Monthly Archives: May 2015

San Francisco Ballet and Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”

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The San Francisco Symphony is right across the street from the San Francisco Ballet. I attend both. I sharpen my skills as a dance reviewer while watching the ballet, so it would stand to reason that I learn more and more about composers and their music while at the symphony.

Except when it comes to Shostakovich.

Soviet Russian history, the era’s political climate and its effect on an artist, music that alternates between melodic, tender and fiercely brash—all this unfolded with Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. As the name suggests, it’s a trio of contemporary ballets set to the music of Shostakovich.

I was a little intimidated, in truth, thinking about how it might all play out. Over the past few years, across the street at the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve seen performances of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2. It’s… challenging listening at times. A performance of his Violin Concerto was easier on the ears—lovely, actually—but now this, a night at the ballet with only Shostakovich. Contemporary ballet, at that. Would it be wholly enjoyable, the way all the other San Francisco Ballet performances have been for me?


I needn’t have worried. Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy was mesmerizing, remarkable, meriting all the praise directed its way since its premiere with American Ballet Theatre in 2013 (it was a co-commissioned between the ABT and the San Francisco Ballet). Ratmansky, Russian-born and Bolshoi trained, forms his work around a strongly classical base, and for Trilogy he hunted down the perfect music. The whole project draws from his longtime appreciation and reverence for Shostakovich, who struggled considerably under the oppressive, censorious Soviet regime. Like I said, it was like watching an era of history unfold there on the stage. Astonishing how much could be said without a word. And we’re not talking any pantomime, either. It was intelligent, clever, beautiful-to-watch choreography that achieved it.

Symphony No. 9, the night’s first work in this triptych, had been a 1945 commission to celebrate Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany. Instead of the brooding triumphalism expected, however, Shostakovich stubbornly opted for lighter fare, the lightest of his fourteen symphonies. There are interesting theories as to why he did this. Great ambivalence toward Stalin and his repressive dictates? Nose-thumbing the regime, but doing it ever so carefully so that the music couldn’t be faulted? Although the audiences liked it, Stalin did indeed take offense, and the censorship board banned the symphony in 1948, citing its “ideological weakness.” In Ratmansky’s choreography, cheery melodies parody regimented obedience, while gentler passages hint at despair, unease, wariness. A relentlessly energetic corps moved on and off the stage, interspersing dance passages with brisk, purposeful strides.

Luke Ingham and Sarah Van Patten in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. (© Erik Tomasson)

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham were beguiling, vulnerable, as one of the two lead couples, their eyes uneasily sweeping the landscape before stepping into their next move. At the end of the pas de deux, Van Patten crumpled to a seated position in a tight, controlled fashion, sliding further down to one elbow, and finally to the floor, body still rigid, eyes wide open and wary. Wow. Ever so effective and well done.

For the second piece, Ratmansky used Chamber Symphony, an orchestral arrangement of Shostakovich’s well known String Quartet No. 8, composed in 1960. This was one of Shostakovich’s most personal works, and through Ratmansky’s choreography, we see it all: the man’s existential brooding, his troubled, eternally censored career, his marriages and loves, his quest to express his own art in spite of pressure to conform. Davit Karapetyan, as the lone man, was brilliant. Throughout, he commanded the stage, walking, striding, leaping, pressing his head into his hands, slumping in exhaustion, only to be swept back to his feet by the corps men, a mandate to “keep moving, never stop; you must keep up the dance.” Boy, did that say it all, in more ways than one.

Frances Chung and Joan Boada in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy. (© Erik Tomasson)

Frances Chung and Joan Boada in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy.
(© Erik Tomasson)

The third work of the trilogy utilized Shostakovich’s 1933 Piano Concerto No. 1. It moves and moves and moves, against an intriguing backdrop of dangling vivid red shapes—stars, blocks, airplanes—suspended from above, against a bullet-grey background. Lead couples Frances Chung and Joan Boada, Tiit Helimets and Sofiane Sylve, were on fire in their respective pas de deux passages, Chung and Boada’s power and technical brilliance pairing well with Sylve and Helimets’ silken elegance. The corps ensemble tore through the choreography with equal effectiveness. Toward the end of the concerto, the music speeds up even more, as do the dancers’ movements, almost a parody of forced Soviet cheer. It’s insane.


Great job, all you talented artists. A heartfelt thanks particularly to Alexei Ratmansky, for helping me to discover, really discover Shostakovich, the man and artist behind the famous Soviet composer.

A different version of this review first appeared at Bachtrack. Read it HERE

Breathtaking Sergei Polunin… and his distant cousin


If you’re a ballet peep, it’s highly likely that you, along with 9.9 million other people, have seen ballet dancer Sergei Polunin’s breathtaking performance in Hozier’s now iconic “Take Me to Church.” If you haven’t yet seen it, wow, are you in for a treat. Choreography by Jade Hale-Christofi, filming by David LaChapelle.

Ukrainian-born and Royal Ballet trained from age thirteen, Polunin shocked the dance world in 2012 when, at 21, a principal with the Royal Ballet, he walked out on the job. He simply left, mid-season, and pretty much disappeared. This SO doesn’t happen in the ballet world. A stunner, from ballet’s “bad boy” dancer and individualist extraordinaire. But Polunin is extraordinary for another reason, as well. Simply put, he’s got the kind of raw talent and stage presence that only come about once or twice in a generation, like those locusts that appear every seventeen years. He’s the top of the top of the top. Now, I’ve had my rant about him before ( so I won’t take that any further. Particularly after watching his stunning, sensual performance in “Take Me to Church.” He’s so beautiful in it, so intensely human, and I love that even amid the emoting, the more contemporary slant to the choreography, he nonetheless maintains a purity of classical style, of line. Those feet, those legs! The air he gets beneath them. The perfect form on that multiple pirouette. You see his impeccable Royal Ballet School training through it all. That counts for so much to me. It’s what makes ballet art. It makes me admire this James Dean of the ballet world so much more.


I just watched a great short documentary on YouTube, called ‘The Fragile Balance’ by Jem Goulding,” featuring Sergei Polunin. It’s worth a watch; it reveals the human behind the super-talented dancer:

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I’m not sure where parody fits into that truism, but it’s surely there too. So of course there are parodies of the virally successful “Take Me to Church.” One over-watched parody is just ghastly — I will not share the link — but this second one is very good. It’s produced by Nightpantz and is titled “Distant Cousin of Ballet Dancer Sergei Polunin Dances to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church.’” The guy is Tim Lacatena (but, pssst: I don’t think he’s really Polunin’s cousin). He’s a fantastic actor, and hey, not a bad dancer. Great chaîné turns, lovely arms, great back flexibility, and a strong sense of phrasing. (Ballet purists, don’t look at his feet, or judge turnout and/or knee placement in back attitudes. Just enjoy the performance for what it is.) What’s so hilariously comic is the way his nude tights make him look, well, nude. There he is, cavorting through the streets of Los Angeles and vicinity, getting curious looks (and more) from bystanders (and cops). Each time I watch it, I enjoy it more for his own antics and not the fact that it’s a parody. A very well staged one. (OMG, at one point, he walks into an Apple store, the “church” of a new generation. Hilarious.) And did I mention his deadpan, dead-funny sense of delivery? So much of it is clever, clever. Well done, Lacatena. An inspired interpretation.

Check it out:

I don’t know about you, but I think these are going to both be my favorite go-to videos to watch when I need a little pick-me-up during the week. Hope you enjoy as much as I do!

Giving birth [to a book] on Mother’s Day


It’s minutes before midnight and I’m about to give birth. Well, to a book. But, weirdly, there are correlations: this pain of pushing, pushing, and finally, in this agonizing rush of both relief and loss, it’s out there.

OFF BALANCE, my first ballet novel, is out there, in stores. My baby, out in the world. But I didn’t choose Mother’s Day as its pub day for just this reason. I did it, because, if you’ve read my blog through the years, you’ll know that I’m a strong advocate for the “motherless daughters” movement, this alternate way to celebrate Mother’s Day for those of us whose mothers have died. ( I’ve made some wonderful connections with like-minded women (sorry guys; weirdly, this feels like a girls’ only club. You don’t mind, do you?), and it’s given me an interesting conversation topic for friends whose mothers are still living. And some of these friends, ironically, feel a sense of loss themselves. For some of them, their relationships with their mothers are crap. Dysfunctional. Hurtful. And they look over at us, the motherless daughters’ club, and all our fond memories of Mom. And it makes them hurt even worse.

Wow. There’s a lot of us hurting on Mother’s Day.


OFF BALANCE features two female protagonists. Daughters (duh). Hurting daughters. Only they don’t know it, because they’ve cleverly hidden it from themselves. It’s easier that way. You lost your mom as a kid? The unspeakable agony and loss of it, at age 10? Suppose you’re part of a family that covers that kind of pain up and just focuses on the positive stuff, the future. And two years later, there’s a stepmother, and she’s great, and really, you’re fine, and everyone in the family agrees, so, therefore, you are, and so the pain should be gone. And ballet’s all about illusion anyway, and hiding your pain. Kill two birds with one stone. Mom gone, but ballet career, even when you’re just a teen, is looking great. And it all pays off. Only the career, a decade later, gets killed, too. But you know the drill: out of sight, out of mind, moving on, you’re fine, really. And now, the second narrator: Mom’s alive and that’s great. A scare, many years back, but now she’s great. Okay, demanding, but great. Okay, occasionally psychotic, but great. Increasingly excessive demands, emotional blackmail, using her love as a weapon, but, really, great. Until her demands go a little too far…

This is OFF BALANCE. My baby. Today my baby is born and it flies out of the nest. Like a child being born and heading off to college a few hours later. And all I can do is wring my hands, watch it take flight, and pray for its protection. Which is pretty much all I can do for my own baby (the “real” kind), now sixteen, making his first tentative steps out there in the world. Between the two experiences, I must say, this is a Mother’s Day I won’t soon forget.


Wishing every daughter (okay, okay, and/or son) out there a happy Mother’s Day, whether you’ve given birth or not, whether your relationship with your mother is good or not. Strained, loving, absent, violent, hurtful, helpful, anxious or ambivalent–there’s room for it all today.


PS: oh, and buy my book. Consider it something like sending a birth acknowledgement card. Heck, at $2.99 (promotional price, through the month of May! Hurry! Operators are standing by!) it’s cheaper than a Hallmark card.

Farewell, Maya Plisetskaya


Today the ballet world has lost one of its greatest of greats; Maya Plisetskaya has died at the age of 89 in Munich. One of the Bolshoi’s most famous and iconic prima ballerinas, she served to define Soviet Ballet for a generation, before advancing into choreographing and directing, while still performing onstage into her sixties.

Somewhat prophetically, I learned more about her history her only last week, while reading Jennifer Homan’s excellent (but long!) Apollo’s Angels – A History of Ballet. Plisetskaya’s background is stirring and unforgettable. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“If [Galina] Ulanova represented Leningrad and a pure Kirov style, Plisetskaya was her opposite: a woman of Moscow with no “real school” (that is, no sustained Vaganova training), no tradition, “no beliefs,” and a childhood bloodied by the twentieth century. Her life in dancing began in 1934, when she was admitted to the school of the Bolshoi Ballet at the age of nine. Her father had been a committed Communist, proclaimed a national hero for his work on behalf of the Soviet coal industry and presented with one of the first Soviet-manufactured cars by Molotov himself. He was also, however, a Jew. In 1937, at the height of the purges, he was arrested (and eventually executed) and her mother was deported to a camp in Kazakhstan. Barely a teenager and faced with terror, war, and dislocation, Maya took refuge in ballet and the Bolshoi Theater; like so many other dancers, she found a home there and in 1943 was invited to join the company. Thus the little girl whose father Stalin had murdered would soon become the de facto prima ballerina of the USSR. But her devastating personal loss and profound—and profoundly ambivalent—relationship to the Soviet state did not go away. There lay the foundation of her art.”


Plisetskaya went on to become one of the greatest of Soviet ballerinas, obtaining the title of prima ballerina assoluta, the rarest and highest of rankings in the ballet world.

Here she is at an 61 years old, dancing “Dying Swan” with the astonishing fluidity of movement (her arms – OMG!) for which she was renowned. Astonishing to watch.

I love the way Jennifer Homans, in Apollo’s Angels, goes on to describe Plisetskaya, giving me a much better vision and perspective of the legend than I’d had before. Here’s another excerpt:

“As a performer, Plisetskaya excelled in the hard-edged, technically demanding roles that Ulanova eschewed: Raymonda, the black swan in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote. She never danced the role of Giselle (‘something in me opposed it, resisted, argued with it’), but instead played the iron-willed Queen of the Wilis. […] Physically this made sense: Plisetskaya was beefy and strong, with thick legs and a muscular back. Stylistically, her movements were hard and unyielding, never elegant or polite. Her technique was raw but powerful–she lacked the refinement of the Kirov school, but could save a step or pull herself back into alignment from a dangerously off-balance position by dint of sheer force. Films of Plisetskaya’s performances show her throwing herself into dancing with an abandon few ballerinas would dark, and in her sharp light, Ulanova’s restrained purity can take on the paler glow of piety. She was brazen and often moved with questionable taste. “I knew some things, others I stole, some I figured out myself, took advice, blundered through. And it was all haphazard, random.”

I can’t decide whom I adore more: Maya Plisetskaya, for the power of the woman she was, in all her flaws and glory, or the dance historian who brought her to life for me. (Needless to say, I highly recommend giving Apollo’s Angels a read.)

Today I will call it Maya’s day. Rest in peace, beautiful prima ballerina assoluta. May the world never forget you and how you enriched and helped define the dance world of the late 20th century.



PS: More wonderful links of her dancing. Here’s her, in Maurice Bejart’s “Bolero: And her dancing Kitri in a 1950’s Don Quixote. Remember how Jennifer Homans said she threw herself into her dance? Perfect example:

PPS: but do yourself a favor and read Apollo’s Angels. If you read one book about ballet and its history in your life, this should be it.