Big dance week in the Bay Area

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 8, 2014
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The Bay Area has the richest dance world in this country outside of New York. And in the last week there's been so much work of importance, it was not only impossible to see it all, it staggers the imagination of your reporter how to do justice to the wonderful things he did see. So this is going to be rough. I'll try to make it easy for you.

San Francisco Ballet dancers
Sarah Van Patten and Pascal Molat in choreographer Mark Morris' Maelstrom. Photo: Erik Tomasson

First of all, the things you can still see that you must see: Mark Morris' Maelstrom (on a triple bill that runs through next Tuesday) at San Francisco Ballet is an event of the first magnitude. Only SFB dances this great ballet, you cannot see it anywhere else, they have not revived it for a decade, and it is the most beautiful work Morris has ever made for a ballet company. No movement in it could be changed, and it's been impeccably restaged by Betsy Erickson with glowing, completely committed performances by a cadre of 14 dancers who at some points seem to be the warp and weft of the whole world, though Sasha de Sola seems to be outshining every other dancer, like the moon among stars. It's a harmonious work that reflects its music, Beethoven's haunting Ghosts piano trio, superbly played by Kay Stern, Eric Sung, and Roy Bogas. Of all the works to be seen or discussed, it is the most beautiful and self-revealing, and intelligible simply within its own terms.

It's on a program with Caprice, a new neo-classical work by Helgi Tomasson with a glamorous decor by Alexander V. Nichols, and a reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring by Yuri Possokhov that seems to be inspired by Pussy Riot.

San Francisco Ballet dancers
Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit in Symphony #9 from Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Speaking of Russian artists who have spent a lot of time in jail for expressing themselves according to their own lights, the other huge dance event this week was the Bay Area premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's awe-inspiring Shostakovich Trilogy, which runs through Sunday and uses the grand Soviet technique as the backdrop for the deep, inward drama of a Soviet artist's response to threats from Stalin. The dancing is on a huge scale. Heroic overhead lifts, enormous leaps, bursts of drastic speed and clarity, huge pile-ups of bodies in tableaux of lamentation appear at apt points over the evening, as Ratmansky sets three large works, Shostakovich's Symphony #9 (Op. 70), the Chamber Symphony (Op. 110A), and the Concerto for Piano and Trumpet , Op. 35.

The dancing in the Shostakovich trilogy was astounding. Especially telling was Davit Karapetyan, whose virtuosity was stretched in every direction and required all the panoply of the heroic Soviet male, as if this were Spartacus. His challenges included changing the mood mid-pirouette. After five turns, he had to hear the musical cue to reach heavenward and continue turning in a position of agony, and collapse into despair.

There isn't space to go into the depths of this �" neither, on one viewing, can I say I've penetrated the depths of a work that clearly will repay many viewings. But the subject could not be more timely �" the Russian annexation of Crimea (which Soviet artists like Valery Gergiev, conductor of the great Maryinsky symphony, have been forced to sign off on) shows that Putin wants to crush the arts back into the work of propaganda. It seems a small thing by comparison with the fact that it's now a punishable offense to advocate homosexuality.

This is what Shostakovich was up against from the 1930s on, and Ratmansky immigrated to America to escape similar oppression himself after heading the Bolshoi, where he revived the suppressed Shostakovich ballets amidst fierce opposition from neo-Soviets.

More of this next week �" but first, it needs to be said that there is tremendous comic energy in these ballets as well, with brilliant, excoriating wit blazing out in passages that I can't account for. Some have thought that they are satires of the apparatchiks who are happy to go along with the regime. I tend to think the bright comic energy is too simpatico to always be satiric. Perhaps James Sofranko (in the Symphony #9) embodies the amazing genius of the young Shostakovich, whose outrageous early Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk made a splash comparable to that of young Shakespeare with Titus Andronicus, and who burst upon the scene with the roar  of a new style announcing itself. And the adagio couple (Carlos Quenedit and Sarah Van Patten), who are always looking over their shoulders and never move freely, show the artist after Stalin attacked him in Pravda, and then the opprobrium piled on.

More of this next week.