March 4, 2021
Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony #9, the opening work of San Francisco Ballet’s latest digital triple bill, is a witty work for two couples and solo male backed by a corps of sixteen, set to Shostakovich’s surprisingly light 9th Symphony. Not blighted by the supposed ‘curse of the 9th’, Shostakovich nevertheless had intended to write a much larger work including a chorus to herald the end of the Great Patriotic War in 1945. Instead, the symphony is a work that seems to sum up the man himself, comprising more than a hint of dark elements interspersed with bouncy jokiness, which sums up Ratmansky’s choreography too.
George Tsypin backcloth recalls images of Socialist realism. It depicts men, red banners in hand, people en famille, sporting figures and Magritte-like men dropping down like pilots without a parachute, sometimes upside down: in short homo sovieticus.
Dancers are not afraid to look directly, defiantly even, at the audience or to glance conspiratorially at them as they lurk in fear and suspicion. Then, out of nowhere, Ratmansky tosses in a gag. Wei Wang leaps into the outstretched arms of four other men like a girl in a Hollywood film; one dancer supports himself on one hand while repeatedly jumping back and forth over his own legs.
Ratmansky’s ballet is nevertheless a very classical and demanding work. Dancers travel a lot and are given plenty of time to show off exquisite lines. The first pas de deux introduces a reflective mode, accompanied by a clarinet duet and bass clarinet. Ponderous strings herald the entrance of the corps. Extensions are languid and high. A couple huddle in the corner of the stage like frightened rodents, while the male soloist dances. They form a trio as a flute pipes and insistent rhythm, before the ensemble joins them as sinuous strings inch forward in chromatics like a man crawling on thin ice.
Ratmansky says of Symphony #9, “There’s no story, but there’s a lot of meaning.” There certainly are; layers and layers of meaning about life in Soviet Russia, far too many to elaborate. Fear and fun wrestle with each other as they so often did for Shostakovich.
Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robinson peer from side to side then dance, ending by collapsing in degrees onto the stage, prone. The ensemble dance frenetically as clarinets run up and down scales, flutes and piccolos pipping at the tops of their ranges. One man stands, bold and strong like a socialist realist monument. He pirouettes and stretches out into full extension. Three men stand like statues in the background while the lead couple dance, glancing fearfully and furtively about them. The women who join and encircle them stand like guardians at the front of the stage in half light. A plaintiff bassoon calls out in despair.
All told, a deeply meaningful but thoroughly entertaining work.
Wooden Dimes, Danielle Rowe’s first main stage production for SF Ballet, was adapted for film because of COVID-19 restrictions. Rehearsals were conducted using Zoom and iPhone, while the number of dancers was reduced and backstage mirrors used to add an illusion of a bigger chorus, with one production number being cut entirely.
The result is a rather mixed work that purports to be “a light-hearted reminder to be cautious in one’s dealings” and “not to be naïve” and yet depicts a rather grim, crumbling 1920s relationship between an ambitious performer Betty Fine (Sarah van Patten) and her office drudge husband Robert (Luke Ingham).
Dancers portray the characters’ emotions. A group of Shiny Things represents Betty’s joy and happiness. Dark Angels, a duo comprising a man in red sock suspenders and braces and his flapper, reflect Robert’s doubts and insecurities.
Ostrich feathers meet with pointe shoes. What more could a girl want? Inevitable there is a Busby Berkeley reference (although his films were actually a decade later), like Swan Lake danced by showgirls and even including the rapid head changes of the cygnets.
As Betty and Robert drift apart with the background of the mirrored lights of the dressing room and bustling chorus girls to witness their fate, there is a hint of the sordid side of the decade, so often portrayed as a time of frivolous fun. It ends with Betty walking towards a naked lightbulb like a moth to the flame.
Rowe doesn’t quite manage to pull it all off, although under the circumstances, her efforts are admirable. James M Stephenson’s cinematic score gives a vague sense of period but can’t quite decide whether it is frivolous or a tragedy.
Yuri Possokhov’s surreal, psychedelic Swimmer could not be more different. Making much excellent use of multimedia, it’s set in the 1960s, a decade that in many ways echoed the 1920s with its excess, colour bursting on a drab scene and illicit drugs permeating everything.
Based on a short story by John Cheever, it depicts a man who swims home through his neighbour’s pools only to find that his own home, his life, is nothing but an empty frame. The music is by Shinji Eshima, a double bassist with the SF Ballet orchestra, the instrument unsurprisingly making many appearances throughout.
Projections above the stage create the illusion of the affluent, consumer-orientated US like a series of times from films of the period as the Swimmer (Joseph Walsh) commutes to work. His bus sinks into the first pool after which he encounters a cabaret, and then in the second a party with a view of the pool beyond. The vibraphone evokes an oh-so-60s sound as dancers cavort on the diving board like go-go dancers in a disco. The outline of the swimmer shows him dressing and undressing as he dives into each successive pool.
After a Tom Waits song growls in the background as The Swimmer has a brief liaison with a girl, the following encounter powerfully evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (painted in 1942), a lone woman in red engaging in an all-too-brief pas de deux. As we meet more characters including strange oriental women who dance against a background of Gamelan-like gongs and bongos, and an animated shark, you don’t have to look too closely to also spot references to Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate, and J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the latter coming as he dances in a field of waving grain, surrounded by schoolboys.
It seems that The Swimmer is only his true self when swimming. He is multiple men, everyman, galloping towards his own death or perhaps his own spiritual salvation as an ocean of water swells behind him. A tiny beetle in the vastness of a garden pond.
San Francisco Ballet’s Programme 3 is available to March 24, 2021. Visit www.sfballet.org for details and tickets.