Monday, August 16, 2010

San Francisco Ballet - Stern Grove Festival

San Francisco, CA
August 8, 2010

The weather was a bit unsteady and unpredictable last weekend at the Stern Grove Festival, but it proved no match for the San Francisco Ballet.  This was the first time that I had seen the company since returning to the Bay Area and their mixed repertory performance certainly has me anticipating the coming 2010-2011 season.

The opening ballet was the one most affected by mother nature.  As the temperature in the grove began to drop and the precipitation kicked in, “Prism”, by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, had to be interrupted.  The stage is in the open air though protected by a canopy, and thus, the performers from most of the elements (though not from the cold air that does tend to permeate the outer sunset district of SF).  The surface wasn't accumulating any water, and I imagine that the dancers themselves were staying relatively dry, but the orchestra was completely vulnerable.  After the first movement, they had to be ushered under cover to protect their instruments.  Then, once the sky had calmed down, “Prism” continued with its second and third movements.  This beautiful work is a unique take on neo-classicism.  Tomasson demonstrates that this particular style of ballet should not be a celebration of bravado, but instead should seek to uncover and reveal the relationship between choreography and music.  Here, the shining star was not one particular dancer, but the choreography itself as Tomasson unlocked the intricacies of petit allegro.  The old favorites in this oeuvre were definitely present, though “Prism” was anything but predictable.  Every few phrases, some unusual steps were thrown in for color and dynamics, including accented, staccato balletés in parallel.

The program forged on with two pas de deuxs – the first from Christopher Wheeldon's “After the Rain” (an ironic title for this particular show), and the second from Act III of “Don Quixote”.  Both were danced by fan favorites (Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith followed by Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz, respectively) and these seasoned dancers were strong and solid as one would expect.  But Tan, Feijoo and Luiz were less than inspiring (Smith, on the other hand was a force).  Something was lacking with them.  It really seemed like they were just going through the motions of the piece rather than surrendering to it.

I think we can all admit that ballet could use a little more fun in its life.  Enter Mark Morris' “Sandpaper Ballet”, which closed the afternoon at the grove.  In this full-length work, Morris takes the audience on a whimsical romp through the school yard, complete with teasing, competition and camaraderie.  This fusion of ballet and modern dance was a needed break because really, there are only so many piqué arabesques and supported pirouettes that one can take in an afternoon.  Seeing something different is just plain refreshing.  And, it is good for the audience to be reminded of and exposed to the breadth of these artists and this company.           

The men of the San Francisco Ballet never disappoint; every time, they just absolutely astound me.  Tomasson's “Prism” accentuated their incredible sense of timing.  They turn in exact unison; not just finishing at the same instant, but also within each internal revolution.  These dancers are so completely in tune with each other every second they are onstage.  Their training is cohesive and all encompassing.  Excellence in individual technique is definitely being sought, while at the same time, the importance of being a reliable and steady partner is being stressed.

I'm still not sure what Christopher Wheeldon is trying to say or do with "After the Rain", but nonetheless, Damian Smith's performance in it was stunning.  So often, he gets overshadowed by the powerhouse women that he dances with.  Here, he was dominant; he was commanding.  Smith was not just there to facilitate the ballerina.  He was the draw.   

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