From Beautiful to Dutiful

Janice Berman on May 6, 2008
Were it not the brainchild of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, a festival marking the San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary by presenting 10 new ballets in one week (three programs in all) would be regarded as a fool's errand. Some fool. Some errand. It's a success. Not all the ballets are fabulous, but the music and dancing that propels them is unequivocally wonderful, permeating the air in the War Memorial Opera House with a sense of fizzy delight. Among the clearest triumphs are Margaret Jenkins' Thread and Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House, inhabitants of Program C alongside Jorma Elo's Double Evil. Both bear the lineaments of narrative in practically opposite ways.
The San Francisco Ballet in Margaret Jenkins' Thread

All photos by Erik Tomasson

Modern choreographer Jenkins' piece, danced in soft shoes to a luminously melodic, eponymous new work by Paul Dresher, and created in collaboration with her own company, jumps off from the Greek myth of Ariadne and its accompanying spiders, webs, and Minotaur. Dancer Pauli Magierek, the golden, magnetic presence at the center of
Thread, and her partner, Damian Smith, had the task of enacting what is really an abstract series of fragments, adding up to a kind of inborn human legend. The rest of the cast would flesh it out. It's Jenkins' facility for evoking imagery through movement that let the dancers do it. They had helped in the conception of this world of spider webs and mazes and menaces, and it captured the audience's imagination. Thread is proof of what can be created through artistry, craft, and belief. We could say something here about the seamlessness of the creative weave between a great ballet company and a great modern one like Margaret Jenkins Dance, but you can say it better yourself. Caniparoli's Ibsen's House, set to Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, uses the five strong, long-suffering heroines of his plays, most prominently Hedda Gabler, in a series of driven solos and pas de deux (with the domineering men in their lives), beautifully on pointe as well as to the point.
Lorena Feijoo and David Arce in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House
As Hedda, Lorena Feijoo, perhaps the strongest actress in the company, set the tone, a balance of endurance and frustration, bringing it forward with compelling technique. Caniparoli's greatest success is in deploying dancers through the stage space; at one point, Feijoo's Hedda springs backward on a diagonal arabesque, and is joined suddenly in midflight by Courtney Elizabeth, as Ellida Wangel in Lady from the Sea. Widely spaced, the two characters are visibly of the same spirit, facing the same challenges. Fine performances from all, but in particular Clara Blanco, the aforementioned Elizabeth, Patricia Perez, and Steven Norman added to the sense of drama, while the unaccountably dim lighting detracted from it. Dvořák and dancers had the benefit of a glorious quintet, illumined beneath stage right: Roy Bogas, piano; Roy Malan and Craig Reiss, violins; Paul Ehrlich, viola; and David Kadarauch, cello. Although the Elo ballet missed the boat by making the ballerinas (dressed in teeny-tiny tutus, with white underpants) look foolish while trying, through the modern-day miracle of deconstruction, to defend them — yet another reason deconstruction doesn't work, unless William Forsythe is having at it — Double Evil was full of extravagant pyrotechnics, and Philip Glass' shimmering yet percussive Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, movements 1 and 3, joined with Vladimir Martynov's Come In!, movements I and V, nearly saved the day.

It's Got Legs

On Program A, Within the Golden Hour, a fluent creation from the articulate Christopher Wheeldon, has, to coin an expression, legs. It's set to seven widely varied pieces by Ezio Bosso, who writes at times like an irksome Phillip Glass, and was conducted by David Briskin, with Roy Malan and Paul Ehrlich on violin and viola respectively. Long (but not an hour) yet rewarding, it featured two of the company's finest ballerinas, Katita Waldo (partnered by Brett Bauer) and Tina LeBlanc (with Garrett Anderson). Wheeldon steps playfully outside Neoclassicism for some of his pas de deux, imbuing passages with Latin sensibilities, but returns at appropriate moments to high-lifting, high-falutin' derring-do.
S.F. Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour
Yuri Possokov's Fusion, notwithstanding its meticulous deployment, looks a little goofy. Not so much fusion as awkward juxtaposition, the new ballet places four worldly couples — contemporary-looking dancers — next to four men in long white skirts and boxy hats who execute wonderful Sufi-style spins. Nobody looks much at home, though the couples are continually impressive, moving through smooth lifts, angular poses, and perfect promenades balanced on one point. Maria Kochetkova, a recent principal hire, has fire in every fiber. The ensemble of a dozen musicians playing Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman, the latter from Kronos and arranged by Golijov, included Jim Santi Owen on tabla and David Rosenthal on marimba. Paul Taylor's evocation of the 1960s, Changes, set to the music of Mamas and the Papas (including I Call Your Name and California Dreamin'), Lennon/McCartney, and John Hartford, all on recording, was frankly a bit of a disappointment. The set for Changes was darkly lit. The music, beginning with Straight Shooter, was raw, not studio-smoothed. The dancers wore Santo Loquasto's perfect evocations of hippie peace, evinced hippie love, and smoked hippie cigarettes. Taylor seemed to be trying to convey several moods at the same time — he has built his reputation on his ability to do so, especially in works like Esplanade and Le Sacre du Printemps/The Rehearsal. Anyway, that's exactly what the '60s were like. Happy. Sad. It was, he observed in his program note, about like things are now. "While this era was singular in many ways, the impulse for change is not — the more things change, the more they stay the same."
S.F. Ballet in Paul Taylor's Changes
Paul Taylor's own company was young then. They went to Paris during the 1968 student riots, where Taylor hurt himself dancing. Then, with his ankle in a cast, he found himself face to face with Danny the Red, who didn't want Taylor's company to perform at the Odeon. And they didn't. Taylor's wonderful autobiography, Private Domain, makes it a hilarious story, but there's nothing funny about a dancer with a busted ankle and a dance company with no money. So there you are, and today Paul Taylor can show everyone how to create a smooth and lively piece, well-staged by Taylor alum Patrick Corbin, with great dancing, particularly from Dana Genshaft, Mariellen Olson, Aaron Orza, and Jeremy Rucker; glimpses of joy, an undercurrent of sorrow, and, from this onlooker, a wish to see more. Ah, well. California dreamin'.

Not Quite the Go-to Program

Frankly, on the face of it B, not C, looked like the go-to program. It offered a new Mark Morris, a new James Kudelka, a new Julia Adam, a new Stanton Welch. All had compelling moments that none, regrettably, was able to sustain. Adam's A rose by any other name, set to some of Bach's Goldberg Variations, was confusing. Adam's appropriations of Petipa fairy moves from The Sleeping Beauty for her ballerinas, especially Kristin Long's Aurora, offered enchanting reminders of the value of the classics, probably not quite what the choreographer was aiming for.
S.F.Ballet in Julia Adam's A rose by any other name
Australian choreographer Stanton Welch's ballet, Naked, in its tutu traditionalism (lovely and blue, by Holly Hynes, but surmounted by flesh-colored tops), feels like the postwar '40s with a touch of Hollywood, set to Poulenc's Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos. Welch's training was British and his parents were ballet dancers. As its title implies, Naked displays more vulnerability than a traditional plotless ballet, particularly in its allusion to blindness, when the dancers cover their eyes, not a new thing — see Balanchine's Serenade — but nonetheless affecting and mysterious. The fine dancers were Kristin Long, Yuan Yuan Tan, Pascal Molat, and Ruben Martin in principal roles, with soloists Frances Chung, Nicole Grand, Elizabeth Miner, Brett Bauer, Hansuke Yamamoto, and Nicolas Blanc. Roy Bogas and Michael McGraw were the pianists. Kudelka's The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful, set to music of that name by Rodney Sharman after Cesar Franck, a dense and lovely dreamscape, never quite achieves transcendence but is a most interesting effort. James Searle's impeccably ragged tutus look wonderful on circling, sorrowing women, legs raised in arabesque like involuted Shades from La Bayadere. James F. Ingalls' glowing lighting is burnished by the music's mournful brass. Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Villanoba lead a dozen other dancers through tattered dreams and recollections, some convulsive. Tan becomes passive victim to Villanoba, who, in his frock coat, takes on the attributes of a vampire.
S.F. Ballet in Mark Morris' Joyride
Mark Morris' Joyride, set to John Adams and conducted by Music Director Martin West, who's done an amazing job of coordinating the festival's entire musical output, looks great. It has costumes by Isaac Mizrahi — what the Tin Man would wear if he could choose gold — plus an electronic random-numeral display on each dancer's chest. Joyride is supremely professional, fast, and cheerful, whether airborne or floor-bound, and not really enough of anything, which is different from the show-biz adage of "always leave them wanting more." Gennadi Nedvigin seems at last to be getting appreciated for what he can whip off in the way of amazements — split jumps, spins, fouettés — and the rest of the cast also is absolutely marvelous as it steps up, crouches down, hits weird, sharp arm positions, angling with strength. It's Morris meritorious, but not terrific. Give it, oh, an 8.