting -- they could also be seen as the three stages of life. The heartbreak of losing de Sola -- he wants to follow her into death -- left the most painful memory while Feijoo provides some, however, temporary comfort. The final image, with the dancers arranged into a carefully terraced monument, seemed to suggest reconciliation or, perhaps, at least acceptance.
In 'Piano Concerto #1', Ratmansky returns to a gentler version of the ballet's sunny-but-storms possible opening. There is such a breadth of emotional range, including a lot of humor in this music, and the choreography brought it out magnificently. The corps of twelve shone. Again we have two couples who here work side by side with a competition between the two women--both fierce technicians--implied. Yuan Yuan Tan, with Damian Smith, is SFB's tall ballerina, blessed with exquisite lines; Maria Kotchekova, partnered by Vitor Luiz, is the company's short firebrand. Simply to see the two women -- each in eye-catching red unitards -- share the stage made you smile. The dancing between Tan and Damian Smith had an elegiac quality about it. He guided her ever so gently. Smith is retiring at the end of the season, and it looked like the two of them were very conscious of this being an ending.