Monday, March 20, 2023

San Francisco Ballet - "The Colors of Dance"

San Francisco Ballet in 
Tomasson's 7 For Eight
Photo Lindsay Thomas
San Francisco Ballet
The Colors of Dance
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 18th, 2023 (matinee)

San Francisco Ballet’s 90th season has been epic thus far. First, an astonishing festival of new works; next, an injection of fresh energy into Giselle. Later this season, audiences can look forward to two more mammoth full-length classics: Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet. Sandwiched in the middle of all this deliciousness was Program 3, a mixed repertory collection dubbed The Colors of Dance. 

First up on this charming triple bill was 7 For Eight, a 2004 composition by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson. 7 For Eight is the epitome of a neo-classical suite, very Balanchine-esque in both flavor and look. It emits soothing, pleasant tones, never asking too much of the audience (other than to bear witness to the lovely movement). Neo-classical tenets abound throughout the thirty-minute work. There is no linear story, though the ballet still had emotive tones of drama, playfulness and spirit. The choreography has speed, particularly prominent in the second episode’s pas de deux, danced on Saturday afternoon by Julia Rowe and Mingxuan Wang. Physicality converses deeply with J.S. Bach’s Baroque score, sometimes even matching a strong chord or a staccato accent. Delightful surprises peppered the choreographic language, like double attitude jumps, upper body contractions, partnered slides and sudden, sharp directional shifts.

Esteban Hernández’ solo variation (the 5th chapter) was by far, the star of the piece. Crisp, clean and resolute, every motion, every step sparkled. Lofty briseés, elastic sissones, textbook batterie and jumping turns that seemed to defy gravity. As expected with a neo-classical work, the design elements were pared down, so as to not distract from the movement. Though at the same time, it was unexpected that this piece was chosen as the opening for The Colors of Dance program. Overall, 7 For Eight is missing much visual color, making that choice somewhat curious. 

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Colorforms
Photo Lindsay Thomas

In contrast, Myles Thatcher’s Colorforms was an explosion of vibrancy, particularly Jim French’s lighting design and Susan Roemer’s costumes. The film version of Colorforms (filmed in and around the SFMOMA) originally premiered as part of SFB’s 2021 virtual season and was adapted to the War Memorial stage for this program. French’s scenic design was phenomenal and accomplished two important goals. His large frame structures and movable viewing benches not only captured the sense of place (the art gallery), but also helped solidify the layered theme of the viewership lens. We, the audience, certainly had a lens into what was happening onstage, but his set also allowed the dancers to have their own unique experience as both performer and viewer. Like 7 For Eight, Colorforms doesn’t appear to be telling a story, though it does have several tonal throughlines that come across in the scenework and choreography. First and foremost was joy. Every moment was so full of delight. And, befitting the art gallery container, there was also a sense of noticing, of curiosity, of exploration. Several choreographic moments shone, like the picturesque vignettes that the cast had to create as a collective, and the stunning unison near the end. 

Nikisha Fogo and Joseph Walsh in
Forsythe's Blake Works I
Photo Lindsay Thomas
William Forsythe’s Blake Works I (2016) held the final place in The Colors of Dance, the largest ensemble piece on the program. The suite of dances is set to a James Blake score, a recorded collection that oscillated between R&B, jazz, hip hop and electronic dance music. Against that changeable frame, Forsythe introduced classroom ballet exercises with a twist. While dancers (clad in beautiful light blue costumes) cycled through the positions of the body, a hip might swivel. The transfer of weight in temps lié investigated both external and internal rotation. Port de bras was embellished; one sequence even had a distinctively macarena feel to it. It was academic phrase material, re-imagined. Blake Works I was fun and dynamic, save for the number of internal stops and starts. And while there were leads and featured sequences, the ballet is definitely an ensemble piece, and so, not surprisingly, it was strongest and most captivating when most of the dancers were onstage.


Sunday, February 26, 2023

San Francisco Ballet - Giselle

Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison in 
Tomasson's Giselle
Photo Lindsay Thomas

San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
February 24th, 2023

San Francisco Ballet fans know Giselle. More specifically, they know this particular Giselle. Choreographed by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, the two-act narrative premiered almost twenty-four years ago (April 8th, 1999). Since then, the ballet has frequently been part of the company’s season; so, Bay Area audiences are very familiar with the story, the costumes, the sets and the movement variations. Even the major roles have been similarly cast in recent years. 

Yet, with all those layers of familiarity, if you were present on opening night, you can attest that something special happened on the War Memorial stage. Something unexpected. Perhaps even magical. It was the newness that Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison brought debuting as Giselle and Count Albrecht. The fresh atmosphere was undeniable – energy, technique, dramatic portrayals – and it brought such life to the knowable choreography. The performances that follow (Giselle is onstage until March 5th) will also feature new Giselles and Albrechts, so it’s good bet that this updated spirit will thrive throughout the ballet’s run.

At the start of Act I, Robison injected complex notes of curiosity, mischief and defiance into his Albrecht, while De Sola was the embodiment of innocence and joy. Her famous balleté sequence had such levity, and anytime Robison jumped in the air (whether batterie or a full split jump), he defied gravity. All footwork was delicate, precise and so evocative of Romantic ballet.

As Act I’s village scene continued, the nobility of the land joined the festivities, leading way to the Peasant Pas de Cinq. This collection of enchaînments was truly glorious. Certain. Confident. Especially the solo variations by Max Cauthorn and Hansuke Yamamoto. Then, the mad scene. De Sola’s approach to this difficult moment in the ballet was different, and for me, better and more believable. She had a way of keeping the innocence and naivete of the character, while letting her unravel. Other portrayals tend to morph Giselle into another being entirely. The throughline that De Sola established in that instant was so effective; it was creepier, to be sure, but that part of Act I should be somewhat creepy. 

The first half can feel a bit lengthy, and as a dog enthusiast, I have to say that it seems a good idea to leave the dog out of the picture. The dog looked scared. I realize the pup is there to reinforce the state of the nobility, but I think their costumes and general air make it clear who they are. 

Onto Act II, the forest, the Wilis and their Queen, Myrtha (another SFB debut by the phenomenal Nikisha Fogo). Myrtha’s every arabesque had a decidedly darting quality to it, like her entire being was transformed into an arrow or sword. Fogo wowed as this relentless, almost mechanical character. I’ve seen her primarily dance ‘sunnier’ roles with SFB, but here, her commanding, domineering presence showed viewers she has the range to do it all. De Sola and Robison continued to impress, technically and dramatically, every moment they were on stage. Choreographic extremes abounded. Loftiness and ballon met with an intricate celebration of the lower leg extension. The abundance of assemblé (a step that means ‘to join’) in Giselle and Albrecht’s pas de deux was poetic. And it was fantastic to see how Robison let his movements and phrase material respond to the Wilis' snare.

The corps was solid and convincing as this ghostly group. Boureés positively floated; poses were appropriately sober, yet dynamic. The famed arabesque crossing was well-done, save for a few extensions that were too high, compared to everyone else. 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Smuin Contemporary Ballet

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in
Amy Seiwert's The Twelve Days of Christmas
Photo Chris Hardy
Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
December 20, 2022

Holiday performance in the Bay Area has always been vast and varied. A true myriad of productions, styles, genres and disciplines – something for everyone and for every taste. While the last couple of years have certainly been tough for the theater, as we close 2022, most of those holiday performance traditions are back in full force, and many are stronger than ever.

One that is experiencing a renewed energy and vigor is Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet, currently finishing out its December engagement at YBCA. The company looks very strong. The variations that Artistic Director Celia Fushille and her artistic team selected for the two halves – The Classical Christmas and The Cool Christmas - are fun, vibrant and very fresh, be they a new premiere or a longtime favorite choreographed by the company’s founder Michael Smuin. I’ve seen The Christmas Ballet on many occasions, but this was my first time at the LGBTQ+ celebratory night (the third one Smuin has hosted). A fabulous emcee guided us through the evening, which benefitted several local LGBTQ+ organizations. The runner-up for season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Lady Camden, aka former Smuin company artist Rex Wheeler, not only welcomed us into the space, but also made a couple of amazing appearances later in the show.

In honor of the LGBTQ+ community, the rainbow flag, or pride flag was heartily saluted throughout. Dancers in Smuin’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a choreographic statement of gorgeous simplicity, donned colorful sashes offsetting their stark white costuming. Pretty Paper replaced the traditional one-hued ribbon with a popping rainbow one, and in the hilarious Santa Baby, led by Lady Camden at this performance, the famous boa boasted every color one could imagine. But costuming and design weren’t the only ways the Smuin team thought about this particular program. There were also notable changes in assigned casting. Instead of adhering to traditional ballet gender norms, Smuin changed up roles and pairings in several chapters. The result was just beautiful.

Many of my favorite excerpts in year’s past were back for 2022’s bill, including Act I’s Zither Carol (Smuin). There is much to love in this delicate, ethereal solo, danced at this performance by Claire Buehler. It has everything wonderful that is classical ballet – superb balance, luscious turns and juicy extensions. Choreographer and former Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins had several pieces on the program, including Fantasia and the world premiere of Peaceful Prayer. Like its musical counterpart, the former deliciously lived outside the rules, moving from light, delicate motions to sprightly, upbeat petit allegro. The latter was an emotive, swirling duet by Terez Dean Orr and Anthony Cannarella. Passionate and elastic, it felt like Orr rarely touched the ground. The other world premiere for 2022 was created by Smuin alum Amy Seiwert, The Twelve Days of Christmas - a genius mash-up of the titular song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Deck the Halls, and surprisingly, even Toto’s 1982 hit, Africa. The visual landscape provided a perfect mix of dance and gesture, humor and nostalgia.

One thing I look forward to in The Christmas Ballet is the joyous presence of percussive dance, a form that doesn’t get its due on the concert stage in my opinion. Peppy Celtic footwork offset a calm upper body in The Gloucestershire Wassail and Act II’s Bells of Dublin. Waltz clog pulled up to the table in Droopy Little Christmas Tree (all three by Smuin). And Tessa Barbour’s duet It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas was so much fun. The tap prowess of Cannarella and Ricardo Dyer was undeniable and impeccable – from beginning to end, every beat, so precise and crisp.