S.F. Ballet Makes the Time and the Space for Artistry

Janice Berman on February 18, 2019
Dores André and Vitor Luiz in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season | Credit: Erik Tomasson

“In Space and Time,” the third episode, if you will, of the San Francisco Ballet’s repertory season, is a variegated treat. Seen at last Saturday’s matinee, it began with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 2005 ballet The Fifth Season, set to the music of contemporary (and some say minimalist) Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. Why he took “the fifth” for its title is anyone’s guess, although Jenkins’s String Quartet does comprise five parts. That’s an extra movement for a classical string quartet, plus a final movement, the Largo from Jenkins’s Palladio for good measure. Tomasson did think it suggested something beyond the ordinary, according to Cheryl Ossola’s program notes.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season | Credit: Erik Tomasson

So it is. It’s delightfully sensitive, both emotionally and to the particular strengths of the company. With simple blue leotards designed by Sandra Woodall and her Palladian windows in shades of blue, the ballet could seem austere. But each ballerina has a sparkly brooch and the entire ballet (lit by Michael Mazzola) an opulent quality.

Not only was it wonderful as always to watch principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, but it was good to see Elizabeth Powell, promoted last year to soloist, in a principal role. She has lovely epaulement whose natural carriage goes well with nicely honed footwork, and in their Romance pas de deux she looked great with British principal Aaron Robison, recently returned after a year away (he joined in 2016), another dancer to watch. Tan was joined by Kimberley Marie Olivier, Carlo di Lanno and John-Paul Simoens for the Waltz movement, notable for its sense of intimacy via gestures of embrace. The backdrop glowed red for the Tango, its nigh-frenzied rhythms honored by Olivier, di Lanno, Robison and by Simoens, whose daring leaps looked like fourth-position pliés in midair. Tan and di Lanno’s Largo pas de deux included a tender moment when she gently turned her head as she walked, closely encircling his shoulders. Her move spoke to the ballet’s luxurious sense of expansive time.

Ming Luke conducted The Fifth Season and Snowblind, when the orchestra was joined by Mungunchimeg Buriad.

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind | Credit: Erik Tomasson

Choreographed by Cathy Marston, Snowblind was an audience favorite from last year’s Unbound Festival. Based on Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella, it’s a masterly piece of theater as well as dance, set to work by composers Amy Beach, Philip Feeney, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt. New England austerity, softened (at least at first) by gently falling snow, was created by scenic and costume designer Patrick Kinmonth with lighting by James F. Ingalls. Saturday’s superb cast was led by Ulrik Birkkjaer as the desperate, isolated Frome, Jennifer Stahl, striking as his wealthy, older, hypochondriac sourpuss wife Zeena Frome, and Mathilde Froustey as Mattie Silver, a young woman in temptress red, their home help who becomes the third corner of a disastrous lovers’ triangle.

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind | Credit: Erik Tomasson

The supporting corps of townfolk, farmhands, and the snow that dooms the trio to their foreordained fate numbered 14 in all. Unlike in the novella, there’s no sled crashing into a tree, only Mattie and Ethan’s decision to run outside so they can die together of exposure. It doesn’t turn out that way — they revive and survive — and the final image of husband, wife, and lover locked in a struggle that morphs into an unbreakable triangular hold, symbolizing the trio’s shared, seemingly endless future together, the hypochondriac wife forced to care for two invalids (in the book, Mattie is Zeena’s cousin) is unforgettable.

Marston expertly captures the tale through these gifted dancing actors, expertly investing their bodies with the narrative’s impact and extending it through richness of gesture. On second viewing, it appeared that the ballet would have more impact with a bit of editing so the passion would be torn to tatters, instead of to tatters, to tatters, to tatters. But this is a minor quibble, and not surprisingly, it bothered the ecstatic audience not one bit.

Joseph Walsh in Lander’s Etudes | Credit: Erik Tomasson

Harald Landers’s Etudes was set by Knudåge Riisager after Carl Czerny’s time-honored piano studies and first performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1948. Conducted by Martin West, it’s a thrilling, fast-moving, in-depth catalogue of exercises and combinations, showing how classical ballet dancers learn to do what they do and what makes it so compelling — to study as well as to watch. Having toiled over Czerny as well as the barre, it was a treat for me to revisit the entire thing — beautifully led by principal dancers Sasha De Sola, Angelo Greco, Joseph Walsh, and Carlo Di Lanno — safely from a seat in the theater, glorying in the hierarchies of ballet, the flowering of artistry.

In classical costumes of white and black, tutus to jackets and tights, half the company was on the stage at the finale, having gifted the audience with a matchless performance — at least until the next. If you have to pick just one San Francisco Ballet show to see this season, this one’s a major contender.

S.F. Ballet in Lander’s Etudes | Credit: Erik Tomasson