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Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy: Genius Choreographer Adapts Genius Composer

(Originally published in Piedmont Post)

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's “Symphony #9” from Shostakovich Trilogy, Photo © Erik Tomasson

Hailed as the most important choreographer since George Balanchine, Alexei Ratmansky, a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre, is no stranger to San Francisco. Since his move to the US in 2008, Ratmansky has added eight groundbreaking works to San Francisco Ballet’s repertory. In 2014, together with the American Ballet Theatre, where he is now artist-in-residence, Ratmansky created “Shostakovich Trilogy,” a three-act ballet set to the orchestral pieces of USSR’s most famous—and most tormented—composer. This May, after a triumphant showing at various stages around the world, the trilogy returned to San Francisco as part of the 2019 season at the San Francisco Ballet Company.

Shostakovich, one of the 20th century’s most significant composers, is not frequently adapted to ballet. Though his emotional range is striking, with shifts between tragedy and triumph sometimes achieved within a few bars, Shostakovich’s symphonic music is famous for unusual pairings of instruments, frequent bursts of percussions, and rapid transitions between bombast and gentle. The music thus harbors certain difficulties for ballet dancers accustomed to full phrases and melodic sequences of the Tchaikovsky type. But Ratmansky, who understands and feels Shostakovich perhaps like no other choreographer, splendidly achieves the fit of adapting his favorite composer to his favorite art. What the dancers bring forth is a nuanced portrait of an artist in conversation with power, his times, and immortality.

Ratmansky has been universally praised for musicality, stylistic diversity, and the energy with which he infuses his productions. All were on full display at the War Memorial House, where “Shostakovich Trilogy” had been performed over six days in May. Ratmansky is also a genius at contextualizing Soviet realities to the global audiences, who know nothing or little about them. One doesn’t have to be a Shostakovich’s connoisseur or a USSR native to deduce the morbid nature of the composer’s relationship with the Soviet state, which took turns between extolling and reviling him.

In Ratmansky’s production, the drama is conveyed not through biographical vignettes, but through the focus on the emotional component that characterized what was happening in Shostakovich’s life at the time of each piece’s creation. The evening opened with Symphony #9. Written by Shostakovich in 1945 to commemorate USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany, and described as “a breath of air after years of misfortunes,” by the composer himself, the symphony fell short of Joseph Stalin’s expectations of what a “victory” symphony might sound like. Though initially praised by the critics, the work was later chastised for “ideological weakness” and failure to convey the gravitas of the Soviet’s people’s heroism.

Ratmansky interprets the symphony as Shostakovich’s act of rebellion: instead of giving Stalin yet another triumphant military march, he produced something lighthearted and transparent. In the ballet, the tension is built by juxtaposing the principal couple, representing Shostakovich and his wife as they struggle through yet another upheaval in the composer’s career, and the second couple embodying the regime and the Communist party. At times grotesque, at times ironic, the choreography follows Shostakovich’s score, the dancers often fleeing something invisible, as though dancing on the edge of fear. A solo male principal, described by Ratmansky as an Angel, symbolizes hope in the worst of times. According to the stager Nancy Raffa, a current ballet mistress of the American Ballet theatre who also did the staging in San Francisco, he comes out like he’s “attacking all the evil.”

The second number, “Chamber Symphony,” is set to an orchestration of Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No. 8. Shostakovich wrote it in three days in the summer of 1960 after being forced by the Soviet officials to join the Communist Party, which he privately detested as the “party of violence.” He poured out his grief in his music. Many believe the Quarter is his own epitaph.

The event itself is not acted out in Ratmansky’s adaptation. Instead, the ballet portrays Shostakovich’s relation with the three important women in his life: a youthful interest (vivaciously danced by Sasha De Sola), his wife of twenty-two years and mother of his two children, Nina (Mathilde Froustey), and his young wife Irina (Yuan Yuan Tan).

“Chamber Symphony” is billed as the most narrative of the three pieces, yet story is a relative term for Ratmansky. “There’s no story but there’s a lot of meaning,” he says. In the absence of a distinct plot, the emphasis is on layers of artistic interpretation. “We are what Shostakovich wanted to create,” says Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey. “There is a kind of double sense—we are the instruments of Alexei and Shostakovich.” Back in 2015, the part of Shostakovich’s beloved wife Nina, whose death nearly destroyed him, happened to be Mathilde’s first dramatic role. She admits that at times the complexity of the task, particularly given Shostakovich’s not-your-typical ballet music score, seemed daunting. “Just listen to the music and do the steps, and your steps and the music put together are going to make the drama,” Ratmansky would instruct her.

The evening closed with “Piano Concerto # 1, with Mungunchimeg Buriad, pianist, and Adam Luftman, trumpet. In the composition, danced by a corps of 12, students and practitioners of USSR would easily recognize choreographic nods to “human pyramids” favored by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, or to the morning calisthenics, habitually performed to Chopin preludes in the clustered Soviet apartments in a mandatory bid for health and vitality.

But what often looked gaudy or absurd back in USSR is transformed by Ratmansky’s lyricism and breadth of his choreographic tools into art of the highest caliber. His eye for details, meanwhile, conveys the era truthfully, without nostalgia’s rose-colored glasses. Keso Dekker’s costumes—effective two-toned unitards, gray in front, scarlet in the back—serve as a perfect visual metaphor for the duplicity of the Soviet system, in which loud slogans extolling human achievements were contrasted by the drab uniformity of life in a totalitarian state.

A vital component of the evening was the scenic design by George Tsypin. Like Ratmansky, Tsypin is a former citizen of USSR living between two worlds, having studied and worked in the US, Europe and Russia. He feels Shostakovich’s music as acutely as Ratmansky. At the War Memorial House, Tsypin’s stage design featured large background canvases depicting human countenances, their expression changing from natural to menacing; red stars, hammers and sickles suspended from the ceiling and floating above the dancers, themselves perfectly adapt at defying gravity. Those widely recognizable elements of Soviet iconography evoked, at once, revolutionary-era avant-garde —and the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics that Tsypin designed and directed in 2014.

Ironically, just three weeks after the ceremony (acclaimed as one of the most spectacular and most expensive in the history of the Olympic Games) Russia annexed Crimea, launching war with Ukraine, where Ratmansky, who is of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, had spent his childhood. Shostakovich, whose genius had been frequently appropriated by the Soviet state for political ends, would have certainly felt a pang of recognition. But on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, art, not violence, triumphed, just like the trilogy’s central character and its creator, wanted. One can only hope that Alexei Ratmansky will continue to use San Francisco as a springboard for his groundbreaking productions. Few cities in the world are that lucky.

San Francisco Ballet’s upcoming 2020 season will include Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Seasons,” a co-commission with the New York’s American Ballet Theatre. Other season highlights are George Balanchine’s “Jewels” and A Midsummer Night’s Dreams,” “Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella,” and Helgi Tomasson’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

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