Colorforms, Myles Thatcher’s thrilling, breakaway ballet, represents an apt and most welcome departure in a pandemic world where everything is a departure from what has gone before it. Thatcher, a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet, has created a ballet movie. Or perhaps it’s an art movie, or a museum movie, or a new species entirely.
Colorforms, which premiered Thursday in Program 2 of the company’s spring season — in which, of course, nothing is being presented live onstage at the War Memorial Opera House — is a film that is so much more. Set to Steve Reich’s Variation for Vibraphones, Pianos and Strings, played by the ballet orchestra directed by Martin West, it places the dancers in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), across the street at Yerba Buena Gardens, in the memorial grove at Golden Gate Park, and onstage — in an empty War Memorial Opera House. Thatcher said he was inspired by Alexander Calder’s mobiles, with their lively kinetic qualities and frolicsome color palettes, served as an inspiration, subject of a show at SFMOMA last year.
Created last fall under the city’s prescribed rules for safe distancing and mask-wearing, Colorforms, by dint of logistics alone, is a tremendous achievement. Dancers who simply had not been able to work together or even see each other for months rehearsed together, got tested every other day for COVID-19, and helped create a whole new artistic fantasy — the product of a harsh new reality.
Directed by Ezra Hurwitz, an immensely gifted dance filmmaker and Miami City Ballet alum, Colorforms embraces multiple vistas in dance and in art. Its sense of play fits spectacularly well with the youth and energy — as well as the virtuosity — of the dancers, and it is a gift to see them at such close and yet such flattering range. Their street clothes at the museum transmogrify into practice clothes on the stage, where their sneakers become slippers and toe shoes. The stage set picks up the colors of the museum’s canvases. Back and forth we slip, from museum to stage, mood to mood, until both are part of the same fantasy. Full credit here to the costume designer Susan Roemer and colleagues, adjusting wardrobe to fit a backstage staff greatly reduced by the emergency. It’s not hard to wonder whether Frances Chung’s charming red topcoat, a central image of her gallery visit, might soon become a model for some next-gen tutu. The clothes are classic yet commonplace, rendered by style and workmanship part of a magic experience.
What a boost the ballet is for the open, then shut, then ... SFMOMA, stirring up memories of what it was like in the before times, with bright canvases and shapely sculptures; those stretches of clean wood floors, and that vertiginous little metal bridge, tying together a top story and creating one of its own. Plus, of course, the garden with Calder’s stabile and mobile and the living green wall, where Caven Conley and Esteban Hernandez romp like birds in flight, then move inside (with dance clothes on), then out (street), then in ...
Dancers deploy in platoons, in duets, in trios and quartets. They lift and are lifted, leap and fly like the gaily colored paper airplanes that dot the museum in overhead views, merging into overhead views of the dancers in their multicolored costumes, racing for the staircases, sliding down the banisters, encountering each other in fantasy-romantasy moments.
Dancers rest elegantly (how could they not?) on the staircases, Sasha De Sola holding a bagful of bright pink gumballs for blowing ballet-pink bubbles, and it’s playtime. Here, massed together, they move as a unit and yet with striking individuality, a key attractant of a Calder mobile. You see a row, a plan, a step, a leap, a spin, another pop of color here, a lift — and you want to see what’s next.
On the stage, museum frames become frames for the dancers, often in lambent, silvery light. Here on pointe, the women can pirouette and be lifted and supported in lovely arabesques; the men soar, the dancers cluster and separate and, eventually, form a family in the frame.
How can this end? This way. The fast-rising corps dancer Jasmine Jimison, drawn to the SFMOMA terrace by a paper airplane with a drawing of a tree, finds her tree there — a yellow gingko. She dances a supple Graham-ish solo, then joins the dancers on the stage, and then in the frame. Somehow, as these things sometimes happen, a forest appears behind them. Dance becomes art becomes nature, pointe shoes become sneakers, dancers keep dancing through the redwoods. The dancers go; the redwoods stay.
The art of screen capture for dance has advanced neatly, along with improved video-display technology, working to great effect in the evening’s other two ballets, each recorded in a different San Francisco Ballet season from the back of the Opera House to the proscenium arch. The show began with Dwight Rhoden’s stunning Let’s Begin at the End, from the 2018 Unbound Festival, and ended with Mark Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet, its large, beautifully unified corps breaking out of their box formation to respond antically, as was Morris’s wont, to the collected tunes of Leroy Anderson.
Tickets to the show, running through March 3, or to the whole season, are available on the SF Ballet website. In a one-of-a-kind season, Program 2 is a one-of-a-kind show, very worth your while.
NB: This SF Ballet program ends on March 3, not March 11, as stated in the earlier version of this article. We regret the error.