Program Notes

Shostakovich Trilogy San Francisco Ballet and West Coast Premiere

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky
Scenic Designer: George Tsypin
Costume Designer: Keso Dekker
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton

San Francisco Ballet (© Erik Tomasson)

Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in Ratmansky's Symphony #9 (© Gene Schiavone) Courtesy American Ballet Theatre

Symphony #9

Music: “Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Opus. 70”

World Premiere: October 18, 2012—American Ballet Theatre, New York City Center, New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: April 2, 2014—War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

Chamber Symphony

Music: “Chamber Symphony Op. 110a in C minor”
Arranged by: Rudolph Barshai

World Premiere: May 31, 2013—American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: April 2, 2014—War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

Piano Concerto #1

Music: “Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, Op. 35”

World Premiere: May 31, 2013—American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: April 2, 2014—War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

Shostakovich Trilogy

Think of ballet music and you’re not likely to think of Dmitri Shostakovich. Often not particularly melodic, with rapid-fire shifts in tone and tempo, his music seems more suited for the concert halls and film scores its often heard in. But in the hands of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, this music is danceable indeed. Shostakovich Trilogy, a co-production of San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (ABT), consists of three discrete ballets conceived as a full-evening work. Like George Balanchine’s Jewels, the three ballets complement one another, gaining their full impact when seen together. Yet each multifaceted dance sparkles on its own.

The Bessie Award–nominated trilogy of ballets—Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto #1— premiered in spring 2013 in a full-evening performance at ABT, where Ratmansky is resident choreographer. (Symphony #9 premiered the previous autumn.) The original plan was to create one portion of the trilogy at SF Ballet, but Ratmansky’s travel schedule precluded that. “But we were involved in it from the very beginning,” says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer.

Tomasson’s first reaction to the concept for the co-production was admiration “for going with the same composer for the whole evening,” he says. “Shostakovich is maybe not nearly as familiar to most audiences as other composers. And to use a little bit of his life story—I was very taken by that. If anybody could do it, it would be Alexei.” Certainly no other choreographer has shown as much dedication to Shostakovich as Ratmansky, who has set at least 11 ballets to the composer’s music.

To appreciate any music, it’s best to grasp the context of the times in which the composer worked. That’s particularly true of Shostakovich. Coming of age in Stalinist Russia, he was under scrutiny, as were all artists. He gained celebrity at an early age, and political expectations followed, in the form of requests for compositions that exalted the Soviet state. Often he rebelled, and several times he was denounced by the state; he walked a tightrope between survival and artistic choice. “Stalin was interested in music that celebrated everything that was great about Russia, and Shostakovich was at odds with that,” says Martin West, SF Ballet’s music director and principal conductor. “He was trying to create music for all time, not just for Russia.”

Ratmansky, though, had Russia in mind when he created Shostakovich Trilogy, according to ABT Ballet Master Nancy Raffa, who set the trilogy on SF Ballet. “This evening is an homage to Shostakovich, because of Alexei’s enormous admiration for his talent and for what he symbolizes for Russian people,” she says. “But it’s also a homage to [Ratmansky’s] heritage. He grew up listening to and loving Shostakovich, so this was like a gift [to the composer]. And a gift to Russia.”

Raffa, who has worked closely with Ratmansky during his five years at ABT, says she has “enormous admiration and respect for Alexei; I believe he’s a genius.” (As does the MacArthur Foundation; it bestowed a “genius” award on Ratmansky last September.) Raffa was at the choreographer’s side during the birth of Shostakovich Trilogy, which was, she says, a process that evolved slowly. “When we started, I said, ‘Alexei, do you have any idea what you’re going to do?’ and he said, ‘I know I’m using three pieces for a Shostakovich evening, and I know this is an ambitious project. Period.’”

As always with Ratmansky’s work, the movement is inherently classical— that’s the default, even when a step is unquestionably contemporary. “Wherever you can use your classical training, put it there,” Raffa tells one dancer. She asks for a tight fifth position “so you have something solid to work against when your arms are going crazy.”

For Raffa, that melding of classical and contemporary is what’s “special about [Ratmansky’s] work,” she says. “He uses the classical vocabulary with a style that’s specific to him. There’s a freedom of the upper body, in his movement and phrasing and musicality, that is expressive. Alexei is always saying something. You can say a million things with the same movement, [through] the energy and how you utilize the line and shape of your body. That’s the key to Alexei’s work. The vocabulary is the vocabulary; it’s how he uses it that’s so extraordinary.”

When choreographing, Ratmansky tends to avoid giving the dancers specifics about intent and emotion, but in setting his works Raffa is more forthcoming. She knows exactly what he wants and conveys his intent through imagery and approaches to movement. “The arm movement has to be a result of something moving inside you; it has to mean something,” she tells one dancer. To another: “Tension has to be there. You’re torn. Don’t make a pretty pose at the end.” A pas de deux couple needs to “be softer. She should look like lace, a ribbon wrapping around him.” To another couple: “Be really close; he wants to see you like two dolphins.”

Permeating these ballets are the most fundamental human emotions: love and euphoria, grief and despair, and deeply, pervasively, fear—of being watched or followed, or (we assume) disappeared, as so often happened to those in political disfavor during Shostakovich’s lifetime. The color red is prominent; backdrops offer hints of Stalin-era Russia. Yet all three ballets are markedly different.

Symphony #9
San Francisco Ballet (© Erik Tomasson) Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes in Ratmansky's Symphony #9 (© Gene Schiavone) Courtesy American Ballet Theatre

In creating Symphony #9, Raffa says, Ratmansky considered “the time the piece was written and the emotions behind what was happening in Shostakovich’s life.” The first principal couple represents Shostakovich and his wife, supporting each other in a time of great danger; the other couple represents “the regime, the communist party, the whole Stalin mentality,” Raffa says. “He wanted them to be almost a caricature, expressing the sarcasm in parts of the score. But everything is abstract. He kept saying, ‘There’s no story, but there’s a lot of meaning.’ ”

Soloist Simone Messmer, formerly with ABT, has worked with Ratmansky often; at SF Ballet she dances the same role she created in Symphony #9. “I love Alexei’s process; I like the way he makes me dance,” she says. “Everything he does has a story whether it’s abstract or not. His steps, the way he shows them, the way he speaks—I find it very precise. I feel like I know exactly what he wants. I don’t know if I can produce it right away, but I know what the goal is.”

Echoing the importance of understanding a choreographer’s intent is Soloist Shane Wuerthner. “You can always utilize the music to help you with [the steps], but if you have an emotion you can call on, you can almost bring the audience into that emotion,” he says. But first, he needs to figure out how to make Ratmansky’s steps work in his body, Wuerthner says. “I feel that he wants you to move as if you’re in honey, so the movement doesn’t ever finish. And you have to syncopate a lot of movements. Getting that syncopation the way he wants it is a challenge.”

West says Shostakovich’s ninth symphony was one of his childhood favorites, before he knew anything about the composer. “It’s so much fun,” he says. “It goes by like the wind.” Fun and flashy it is, but it was also was one of the composer’s acts of rebellion. West explains: “When the war was finished, it was agreed that he would write a Beethoven’s Ninth type of thing, to celebrate the beating of the Nazis. He started writing it and scrapped it.” What he wrote instead—this funny, acerbic symphony—was interpreted as thumbing his nose at Stalin. “He was in big trouble,” West says. “They were expecting something triumphal and this is just a bit of fun. [In places] it’s like he’s mocking Stalin. I don’t know if he was, but that’s the feeling you get.”

In Ratmansky’s hands, tension underlies the fun, giving the ballet an edge of fear. The subtext is clear: no one is safe. Yet the ballet is buoyed by hope, manifested by a solo principal man Ratmansky calls the Angel. “He’s symbolic of something beyond our tangible, physical world,” Raffa says. “He’s a guide. Despite the turmoil that somebody could live [through], there’s always a way through it. That dancer is symbolic of this.”

There is always, Raffa says, the “guidance of your own integrity, your value system. Of hope, where there’s perhaps no hope; light where there’s only darkness.”

San Francisco Ballet (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet rehearses Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony (© Erik Tomasson)

Chamber Symphony

Chamber Symphony is as close to a narrative ballet as the trilogy gets. The lead man is Shostakovich and the three principal women are his loves—the girl he was infatuated with but never made time for, the wife (and mother of his children) whose death undid him, and the young wife who shared his later years. The ballet takes the form of a retrospective, again with the constancy of fear, this time referencing the persecution of the Jews. (Note the Jewish theme in the music, and the fragments of folk dancing.) Loss weighs heavily in this ballet—of loved ones and what Shostakovich risked to be the artist he wanted to be.

In making this ballet, Ratmansky was responding to the well-documented fact that Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, an orchestration of his Quartet No. 8, was intensely personal to the composer. He quotes his own music here more than anywhere else, and each movement bears an insistent theme—his signature, “DSHC (D.Sch.),” letters in his name (written in German) that can be played as musical notes. The piece, which includes part of an old Russian prison song, was Shostakovich’s personal protest (the dedication reads, “In Memory of Victims of Fascism and War”), he said. According to various sources, he said this music could serve as his epitaph.

The way Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey sees it, “we are what Shostakovich wanted to create. There is a kind of double sense—we are the instruments of Alexei and Shostakovich. There is the choreography, and there is the music. There is the context of the creation of this music.”

There’s a moment in this ballet when the Shostakovich character raises a finger in a moment of recognition. Raffa says it’s as if he’s thinking, “Everything I’ve lived through had a purpose, a meaning. I can pass peacefully now because I’ve left something.” And then, she says, in the final tableau Ratmansky builds an image that pulls the viewers’ eyes up, to a single girl held high, as if to say “what he left is monumental. The scene is like a monument to Shostakovich’s thoughts and ideas, his humanness.”

Piano Concerto #1

Of the trilogy ballets, Piano Concerto #1 is the most abstract. Ratmansky is “using the dancers as instruments, creating the music with their movement,” Raffa says. Yet there’s visible emotion. “Shostakovich is extremely emotional,” Raffa says. “You can’t work with his music and not have that quality in your choreography.”

The music, Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, is mercurial, whipping from one mood to another. West describes the piece as “a very good example of classic proportions where Shostakovich was able to take off on tangents that only a great comedy genius could do. Especially the last movement—it goes nuts. Suddenly he slams on a chord out of nowhere, or he’ll make it sound like he’s going to trill into a little Mozart cadenza [embellishment] and then doesn’t.”

That frantic quality in the last movement may have roots in Shostakovich’s job, as a very young man, of playing piano accompaniment for silent movies. “He was able to make stuff up,” West says. “That’s almost how the Piano Concerto is—it’s a ridiculous play on everything.” Yet it has “all styles of music, very deep and serious,” he says, “and the slow movements are beautiful.”

For Principal Dancer Vitor Luiz, the contrast in the music during his solo is something he loves. “The music shifts to this very energetic movement—it’s like showing off—and then it goes back to quiet. It’s theatrical. The image Nancy gave us was of looking out a window to see your future, but you don’t see any future there. That already gives you the idea why you do that solo—because you have nowhere to go,” he says. “If you do this solo right, it will touch people’s souls. That’s one of the best parts for me.”

What’s remarkable about dancing Ratmansky’s ballets, Luiz says, is how “they make you feel good.” He noticed it with Russian Seasons, then again with From Foreign Lands. “I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ Then I worked with him, and he shared his knowledge and his deep attention to details. He said, ‘It’s like a nice, fine cuisine. You have to put in all these ingredients, and they are all measured by grams. You have to use all that.’

“So when Nancy put together Piano Concerto,” Luiz continues, “the image she said he wanted is a prisoner in a country— the artists who couldn’t get out. She said, ‘Imagine that you cannot go back to Brazil, and your whole family is there—your daughter, everyone—and you can’t ever talk to them again.’ And so in this moment that’s what you think. You’re trying to find a solution or a way out, and you can’t. Every movement has a meaning. Maybe that’s why you feel good afterwards—because you feel like you accomplished something technically but also artistically.”


Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Three Part San Francisco Premiere, Co-production with ABT
Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky

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San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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