Thursday, March 26, 2009

SFB, Program 5, 3/18/2009

San Francisco Ballet
Program 5
Wednesday, March 18, 2009, 7:30PM

Hearing the name “Mark Morris” may give dancers reason to jump for joy or cringe and run. Taking a master class with him requires concentration and a sense of humor, while dancing any of his modern or ballet works calls for impeccable musicality and a deep knowledge of how to curve space and time around quick turns and angled high-flying legs. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Morris and San Francisco Ballet have experienced a highly successful fifteen-year informal collaboration with Morris’ ballets often showcasing the company’s dancers at their best and brightest.

Program 5 of this year’s season brought of three very different works, all enjoyed within a two-hour span. “A Garden,” an intertwining kaleidoscope of patterns and groupings, blends spiral movements with neat arches of the back and arms. Motifs, like a hip roll, return throughout, but Morris’ positions never look dull or overworked. With the women in black boatneck leotards and skirts, and the men in rust-colored polo shirts and black pants, the focus becomes the pairings and unpredictable yet eye-catching movement. Martyn Garside lept through the air with clear, crisp limbs and plushy feet and towards the end, Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan shared a lovely duet in the Menuett section.


“Joyride” crams in large, expansive movement highlighted by Isaac Mirahi’s shiny, metallic unitards. Counting along with John Adams’ non-instinctual score drove my brain crazy, so who could only know what was whizzing through the eight dancers’ heads as they rapidly moved from one beat to the next. But they never paused for longer than a second, pacing themselves along Morris’ ode to possibly random yet utterly entrancing choreography. Garen Scribner powerfully slithered through long, wide demi plies and turns, and Sarah Van Patten and Matthew Stewart paired well in the final duet.


Adding a lighthearted edge to the evening was “Sandpaper Ballet,” which is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. While the costumes may be a little odd, when the 25 dancers arrange in their box formation, we see expansive green hills against a partly cloudy blue sky. Quite an effective little visual. But “Sandpaper,” with the sleighbells, typewriter ding, and occasionally lost dancer, wavers towards the hokey without crossing the line. Dana Genshaft and Pierre-Fran├žois Villanoba, creep through the pas de deux with genuine feeling, and Maria Kochetkova proved with heart she can do more than just the classics.

Serveral of the dancers, especially the women, appeared in multiple performances this evening. The regal Elana Altman, in “A Garden” and “Sandpaper Ballet,” continues to dance from her soul, and Erin McNulty, a long-time corps de ballet member, stood out in the same ballets. McNulty has always been dependable, but this season she’s added a greater sensitivity and joy to her performances, and she’s a pleasure to watch. Elizabeth Miner, ever so musical, demanded attention in “A Garden” and “Joyride.” Morris’ “Sylvia” helped push her to the forefront, and she looks incredibly comfortable floating through his movement.

The SF Ballet Orchestra, conducted by David LaMarche (“A Garden” and “Sandpaper Ballet”) and Martin West (“Joyride”), sounded lovely during the three very different scores, and it’s impressive that they can change genres so quickly from more traditional to bang-blast-boom to ticky and tocking with the best of ‘em.

The evening showed that Mark Morris isn’t growing old or boring, and neither is San Francisco Ballet. If fact, they seem to bring out the best in each other.

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' Joyride.
San Francisco Ballet in Morris' Sandpaper Ballet.
© Erik Tomasson

Friday, March 13, 2009

SFB, Program 4, 3/12/2009


San Francisco Ballet
Program 4
Thursday, March 12, 2009, 8PM

With “Swan Lake” packed up, San Francisco Ballet is churning out several mixed bills, and last night’s opening of Program 4 presented timeless works and a more recent, yet questionable, addition.

Antony Tudor’s “Jardin Aux Lilas” melds intricate emotion and circular, unrestrained movement into a compact spin through love, lust, and gutrenchingly difficult life choices, all at a moonlit garden party. “Jardin” moves through streams of consciousness, throttling forward as Caroline, danced with raw emotion by Lorena Feijoo, wrestlesbetween her future and her heart. Sofiane Sylve played coy and jealous, showing added dimension as the strong yet possessive mistress of Caroline’s stoic husband-to-be, Pierre Fran├žois-Villanoba. This marriage of convenience doesn’t seem convenient to anyone, really, but before Caroline and The Man She Must Marry walk down the aisle, she and her lover, Ruben Martin, share a passionate but unresolved goodbye. Tudor’s movement still rings fresh, some 70 years later, and violinist Roy Malan’s tearful and discontented final note rang true, reminding me that not all choices are for love and happiness, but sometimes for some other grand purpose.

Balancing “Jardin’s” sorrowful tone was Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert,” set to the music of Frederic Chopin, and staged by Jean-Pierre Frohlich. Sarah Van Patten’s hammy Ballerina immediately caused the audience to break out into boisterous, unapologetic snorts with her adoration and forceful slap-turned-bear-hug of Michael McGraw’s grand piano, and the good times just kept rolling with Erin McNulty’s prissy wife and Pascal Molat’s uncommitted but hysterical husband. The rest of the cast didn’t disappoint either, with the corps of women journeying through a side-splitting lesson on timing and a few very obvious and appreciative glances at ballet’s extremes. I’m curious to know what other casts might do with this special work, especially Vanessa Zahorian as the Ballerina. Comedic timing worthy of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and first-rate ballet aren’t normally thought of in the same vein, but maybe choreographers should rethink things because “The Concert” was rip-roaring fun and, again, like “Jardin,” relevant and highly enjoyable years after its debut.

Seeing these two after Helgi Tomasson’s encore of “On a Theme of Paganini” made it even clearer that Tomasson, while a wonderful and well respected artistic director, isn’t meant to choreograph. Last night, I scratched my head, trying to figure out why “Paganini” returned, and my gut tells me that if it were any other choreographer, it would have been shelved or majorly retooled. In “Paganini,” Tomasson’s ballet vocabulary mixes traditional with those associated with George Balanchine: 180 degree kicks, open hips, and flexed hands. He also leans on awkward, jagged karate-like jumps and, while they’re certainly unique, they’re not eye pleasing or consistent, which, combined with the large sections of unison and lack of emotion or impetus, tended to make the dancers, from the principals to the corps, look messy and hesitant. The high point of “Paganini” came in the packages of the smaller, focused sections like the pas de deux featuring Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in a tender moment of quiet retreat. Nice yes, but four minutes couldn't ease the pain.

“Jardin aux Lilas” and “The Concert” alone are worth the price of admission, and I hope both return next year. They’re oldies, but goodies.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Concert.
© Erik Tomasson

Monday, March 02, 2009

SFB, Swan Lake, 2/24/2009


San Francisco Ballet
“Swan Lake”
Tuesday, February 24, 8PM

San Francisco Ballet is known more for its ultra-cool contemporary works than the evening-length conventional story ballets, but Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has invested a lot of time and money into a spectacular new full-length marvel that is sure to amaze everyone. And while “Swan Lake” has seen multiple incarnations-- including traditional white feathers, a corps de ballet full of beefy men, and techno swan lake on ice--, this most recent version tastefully merges the best of the old with the swankiest of the new.

One of the most streamlined additions is the Prologue, which Tomasson has added to give more depth behind why Von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, kidnapped and transformed Odette into a swan by day and an abducted princess by night. While short, the prologue provides succinct backstory, necessary for those new to the story or ballet and appreciated by “Swan Lake” veterans.

On Tuesday, Tina LeBlanc, who retires this May, danced the dual role of Odette/Odile with such confidence and emotion. Each step, attitude, and pirouette were so achingly perfect, yet it was her expression that hit a nerve for me. LeBlanc’s focus is never to just dance the choreography; there’s always something more, something grander and intricately divine emoting from within on stage, and this swan princess couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than on Tuesday. Her Odette blended just the right amount of shyness and affection, while Odile tipped the scales, dancing sultry and bold. Especially as Odile, LeBlanc’s fighting personality showed through, checking off 30 lovely fouettes after tearing her ACL less than two years ago.

Joan Boada matched LeBlanc well as her Siegfried (but honestly, I always wondered if Siegfried needed glasses… even in Act III, Damian Smith’s evil Von Rothbart still looked like a greasy crow, even under that gunmetal grey Lagerfeld-inspired coat. Really, Siegfried! Get a clue!). Unfortunately, Tomasson’s choreography for him, especially in the first act, didn’t give me any good reason to root for him. Sure, he’s friends with townspeople of all socio-economic levels, so kudos to him, but his solo at the end of the act left me with a feeling of “so what?” He can whip out some nice jumps, but, really, why should I care about his happiness? But the remainder of the act featured festive dancing, especially in the pas de trois, which featured lovely hops and leaps from Frances Chung. Even the couple behind me were humming as the peasants linked hands and twirled.

Probably one of the most jaw dropping scenes in ballet is Act II of “Swan Lake,” where 30 swans enter, one by one, with their arms stretched, lightly hopping in arabesque. The row of swans continues to get longer, wider, they fan out, and the stage is all of a sudden filled with a sea of feathered friends. SF Ballet’s Act II doesn’t change much of that here, but adds a massive volcanic rock that measures 56 feet long and 14 feet high placed underneath an immense, golden full moon. Combined with wispy fog, cap-like swan headdresses, sparkling and chic tutus, and strong corps de ballet (including several handfuls of advanced-level students and trainees), it all made for an intensely stunning visual extravaganza. This production was Jonathan Fensom’s first foray into ballet, and the theater-based scenic and costume designer got just about everything right and then some. I especially enjoyed his amber stairway in Act III, which effortlessly descended from the heavens, and throughout the evening, the costumes didn’t look fussy or dowdy, something that many story ballets tend to rely on these days.

This “Swan Lake” has also been brought into the 21st century, technology-wise. Sven Ortel’s projection and video design let us move from daytime to fluffy rose-hued clouds to a cloudless night with ease. Not so technically sound, though, were the flying swans that froze for a second mid-wing flap against the back scrim. But that may have been the only noticeable technical glitch in an intricate evening full of delights.

Other standouts of the evening included the petite and fun-to-watch Clara Blanco as both a cygnet and Neapolitan princess, and Frances Chung, Dana Genshaft, Garen Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto as the Russian during the ballroom scene. Lily Rogers also had a bang-up evening as a swan maiden and the fiery lead in the Spanish variation. And I love any chance to see Damian Smith, especially in the character roles. His Von Rothbart evoked both slimy and depressing, and when he bent over and slowly flapped his arms, swan-style, I almost felt sorry for the crazy dude. In addition, the SF Ballet Orchestra, led by conductor Paul Hoskins, sounded strong and evocatively romantic, yet at times during Acts II and IV, intentionally slower than usual. Perhaps Tomasson has a reason for this, but I can’t understand why he’d want the large corps sections to drag on.

As a whole, though, SF Ballet‘s “Swan Lake” has got a bunch of new without throwing out too much of the old. It’s a story that’s stood the test of ballet time, and this infusion of technical magic and storytelling have added a well deserved breath of fresh air.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake.
© Erik Tomasson