SF Ballet “Shostakovich Trilogy”

San Francisco Ballet
Shostakovich Trilogy
Ballets by Alekei Ratmansky
May 7-12, 2019
San Francisco Opera House

Music, Movement and Politics

Ratmansky set the three pieces by Shostakovich for his company, American Ballet Theatre in 2013. SF Ballet staged them in 2014 and has brought the “Trilogy” back to close the 2019 season. Formerly the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet before joining ABT, Ratmansky devotes these ballets to Shostakovich himself, the composer who lived and worked under the Stalinist regime. The music proves Shostakovich’s ability to break free from soviet realism. The choreographer has used those ideas, as well as the composer’s own story as the scenarios for these works. He was awarded the Prix Benoit de la Dance in 2014 in recognition of their worth.

Chamber Symphony is the most biographical of the three. In it, Ulrick Birkkjaer portrays the composer and his three ‘loves’, a young girl, his first, then his second wife. The women are beautifully danced by Sasha De Sola, Mathilde Froustey and Yuan Yuan Tan. A corps of women and a quartet of men provide dramatic energy. Birkkjaer displays adequate emotional gesture but it falls short of a depth of acting that should illustrate the three relationships. Technically, the movement is amplified with the many lifts that the choreographer is fond of. Although this is most ‘dramatic’ work on the program, it falls short of completing its promised story line. The backdrop of looming faces (are these images of the Soviet command?} are distracting at best.

In Keso Dekker’s sleek red and blue-get bodysuits, the company closed the program with Piano Concerto #1, played elegantly by Mungunchimeg Buriad on piano and Adam Luftman on trumpet. The soloists were Sofiane Sylve, Carlo De Lanno, Won Park and Angelo Greco. This “neo-classical” work is danced in front of a backdrop of red ‘working tools” and again evokes the Soviet work motif. The dancers apparently enjoyed this fast moving event with its many entrances and exits. Among the most notable was that of Mingxuan Wang.

The program opened with Symphony #9 for 21 dancers featuring Jennifer Stahl, Aaron Robison, Dores André, Joseph Walsh and Wei Wang. All are dancing beautifully. The backdrop by designer George Tsypin was grey with splashes of red, “recalling the works of Socialist Realism.” Although the Russian themes are prevalent in all these works, the excellent and elegant dancing by the company shines through and above any ‘thematic’ inferences. For this reviewer, Ratmansky’s otherwise fine, but busy choreography is permeated with too many endless and sometimes fearfully acrobatic lifts.

Martin West led the SF orchestra with great skill and excellent musicality. It is always a great pleasure to have him as conductor of the ballet’s fine musicians.

Joanna G. Harris

Photo:San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1. (© Erik Tomasson)

The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective

“The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective”
Written by Patricia Milton
Directed by Gary Graves
Central Works: Berkeley City Club
May 4 -June 2, 2109

Upstaging Sherlock

The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective”, a new play by Patricia Milton takes us back to the formidable days of “Jack the Ripper,” when a killer stalked London murdering young actresses.

Sisters Loveday and Valeria run the Hunter Lodging House for Single Ladies. When six of their householders are dead and there is no help from Scotland Yard (or any other male authority), the sisters and their new boarder, Katie, turn their skills to solving the case.

Alan Coyne, actor, provides the several male voices as a committee chair, a magistrate and even as a butcher. His lines offer only humiliation for the possibility that women might have the skills necessary for the solution. The sisters dispute the issue and with Chelsea Bearce (as Katie), they finally take on the case. There is much dispute between sister Loveday (Stacy Ross) and Valeria (Jan Zwaifler), but after Valeria’s story of her husband’s murder, the action moves on. Bearce’s skills in handling a fan as a weapon is convincing and delightful!

Although there is much delight and much humor in the confrontations between and among the ladies and the many-voiced gentleman, the dialogue, especially in the second act becomes repetitious and redundant. There are wonderful lines concerning both the weaknesses and strengths of the individuals, the taking of laudanum (a common female addiction) and the proper means of ‘hunting’ the killer, but the points are well made in several scenes.

The costumes by Tammy Berlin are admirable for their Victorian elegance; the ‘fan fight choreography’ by Marcella Rodgers is hilarious and effective. Gary Graves has again directed with panache. Now with some editing and some pacing, “The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective” should score as another Central Works hit!

Note: Though we the audience admired “Diana the Huntress” by Orazio Gentileschi hanging above the fireplace, we are concerned about how she can accomplish the pose!

Joanna G. Harris

Machine Facial Recognition – Oh, noes! You’ve got it backwards!!

There are lots of complaints and criticism about the current state of automatic facial recognition systems which tend to focus on and highlight their limitations and inaccuracies. But, turn this around.

What if Machine Facial Recognition were 100% accurate. Think for a moment what that would mean. Every bridge toll camera, every private and government operated ‘surveillance’ camera, every Facebook and Instagram posting could be scanned and every face perfectly identified! A complete record of when and where you had been, and with whom can now be created, analyzed and searched!!

And, when you stopped to look at that store display, did you know that the person behind you, accidentally positioned so that she appeared to be with you was a sex worker, or that guy behind you was a gang member that you could now be associated with? Or that you always went through the Bay Bridge toll gates on workdays between 9:17 and 9:23 AM? What parts of your ordinary comings and goings just are “none of your business“? As the technology improves, you will be identified along with time and place more frequently, more accurately and without your consent.

How often do you use the restroom? Why do you take a particular side street and not the freeway? How come you always get on the next-to-last BART car? For extra credit, read up on China’s use of facial recognition in Xinjiang province.


Christmas Stockings

When I was a kid, the story was, if you were bad you got coal in you Christmas stocking instead of the usual nuts, candies and tiny sock size presents. Trump deserves coal in his stocking. Coal kills when it is extracted, pollutes the air when it is used, the residual coal ash waste is toxic and has to contained in ponds because it poisons the environment and topping it off, it is an agent in the disastrous climate changes that are hurting people around the world. Maybe coal is too good for him.


Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard
Shotgun Players
1901 Ashby Avenue Berkeley, CA
November 30, 2018–January 6, 2019

Directed by Patrick Dooley

Words, words, words…and ideas.

Put on your thinking, listening and historical hats and go see Stoppard’s “Arcadia” now at the Shotgun Players. (The run has been extended too January 27.) The play is set in two different time periods, early Victorian, 1809 and late 20th century, 1992. The eleven actors handle all this very well, although the barrage of words and the multiple ideas and relationships among the players require careful attention. You will be confronted not only with the past and present, but with disorder vs. certainty, Romanticism vs. Classicism, poets and poetry… and for good measure mathematical theorems. “Arcadia” should not however phase a post-modern audience.

Arcadia, the land itself, was a noted pastoral part of ancient Greece. Poets and painters described it as a place of “love, poetry and sometimes politics.” This image, is spoken of in Act I, when landscape architect David Sinaiko (Ricard Noakes) enters, shortly accompanied by Adam Nieman (Captain Brice) and Danielle O’Hare (Lady Croom). The three discuss proposed modifications to the gardens, while Max Forman-Mullin (Septimus Hodge) and Amanda Ramos ( Thomasina), the brilliant young student of Hodge, sketches an imaginary hermit on Noakes’s technical drawing of the garden. Thereafter, there may or may not be a duel.

Forman-Mullan (Hodge) and Amanda Ramos (Thomasina) carry the through line of the play, since lessons concern “carnal knowledge,” poetry, (Lord Byron is, or has been, a house guest!), love, gardens and mathematics. All this will be the several subjects that occupy the characters of 1992 Act Two. Therein, Jessma Evans, (Hannah Jarvis), Aaron Murphy (Bernard Nightingale), and Gabriel Christian (Valentine Coverly) will attempt to prove or disprove the events of Act One. Murphy, as Nightingale, the pretentious academic, steals the show with his bravura and his downfall. Still, the theorems prevail. Thomasina, who in the story does not live to continue her work, is the prevailing math* genius. Past and present join together on the ‘stage in the round,’ characters waltzing to provide a musical/dance finale to a play of words.

Patrick Dooley, director, Brooke Jennings, costume designer and the production team of “Arcadia” are to be congratulated for handling a complex, intriguing production.

*Note on the Math: Shotgun audiences had the pleasure of hearing Professor David Eisenbud, Professor of Mathematics, UC Berkeley, lead a panel discussion of the math of “Arcadia” on December 15, 2018. This event may be repeated. Check it out!

Joanna G. Harris