Monday, February 12, 2024

San Francisco Ballet
British Icons
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 10th, 2024 (matinee)

If there is one word that can describe San Francisco Ballet’s current British Icons program, it is most definitely ‘cinematic.’ Onstage at the War Memorial Opera House until February 15th, the double bill brings the work of two legendary British choreographers in two SFB premieres, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. There was much to take in throughout the afternoon, and based on the reception each ballet received, SFB patrons were delighted with the grandeur transpiring before them. Though if one had to choose a highlight of the afternoon, my choice would be 1963’s Marguerite and Armand. Not only did Ashton provide an epic love saga, but he also showed audiences that you don’t necessarily need three acts and three hours to get a story across. His narrative was more than successful in a tight forty-five minutes.

Marguerite and Armand is a quintessential soap opera, in a really great way. With a score by Franz Liszt, there was everything that a soap opera coupling might have - love at first sight, love forbidden by outside forces, desperate pleas from an ill woman, jealousy and ultimately, death. It was romantic, tragic, turbulent and sweepingly dramatic. At the same time, there is something quite sophisticated about it. Cecil Beaton’s décor was full of billowy curtains and draped bunting; the gilded statues and chandelier felt inspired by 1920s art deco. Jasmine Jimison and Wei Wang in the title roles were stunning and sublime. Every pas de deux they danced felt like a love letter to each other. And the cleanliness of the technique, particularly Wang in his opening solo variation, was a thing of beauty. 

In contrast, technical cohesiveness was a bit elusive in 1965’s Song of the Earth, at least on Saturday’s matinee. There was certainly refinement over the one-act’s six sections, but the first group sequence had issues with both unison and Ashton’s choreographic phrases. Having said that, the composition itself is quite a tour de force. A conceptual suite that contemplates life and death, togetherness and lone-ness, Song of the Earth blends contemporary ballet with avant garde sensibilities. The movement and shapes were striking yet delicate and subtle. A grand plié in sixth position, fluttery parallel assemblés, flexed feet and hands, upper body contractions and sharp directional changes. Set to a song cycle by Gustav Mahler, with live operatic vocals by Nikola Printz and Thomas Kinch, each chapter had its own unique quality – somber and serious sections were followed by fun and whimsical moments. The third song was almost courtly, with the men of the company supporting Carmela Mayo through a series of split cartwheels. Sweeping arms and complex gestural hand phrases imbued the equally light fourth episode. 

Song of the Earth has decidedly neo-classical moments peppered throughout. The accent of various musical motifs with choreographic steps. The use of demi-pointe in pointe shoes. The super quick footwork. And when it comes to the neo-classical genre, SFB is well-versed. The company’s repertory is full of Balanchine ballets, as well as multiple choreographers who are often considered part of the Balanchine lineage. I’m excited for the artistic staff and the dancers to spend more time with other choreographic voices in this neo-classical realm and experience how they interpret movement and physicality. 

San Francisco Ballet in MacMillan's Song of the Earth
© Reneff-Olson Productions

Song of the Earth was lengthy, clocking in at one hour. And while I loved the live vocal presence, when the orchestra was at full volume, it was difficult to hear the superb soloists.

British Icons runs until February 15th in San Francisco.


Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Smuin Contemporary Ballet - Dance Series 1

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 1
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
September 15, 2023

A stylistic collage, an arresting drama, a brilliant union of music and dance – what an opening performance for Smuin Contemporary Ballet! For thirty years, this special company has been a force in the Bay Area dance scene and Friday evening’s mixed rep, triple bill tapped into the group’s essence and power. Their commitment to technical excellence and artistic fervor. To simultaneously pushing boundaries and honoring history. To challenging audiences while providing moments of joy and escape. It was a night to remember at the Lesher Center for the Arts!

Smuin in Caniparoli's Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino
Photo Chris Hardy

As the title indicates, Val Caniparoli’s Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino (everything but the kitchen sink) provides the utmost in choreographic variety from start to finish. The ensemble 2014 suite, set to Vivaldi, really does have a bit of ‘everything’ movement-wise; it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s up next on the menu. There’s Celtic footwork passages and traditional ballet lines. Contemporary partnering and courtly pedestrian sequences. Full throttle running and Pilates-style mountain climbers. The work is quite dazzling. Costumed simply in shades of olive, nothing distracts from Caniparoli’s physical vocabulary or from the dancers’ performances, including a fiercely determined pas de deux from Brennan Wall and Brandon Alexander. It was exciting to see some new faces join the company veterans; and I can only imagine that the artists will continue to gel together over time. Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino does call for a fair bit of unison, and that occasionally proved challenging.

Smuin in Kudelka's The Man In Black
Photo Chris Hardy

There are several constants in James Kudelka’s 2010 quartet The Man In Black. The two most powerful being the sober atmosphere and Johnny Cash’s haunting voice covering six luscious tunes. Danced on opening night by Alexander, Ian Buchanan, Terez Dean Orr and João Sampaio, another constant was the stage perimeter. Unhurried and unassuming, the dancers pivoted around the space, carving out circuit after circuit. With their gazes often on the horizon, an undeniable sense of purpose and forward motion washed over the space, as did a plethora of Western dance traditions. Percussive step dance. Line dancing. Contra dance. And then the final constant - a strong sense of togetherness, of community, and the palpable pain that emerges when that kinship is fractured.  

Sarah Jordan in Moultrie's Salsa 'Til Dawn
Photo Chris Hardy

Dance Series 1 closed with an epic party. The kind of event that you hope to be invited to, especially knowing that a VIP is on the guest list. A much-anticipated world premiere by Darrell Grand Moultrie, Salsa ‘Til Dawn was wholly exuberant. Fun. Infectious. The stage was awash with grand leaps, huge lifts and staccato accents. Spines, hips and torsos undulated from every corner, new company dancer Sarah Jordan schooling the group as to how things should be done. Such monumental confidence and freedom of movement! Sampaio also had his moment mid-way through the piece; it was impossible to take your eyes off him, his airy suspension and his long, stretchy limbs. Charles Fox’s marvelous, sexy Cuban jazz score perfectly framed every second of Salsa ‘Til Dawn. And it was Fox who was the VIP guest. While most of the composition was recorded, Fox took to the piano bench to provide spectacular live music for the fifth chapter of the dance, City Lights. It was simply magical to hear his genius in person, while Tessa Barbour cycled through Moultrie’s stunning phrase material. Again, unison in this dance was sometimes tricky, but to be honest, I doubt anyone really noticed. Salsa ‘Til Dawn was such a successful bash and I’m sure each viewer was thrilled to have been at the party.

Dance Series 1 travels to Mountain View and San Francisco over the next two weeks.