SF Ballet “Shostakovich Trilogy”

“Shostakovich Trilogy” at SF Ballet

Carol Benet

The last program of the current season of the SF Ballet features a spectacular “Shostakovich Trilogy” choreographed by one of the most famous artists of today Alexei Ratmansky.  Returning for another performance after its SF Ballet Premiere in 2014 this ballet is a fresh as it was then.  It was first seen at the  American Ballet Theatre in New York City in 2012 as a co-production of the two ballets.  It is a masterpiece of modern choreoography.

The program starts with the music of Shostakovich’s “Symphony #9” and that work, along with the other two, references the past in Russian history, the time of Stalin, a time that is eerily contemporaneous with today’s Russia under Putin’s rule with its loss of personal freedoms and fears of surveillance.

“Symphony #9” has a well-known history.   Shostakovich was supposed to write a symphony that would please the aesthetics of Stalin who always invented a false happiness that was supposed to be felt by a joyous proletariat.  But upon hearing the Symphony Stalin sensed, rightly so, that the composer was sneering at his principals that falsely praised the Soviet system. I instead Shostakovich inserted touches of music that made fun of the bland, simplistic and insincere representations that had to pervade in all of the Stalin approved arts.  So in the  music and very much so in the dances that Ratmansky created there is a huge measure of parody juxtaposed with fear and instances of creepy surveillance.

In “Symphony #9” Jennifer Stahl, Aaron Robison, Dores André, Joseph Walsh and Wei Wang, all stars of the SF Ballet, backed up by the corps, perform often silly, exaggerated movements with even an occasional finger snapping to represent the happy-go-lucky prettiness that Stalin demanded to show  how satisfied the people were under his rule.   But the music denies this happiness with sneers from the bassoon, screeches of the piccolo with scary interludes when the four toughs sweep through like a mine detector conducting a search. Other dancers kneel together and look like a cult performing their rituals.  The backdrop changes from depressing grey in the first movement to one with red human figures falling from the sky along with a dirigible, an airplane from the 40s and other abstractly recognizable forms.  The pas de deux that usually signal love are injected here with sinister and mysterious music from the oboe., often with the mysterious sound of the oboe. The dance ends with a parade with all dancers’ heads face the same direction as in the pictures of the marching soldiers always looking at Stalin.

The second work is “Chamber Symphony” with the soloists Sasha de Sola, Mathilde Froustey and Yuan Yuan Tan, three other stars of the ballet.

“Chamber Symphony” is the only one of the three that ballet that has such a direct biographical narrative about Shostakovich’s life and loves.The opening backdrop shows sketches of wan and troubled faces.  The mood here is taken from the composer’s life and includes three of the women in it, two of his  wives and a lover who was his student.  The music and dance veers towards Klezmer at times because the narrative has to do with the rounding up of the Jews and the anti-semitism Shostakovich experienced duringf the Stalin regime.  Some toughs wearing wife-beater shirts  treat the women roughly while at times the women exhibit slight movements of seduction.

The third piece “Piano Concerto #1” is  performed by the excellent piano soloist Mungunchimeg Buriad with large parts by equally talented trumpeter Adam Luftman, all backed up by the orchestra.  This is the most abstract of the works and features soloists Sofiane Sylve, Carlo di Lanno, Wona Park and Angelo Greco plus the fine corps de ballet.  The women soloists are in brief red, one piece skin tight swimsuit-like costumes.  The  corps wears body suits that are half grey for a frontal view and half red so that it seems like aa second dances when they turn their backs. This work probably was inspired by the geometrically cold and precise work plus minimal costumes of Balanchine.

All of the people responsible for the production of “Shostakovich Trilogy” are the top of their profession.  Martin West conducts the fine SF Ballet Orchestra with their individual uncovered solo moments  adding coloration to the narrative. The scenic design is by a master of the craft George Tsypin, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting has made the stage brilliant or gloomy when  necessary to illuminate certain episodes for effect. Kelso Dekker’s appropriate costumes, often in drab colors, are perfect for the period in the Soviet Union portrayed. Nancy Raffa has staged these three ballets with a masterful hand.

“Shostakovich Trilogy” runs through May 12, 2019.  SFBallet.org or 415 861 5600.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →