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SF Ballet Looks to the Exit Sign in The Big Hunger

February 17, 2020

San Francisco Ballet

Envy the Exit Man. There he is, a green figure everyone knows and understands, following an arrow to the exit, his emergency recourse. Trey McIntyre, a highly regarded dancemaker, took Exit Man as his decor talisman for The Big Hunger, his San Francisco Ballet world premiere last Saturday, but sadly took some wrong turns. No dancers were harmed; they did exactly what they were supposed to do, but got lost in the shuffle.

When you hear that a ballet will attempt to discover the essential meaning of life, i.e. The Big Hunger, in the midst of all the little nuisances of existence, the temptation is to run for the exit. Here it was helpfully marked above a door on the back wall in bright green neon (Thomas Mika did the decor and costumes). Angular red girders surrounded the dancers who color-matched it; the first duo, Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle, athletically and perfectly close-partnered each other in red shorts and tops. They were followed by a clownish male ensemble in candy-apple red bobbed wigs, characters reminiscent of the Goons in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, marching in a mechanistic line.

Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham arrived next, also in those wacky wigs. In a darkening atmosphere, Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang, the third couple, stomped in militantly in black wigs, wearing Third Reich-style trench coats to match their coifs. We were looking, it would seem, at an army under an invisible despot, lost and bombastic.

As the music, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, came to its loudly deliquescent conclusion, the room’s pillars began collapsing, the exit sign flashed and slid, Exit Man vanished, and the stage went black.

Nobody had anything important to cling to, not even to each other, so they never arrived at places of safety. In the collapse there was a moral, but the ballet actually seemed amoral. The piece might have worked better had McIntyre been able to capitalize on the goofier qualities evoked by the hairdos. The only such time came when a column of soldiers marched forward and one of them got wrapped around a red pillar, in the manner of a skier encountering a tree trunk. A suggestion of humor might have helped suggest the possibility of humanity now lost.

Commenting on what matters most in life, is, you know, hard. Dancing is too, and the three leading couples as well as all the other hapless wigsters deserve undying respect, for the precision and risk-taking of their dancing and, frankly, for staying onstage for as long as the rest of us had to watch. Martin West conducted the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, and Van Cliburn Piano Competition 2017 gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo was the fine soloist.

The Infinite Ocean, Edwaard Liang’s premiere for the 2018 Unbound Festival, fared little better. The dancers seemed frequently to be having trouble with the needlessly (in that they lacked an emotional payoff) complex partnering, although at the final curtain that derring-do was what brought the audience to its feet.

Designer Alexander Nichols’s stunning sun was again brilliantly reamplified under James F. Ingalls’s lighting design. Mark Zappone’s unisex leotards, glittering in gold, evoked some middle world between sea and sun and the creatures who might dwell there.

Regrettably, the ballet’s dynamic arc flounders this way and that, beginning to end. The Infinite Ocean’s most exciting moment comes at the last second, and this review will not spoil it. Ming Luke conducted Oliver Davis’s music, and Cordula Merks was the violinist.

As the dancers took their bows, many in the audience were on their feet, perhaps captivated by the difficulty and audacity of the paired moves. Ballet can feel like a circus, but the best ballet can feel like a circus that takes us to a place we’ve never been before.

Take, for instance, Harald Lander’s Etudes, well-loved since its premiere in 1948 in Copenhagen, brought into the San Francisco Ballet repertory in 2018. It doesn’t take place in a surging sea or a dystopian nightmare. It all begins in a ballet studio, and what happens there, and then onstage, is truly transporting.

The dancers are practicing at the barre when the curtain rises; they’re in tutus of black or white, mostly of the dinner-plate variety, with a few longer skirts here and there, and toe shoes and, for the men, tights and simple flowing shirts, the raiment of classicism. The vocabulary starts small; the music, by Knudåge Riisager, acts as a frame for the repetitive Carl Czerny piano exercises that may have been the bane of your childhood. Amazing what can come from all this simplicity; it is the vocabulary of every ballet student, practiced daily for years, knit together into patterns and phrases and ballets and, with any luck, into the indelible memory of artist or witness.

Everything on this and almost every ballet program arises from these moves; the musicality and proper placement of arms, legs, and carriage; the strength for arabesques and leaps and floor work, the individuality that makes dancers and choreographers grow and flourish.

Etudes draws power, even magic, from its unity, the devotion of its dancers, the beauty and intensity of its platoons of artists, to wit the Ladies in White, Ladies in Black, Gentlemen, and Sylphides, more than 40 in all. They were led Saturday afternoon by the exquisite ballerina Sasha de Sola; the perfect and tireless bounding and soaring of Angelo Greco, Joseph Walsh, and Carlo Di Lanno; and three very graceful Sylphides: Blake Johnston, Maggie Weirich, and Ami Yuki. Johnny Eliasen did the staging, and Martin West conducted.

Janice Berman, SFCV’s senior dance critic, has been a dance writer and reviewer since 1978, beginning at Newsday and New York Newsday. She has written on dance for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ballet Review, and Dance Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief.