Perfection in a Program Tailor-Made for S.F. Ballet

Janice Berman on April 7, 2017
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour | Credit: Erik Tomasson

To watch the juicy trio of ballets — all created for the company — on the menu for Program 7 (“Made for SF Ballet”) of the San Francisco Ballet’s current season is to leave the War Memorial Opera House feeling happy and sated. It begins with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Trio, goes on to the world premiere of SFB corps dancer Myles Thatcher’s Ghost in the Machine and ends with the complex, delicious confection that is Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour.

A program like this one occasions all kinds of musing on the ingredients of a perfect, good, or even competent ballet. (Agreed. Enough with the food, already.) It goes beyond choreographic expertise, the right music, sets, and costumes, even the right dancers. There are subtleties at play that cannot be condensed into any review or in fact any curriculum, so winning a trifecta like Program 7 is a rare and lovely thing. Why is almost as complicated as — healthcare. Who knew it could be so difficult? But let’s try to hit a few points by looking at Wednesday’s show.

Tiit Helimets, Sarah Van Patten, and Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Trio | Credit: Erik Tomasson

Set to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, Trio, which premiered in 2011, reads as three brief, charming, but totally unrelated ballets. Tomasson said each section represented a discrete memory to him, and noted that the conductor, Martin West, told him the last two movements were written in Russia, while the first two were written in Italy. So Tomasson, who has created countless good ballets, made this a great one in part by taking a chance on discontinuity and providing no hints via titles. The stories come through the bodies; you might miss the point he’s making, but the dancing is so transporting you won’t care.

 The first movement is filled with exuberant waltzing, with Sasha de Sola and Vitor Luiz, glamorous in purple, leading a corps of five couples. The generous epaulement, the drive of the shoulders, contributes to the energy and beauty of the proceedings. The second movement, you’ll discover if you read the program notes, is a pas de trois about Death (Aaron Robison) arriving to steal Sarah Van Patten from the ardent arms of Tiit Helimets. Tomasson even has the audacity to make it okay with us that Death wins the battle for the lady’s favors; he does this by having Van Patten act resigned to her fate. This is mighty peculiar, but it works. Moral: Get the audience on your side.

And the third and fourth movements, which West said were meant to be treated as one, place Maria Kochetkova and Angelo Greco squarely in the land of the Tsars, with the most popular refrain from the piece eliciting a regal yet playful mazurka. Kochetkova, beautifully partnered by Greco, can dance anything with precision and poetry, but it’s always such a treat to see her evoking the Imperial Ballet. So we might add to Tomasson’s gifts as a choreographer a richly furnished muscle memory, a brave curiosity, the willingness to go out on a storytelling limb without really telling us the story, and the self-confidence to trust the audience’s powers of observation. (I thought Robison’s character was just some nasty masher, and that it was in extremely poor taste for Van Patten to desert Helimets — until I saw that she actually wanted to go.)

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher’s Ghost In The Machine | Credit: Erik Tomasson

The only time Ghost in the Machine lost its way was toward the end, when choreographer Thatcher got stuck on showing us at length how much, even in our postmodern world (aptly represented by Alexander V. Nichols’ diagonally abstract set), people, people who need people ... you get the idea. A little less show-and-tell (the last time a group hug worked as a comic moment was on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and a little more genuine emotion would have worked better.

Until that time, though, Thatcher did a terrific job, as did his 10 dancers. He deployed them so successfully that they looked more like 20, with energy and wit that didn’t quit. Vanessa Zahorian set the tone, going toe-to-toe with Joseph Walsh. But the duo, wearing Susan Roemer’s sporty action-built costumes, injected warmth into that combative style, an ongoing theme in all the coming and going. The cast also included de Sola, Steven Morse, Dores André, Carlo Di Lanno, Isabella Devivo, Esteban Hernandez, Emma Rubinowitz, and Max Cauthorn. Thatcher, definitely a dancemaker to watch, has had the benefit of a year-long Rolex-watch–sponsored mentorship with the already-immortal choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. You can see to what extent Thatcher has begun to model Ratmansky’s concerns: musicality, artistic technique, and compositional style, but never at the loss of genuinely human rapport, whether humorous, tender, or somewhere in between. Mastering the latter in all its nuances and never going overboard is the gift and the trick, and Ghost in the Machine comes close. Ming Luke conducted Michael Nyman’s most fitting score.

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour | Credit: Erik Tomasson

Set to the music of contemporary composer Ezio Bosso and Antonio Vivaldi, Within the Golden Hour, a crowd pleaser that premiered in 2008, shows what can happen when everything clicks. Wheeldon’s brave decision to inject a vigorously athletic men’s duet, stunningly performed by Francisco Mungamba and Lonnie Weeks, into a ballet largely of couples (tenderly climaxed by Kochetkova and Luiz’s pas de deux, the sole Vivaldi passage) proved to be the match that lit the fuse. The men’s duet underscored the ballet’s warmth and daring. A uniformly superb cast also included principal dancers Zahorian and Walsh, and Van Patten and Luke Ingham.

Martin West conducted, with wonderful string support from violinist Cordula Merks and violist Yi Zhou.

Correction: The review as originally published incorrectly identified the conductor as Ming Lee. The conductor for the evening was Ming Luke. We regret the error.