Monday, May 13, 2019

San Francisco Ballet - "Shostakovich Trilogy"

San Francisco Ballet
Shostakovich Trilogy
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
May 11, 2019 (matinee)

Like most major ballet companies, San Francisco Ballet’s annual season combines several full-length narrative ballets alongside mixed repertory evenings. And I’m someone who is pulled to both types of offerings. While I tend to favor the triple bills because of their variety and breadth, I’m wholeheartedly a fan of the multi-act story ballets too, though admittedly some more than others. But every once in while a program comes along that seems to straddle both formats, weaving a strong narrative thread throughout, while presenting three distinct and unique choreographic frames. Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, which had its SFB premiere in 2014, is one of these rare birds. The final program of 2019’s repertory season, Ratmansky’s Trilogy narratively mines the life and work of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, while its three contrasting parts, each set to a different Shostakovich masterwork, offer deep choreographic scope.

Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison in
Ratmansky's Symphony #9
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Trilogy makes no attempt to tell a linear story, but its narrative threads and tones are undeniable. Spiritedness lightness imbues the beginning of Part I Symphony #9. While the plucky, staccato, almost musical theater-inspired score soared from the orchestra pit, under the brilliant direction of Ming Luke, Ratmansky played with polka steps, technically demanding hops en pointe and moments of pure camaraderie that found the principals weaving through and dancing with the corps. And then the mood takes an abrupt turn. As Mathilde Froustey and Luke Ingham entered the space, a wave of uncertainty and wariness flooded the visual and aural palette. Together, they peered over their shoulders in anticipation of something ominous. Their duet was filled with movements on low demi-pointe rather than full toe, which felt an apt metaphor for a journey that that was just beyond their reach. Catapulting through these divergent scenes was Lonnie Weeks, whose jumps and turns were some of the best of the entire day.

San Francisco Ballet in
Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Part II Chamber Symphony, is the most storied of the group, though again I wouldn’t necessarily call it sequential. Costumed in a black suit with an open jacket, Joseph Walsh takes on the Shostakovich role, with a trio of principal women (Jahna Frantziskonis, Elizabeth Powell and Sasha De Sola) portraying three of his loves. Moments of affection and joy are peppered throughout, though for the most part, the ballet swirls from melancholic to urgent to tortured. Peace, calm and rest seem to elude Walsh’s character, a state that is mirrored on George Tsypin’s backdrop by a fractured collage of faces and profiles. Legs fly in every direction; arms search in a whirling stream for something unattainable. As one would expect, there are several pas de deux between the main players, but it was Walsh and Powell’s incredible connection that made the audience gasp. Every suspended hold, abrupt fall and swimming spin radiated a poignant longing and yearning.  

San Francisco Ballet in
Ratmansky's Piano Concerto #1
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Piano Concerto #1, Part III has a boldness to it. Red, geometric shapes hang from the rafters; Keso Dekker’s costumes have the corps in two-toned unitards (grey on the front and red on the reverse) and the principal women in striking, shimmering scarlet leotards. Much of Ratmansky’s movement vocabulary in this chapter explored off-center steps and postures combined with malleable and strong positions alike. One of the two featured couples, Isabella Devivo and Wei Wang commanded the stage with their precise footwork and whimsical additions, like the flexed frapp├ęs that traveled upward from Wang’s ankle to above the knee.

One special element of Trilogy is the abundant corps work in each movement, though one could argue more so in the first and third. The lush, rich vocabulary seems designed for the senior corps dancers - those with seven, eight, maybe even nine plus years experience in the corps de ballet. While SFB definitely has these exceptional artists in its roster, there’s only a handful, and sadly, seems like less and less every season. The few senior corps who danced on Saturday afternoon were absolutely fantastic. A ballet like Ratmansky’s Trilogy certainly requires advanced technical skill, which they have to spare. Though, its need for movement maturity, attention to transitional space and general spatial awareness is perhaps even more important. And I do think, when it comes to these qualities, time makes a huge difference. If you were in the audience this past weekend, that marked difference was indeed noticeable.    

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