Monday, March 11, 2019

"The Sleeping Beauty"

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty
Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
The Sleeping Beauty
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 10th, 2019

In my February 2018 CriticalDance column, I reviewed San Francisco Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty at length. Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson (after Marius Petipa), the ballet premiered back in 1990, but last year was my introduction to this particular version. And so I had thoughts aplenty – about the set, staging, choreography and the overall grandeur of this three-act narrative ballet. Beauty has returned as part of SFB’s 2019 repertory slate and just opened over the weekend. Though many of my observations held true from last year, there was still newness to behold in this first matinee performance.

An infant princess. A curse. A prophecy. A long nap. A kiss. A wedding. Simplified and distilled, these are the main plotpoints of Beauty. Though clocking in at close to three hours, clearly other chapters and episodes factor heavily into the action. During the (extensive) Prologue, we meet a mélange of mortals and fairies, all of whom have come to pay tribute to the new princess, Aurora. And it’s the fairies who are the stars of Beauty’s opening segment. With delicate, graceful and floaty movement tropes, I quite enjoy the choreography for all six main fairies. Though occasionally, things do look a little busy. With the sheer number of steps and transitions packed into every phrase (something which befalls much of the ballet), many of the sequences feel in constant pursuit of the downbeat in Tchaikovsky’s score. Having said that, several notable moments impressed. Ellen Rose Hummel’s Fairy of Courage variation commanded with its piercing feet, pointed fingers and staccato ball changes on pointe. Jasmine Jimison’s whimsical Fairy of Playfulness solo is one of the briefest dances in the lot, but in that short stay, Jimison, an apprentice with the company, captivated with her presence and technical clarity. I would even go so far as to say that she was the standout star of the afternoon, but more on that later.

Then the ballet has a time lapse and we finally (at least thirty-five minutes in) meet Aurora, danced by Mathilde Froustey. This second half of Act I features a number of stunning technical feats, famous moments (the Rose Adagio) and ends with the onset of the hundred-year slumber after Aurora is pricked by the dreaded spindle. 

Act II continued to be both curious and elusive for this viewer, because while some important events transpire, on the whole, it feels extraneous. Yes it introduces Prince Desiré (Vitor Luiz), connects the Prince and Aurora through a lengthy vision/dream scene and concludes with the kiss that wakens the Princess. But I’m not convinced that this chain of events a) has to take this long or b) couldn’t be folded into Beauty’s other acts, assuming they too had had some editing. The six-year-old who attended the performance with me remarked as follows, “this sure is a long dream.” Indeed.   

While the middle act is not my favorite, I did find Beauty’s third act to be a lot of fun. More fairies appear, as do some special feline guests, all in celebration of Aurora and Desiré’s marriage. Many lovely moments unfolded throughout, but by far, the highlight was Jimison and Esteban Hernandez’s Bluebird pas de deux. They were absolutely sensational. I saw Hernandez as the bluebird last year and it’s no surprise he has been cast again. His theatrical quality, exuberance and jumping prowess are the perfect match for a role replete with complicated batterie, bravado turns and pas de poisson. And Jimison, as the enchanted princess, had it all. Flawless technique, inviting stage presence and artistry to spare. Her face radiated joy in every instant and her movement had balance, intricacy, placement and heart. I wouldn’t be at all surprised she ascends swiftly through the SFB ranks.

Saturday, March 09, 2019


ka·nei·see | collective & Cat Call Choir
Madeline Matsuka in Nevertheless
Photo Robbie Sweeny
Z Space, San Francisco
March 8, 2019

I couldn’t think of a more ideal occasion than International Women’s Day to attend Nevertheless, a collaboration between ka·nei·see | collective and Cat Call Choir, that casts a wide, unflinching lens on gender-based harassment and abuse. Conceived by dancemaker Tanya Chianese and vocal director Heather Arnett, the work opened to much acclaim last year at CounterPulse and has just returned for an encore run at Z Space. Though I missed Nevertheless’ world premiere, I did see an in-process iteration a couple years back at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. At that moment, I recall being moved not only by its candid honesty, but by its breadth. Yes, there was an abundance of shocking(ly accurate) imagery but there was also a deep sense of kinship and sisterhood. A feeling of shared reality, shared experience and shared power. These potent themes abounded in the full, sixty-five minute piece, as did Chianese and Arnett’s impressive Dance Theater acumen.

In vignette after vignette, Chianese, Arnett and the twenty-three member-cast unpacked Nevertheless’ narrative threads. Full throttle choreographic sequences saw the cast being pulled/dragged across the space against their will and being shoved downward toward the ground. Multiple scenes found the ensemble dealing with touch and attention that was both uninvited and without consent. Performers backed away from dangerous altercations in one moment and over-apologized in others when they clearly had nothing to apologize for. But as mentioned above, there were also ample reflections of strength and mutual support. Grounded, low positions – deep pliés in second and broad lunges – felt powerful and mighty; while unison phrases spoke to a collective understanding. And the music. Not only was the Cat Call Choir vocally impressive, but the use of familiar children’s, camp and holiday songs in the score was absolutely brilliant (the melodies remained the same but the lyrics had been changed to include harassing language and body shaming commentary). So often we hear things like, “it was an innocent comment,” or “he didn’t mean anything by it.” To intersect that kind of ugly language with music that has an air of innocence felt particularly poetic.  

Not to downplay or detract from Nevertheless’ urgently topical message, but its structural achievements also must be part of the discussion. Because as a work of Dance Theater, Nevertheless is not just good, it’s stunning. The work has just the right level of abstraction - go too far abstracting a concept and the impact gets lost. One could point to many examples throughout, though one that particularly stuck with me was a duet where facial muscles were slowly and deliberately manipulated into large, forced smiles. There were also plenty of purposeful absurdity and humor, which is a huge Dance Theater trope. Like the stylized self-defense class that felt plucked from an 80s aerobic VHS tape. Nevertheless had repetition, which can both emphasize and anesthetize in the same moment. And with song, movement, text and scenework, it utilized multiple theatrical disciplines. But most important, Nevertheless doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow, which for me, is the primary tenet of Dance Theater. The work ends with a soloist alone on the stage, having just experienced a barrage of unwanted and unwelcome touch from the rest of the cast. She stares blankly ahead and doesn’t move a muscle. With this final image, Chianese and Arnett are candidly exposing the dark side of humanity and challenging the audience to sit with it, without resolution. I think it’s safe to say that many Dance Theater ancestors were looking down on Z Space last night, inspired by where the form is headed and who is taking it there.