When San Francisco Ballet first danced Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy last April, artistic director Helgi Tomasson didn’t expect it to be a hit. A plotless three-act ballet set to the grating dissonances of Shostakovich? Tomasson slated the ballet for only one season. But after opening-night, word spread of the ballet’s brilliance and the crowds poured in. So the Shostakovich Trilogy will return to San Francisco next week.
One might think the Russian-born Ratmansky would have inspired more confidence on Tomasson’s part. Trained at the Bolshoi, the choreographer is artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” In recent years he has made commissions for the New York City Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, La Scala and the Bolshoi Ballet, among many others. And he is only 46.
His Shostakovich Trilogy is, simply put, a contemporary masterpiece, an astonishing and quite possibly perfect whole. Ratmansky catches the inner current of the music, with its oscillation between sweet melodies and grotesque parodies, so that, in watching the dancers, we live inside Shostakovich’s emotional dissonance. Only a Russian choreographer with Ratmansky’s narrative leanings could have teased out this music’s true drama. Or perhaps a Czech, because watching the Shostakovich Trilogy is like reading a Milan Kundera novel: by the end, you feel that you’ve vicariously lived in a communist state.
The ballet has no plot per se, but Ratmansky ingeniously and very subtly suggests a story. The first panel of the trilogy is danced to Symphony No. 9, an eerily bright romp that was commissioned to celebrate Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany. The dancers wear a murky mix of brown and green, with just a flash of gold on the underside of their skirts (this is ballet, after all). The women wear their hair is in peasant braids and cavort with the men like rustic folk to cheerful Haydenesque themes.
Before long the mood – and the music – darkens, and a principal couple comes in (the always-dramatic Sarah Van Patten and the dashing Carlos Quenedit on last year’s opening night), looking warily over their shoulders. They seem to ask, is all this cheerfulness too good to be true? Two pizzicato notes are plucked by the cello between melodic refrains and the dancers look suspiciously left and right—not when the notes are plucked, but in the pauses when we hear, in our imaginations, the ghostly echoes of those two notes. Then they join the dance.
Here we see Ratmansky’s brilliant musicality. A lesser choreographer would have made that wary principal couple either flail despondently or smile obscenely, foregrounding the symphony’s more disquieting tones. But Van Patten and Quenedit hit the perfect note of ambiguity: were they mildly enjoying the coerced jigs? They remain unreadable to those around them and to us, conveying that they themselves may be unclear how it feels to participate.
The second panel of Ratmansky’s trilogy is Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (originally a string quartet), written in 1960, a few months after Shostakovich joined the Communist Party—and, according to his daughter, contemplated suicide. Here Ratmansky is more specifically biographical: We are given representations of the composer himself (danced movingly, never melodramatically, by both Davit Karapetyan and Jaime Garcia Castilla in separate performances). There’s a colluding, whispering ensemble, and then three principal women, who might represent Shostakovich’s wife and two mistresses. You don’t need to know this, though, to be immersed in all that matters here: The mind-twisting confusion of kisses offered, then manipulatively withheld (the young soloist Sasha De Sola was terrifying in her calculated flirtations), the devastating impossibility of trust (Lorena Feijoo was heartbreaking as the wifely figure whose impulses to solace were always quickly cut off by the fear of surveillance).
It was the final panel of Ratmansky’s triptych, set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, that put the ballet, for me, on the same level as George Balanchine’s masterpiece Jewels. Ratmansky has inherited a lot from Balanchine, particularly his manner of establishing and interweaving sets of ensembles in response to the music’s structure. But Ratmansky’s aesthetic, now fully developed, is his own. He does not rely on the hierarchies of 19th century ballet, unlike Balanchine, who built his compositions on the separation of corps, soloist and principal ranks, often arrayed in lines. The dancers in Ratmansky’s ballet are not aristocratic idealizations. And his movement invention concentrates in the arms rather than the legs.
A final rich irony: The arresting set designs of the Shostakovich Trilogy, which in the crowning Piano Concerto No. 1 spoof Soviet propaganda, were created by the same designer who created ceremony scenery for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Ballet has often been used as a tool of propaganda, nowhere more thoroughly than in the Soviet Union. Ratmansky’s great talent for conveying emotional ambivalence transforms ballet into a tool for exposing propaganda—and does so without a dull moment. As the manipulative spectacle of the Winter Olympics and ensuing events in Russia prove, Ratmansky’s talent is strikingly timely.