Until Wednesday night, Alexei Ratmansky seemed to be a choreographer of charming cameo works crafted with finely wrought detail and loving treatment of the sexes. If you hoped for large, symphonic dances that gave volume to space, built metaphor and openly addressed culture and politics, you had to look elsewhere.
All that appeared to change Wednesday in one thrilling swoop as the 46-year-old Russian emigre overturned the small and lovely world one has come to expect from him with the West Coast premiere of "Shostakovich Trilogy" for Program 5 at San Francisco Ballet. "Trilogy" is one of the most complex and bracing works of ballet to appear on stage in years. The choreographer demonstrates just how much clout neoclassical dance language still has.
Set to three works by the heavily censored Shostakovich, known for burying his subversion under the sounds of national uplift, this full-evening ballet is a history of Soviet society. It begins with Stalin's blanket of fear and the weighty conformity of the masses, and concludes with the athletic triumphalism of the later 20th-century dance, from expressionism to vapid athleticism.
Crafted as a triptych, as Russian icon paintings often are, the evening begins with Symphony No. 9, a work expected to celebrate Russia's triumph over Germany in WWII, but which instead bursts with dark ironies. Here Ratmansky plunges Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit into a journey echoing the trials of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, although these lovers' path is filled with terrifying fairy tale forces.
Like Shostakovich, Ratmansky reveals complexity by shifting from the dark to the light, the dire to the wry like dangerous quicksilver. The corps performs crisp, insouciant jetes with quirky hand gestures or sharp jolts of the head, their patterns clear but the mass of patterns an organized chaos. They also move like frenzied machines, like ravaged villagers, like obedient workers, their shifts conjuring up manipulative and irrational forces.
Simone Messmer and James Sofranko are lush counterforces, while Taras Domitro, like a modern Mercutio, embodies some unnamable heroic presence. Van Patten and Quenedit, holding hands in fear and awe, are swept up, yet alone, and when Van Patten crumples like a marionette, first to an elbow, then to her arm, then to her side and finally rolls on her back, we know she's in a place with no exit.
Section three, led by Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan, and Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz and set to Piano Concerto No. 1, is a two-toned world littered with broken Soviet stars, fractured planes and sickles. In place of love and terror, Ratmansky gives us the shrill comedy of triumphalism, displayed through athletic razzamatazz (designer George Tsypin, by the way, designed the opening Olympics ceremony in Sochi). The corps, dressed in spandex unitards, gray in front, dusky red in back, are comic, absurd yet virtuosic. Parodies of contemporary ballet abound.
Section two, set to the "Chamber Symphony," though structurally weakest, is nonetheless pivotal.
Here, Ratmansky presents the artist -- a haunted, defiant yet also limpid Davit Karapetyan -- as the victim and his art as the victim's victim: Karapetyan is a broken Apollo. He lines up muselike figures, danced with comic seductiveness by Sasha De Sola, Lorena Feijoo and lovely newcomer Mathilde Froustey. And no surprise -- they are working for the bad guys as well as for sweet Eros.
The Man hangs overhead in chiseled translucent portraits of dour men, unnecessarily. Who needs them? Ratmansky and Shostakovich tell us far more in three acts than any literal portraits of oppressive figures could possibly reveal.
Presents Alexei Ratmansky's "Shostakovich Trilogy"
When: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 5; 8 p.m. April 8 and 11; 2 p.m. April 13
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, S.F.
Tickets: $22-$365, 415-861-5600, www.sfballet.org