S.F. Ballet's 'Shostakovich Trilogy' embraces politics, history 

click to enlarge From left, Sarah Van Patten, Dores Andre, Davit Karapetyan and Mathilde Froustey appear in San Francisco Ballet’s "Shostakovich Trilogy." - COURTESY ERIK TOMASSON
  • From left, Sarah Van Patten, Dores Andre, Davit Karapetyan and Mathilde Froustey appear in San Francisco Ballet’s "Shostakovich Trilogy."
Choreographer and composer unite in San Francisco Ballet’s presentation of Alexei Ratmansky's "Shostakovich Trilogy.” Filled with symbolism and open to interpretation, the three-section work on Program 6, which opened Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House, is a remarkable journey through mood – and Soviet Russian history and politics.

Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre, grew up in the repressed Stalinist era. He’s clearly inspired by paradoxes and tension in Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions.

In an encore evening-length performance (the work had its San Francisco Ballet debut in 2014) staged by Nancy Raffa, the opening piece, “Symphony #9," showcased an elegant, athletic Hansuke Yamamoto (a last-minute substitution for Taras Domitro) in a leading part, complemented by playful and joyful principal couples: Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham, Vanessa Zahorian and James Sofranko. Wearing appealing costumes by Keso Dekke, the corps – women in flowing dark dresses, men in sleek black – was lively and animated.

According to program notes, the symphony, which premiered in still-devastated Leningrad in 1945, did not celebrate victory over Nazi Germany as was expected, but was filled with bright and carefree sounds; at the time, Stalin’s henchmen called it a "failure to reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union."

Yet for this viewer, the music and dance illuminated Russian vitality and love of life. Directed by Martin West, the orchestra sounded wonderful _ particularly soloists Rufus Olivier (bassoon), Eric Sung (cello), Natalie Parker (clarinet), Barbara Chaffe (flute) and Julie McKenzie (piccolo).

Set in front of a foreboding backdrop on which huge, blocky faces appear, the second piece, "Chamber Symphony," was mysterious and emotional. Lead dancer Davit Karapetyan, in black slacks and an open black jacket exposing his torso, displayed his typical understated brilliance, portraying a man yearning for love, under the influence of three women, Dores André, Mathilde Frousty and Van Patten. Moments of hope, crushed by sudden, unexplained tragedy, led to a wistful conclusion.

In the third act, “Piano Concerto #1,” George Tsypin's design (geometric shapes and symbols of communism such as disjointed, hammer-and-sickle parts) offered a bold, if puzzling, backdrop to agile performances by partners Frances Chung and Joan Boada, and Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, and the corps, donned in unitards with a gray front and red back.

Mercurial music showcasing pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad and trumpeter Adam Luftman provided startling shifts to a story – if any – that viewers may interpret in any number of ways. For others, it simply may be great abstract ballet.


San Francisco Ballet Program 6

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. April 9, April 14 and April 17; 2 and 8 p.m. April 11; 2 p.m. April 19

Tickets: $22 to $345

Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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