Saturday, February 25, 2012

San Francisco Ballet - Program 3

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 22nd, 2012

With Program 3, San Francisco Ballet celebrates choreography from the past decade: Helgi Tomasson's "Trio" (2011); Yuri Possokhov's "Francesca da Rimini" (world premiere) and Alexei Ratmansky's "Le Carnaval des Animaux" (2003).  Not only does this mixed bill speak to the excitement of today's dancemakers, but also reinforces the technical range and artistic breadth that thrives within this company.  The evening began with neoclassical beauty, moved to narrative drama and ended with playful, spirited comedy. 

Helgi Tomasson's neo-classical brilliance shines once again in his three-part interpretation of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence".  Originally I thought that the title of this work referred to the three different segments of the ballet and I still think that is partly true.  However, on closer examination, it is clear that "Trio" also examines three different aspects of neoclassicism: 1st movement - the relationship between choreography and music; 2nd movement - the existence of a narrative; and 3rd and 4th movements - the expressions of athleticism and unison.  Regality covered the stage in the first movement as Courtney Elizabeth and Joan Boada led the corps of ten (including some of my personal favorites - Daniel Baker and Dustin Spero) through their paces.  The entire section ran from beginning to end with no intermediate stopping points between phrases or sections; "Trio"'s first movement was one continuous stream of consciousness.  Every entrance gave the impression that the movement had already been happening off stage and when the dancer or dancers entered from the wings, they were just continuing the choreography that had already been in progress.  Such delicate footwork punctuated the music in unexpected ways, from simple waltz steps to the rarely seen entre chat cinq.  The 2nd movement was a stark contrast, both in scene, feeling and purpose.  Here, we still saw the beautiful neoclassical style, yet it was framed with a narrative quality and a clear love triangle (danced by Dana Genshaft, Ruben Martin Cintas and Anthony Spaulding).  Dynamic and technically challenging jumps were on display in the 3rd and 4th movements, with Gennadi Nedvigin and the corps men stealing the show.  Helgi Tomasson is master of neoclassicism.  This is apparent in so many of his ballets and is only further reinforced with "Trio".  Yet, the takeaway from this piece is much more than that.  Neoclassical partnering can look and appear awkward because of the speed, complexity and footwork, but Tomasson's work never does.  Not only is he an expert in choreographing this genre, he is clearly superb at teaching it to his company.

SF Ballet in Possokhov's "Francesca da Rimini".
Photo: Erik Tomasson

"Francesca da Rimini" took the audience to a very different place - a dark, lusty and dramatic journey with Francesca (Frances Chung), Paolo (Carlos Quenedit) and Giovanni (Vito Mazzeo).  Yuri Possokhov's world premiere re-tells the desperate story from Dante's "The Divine Comedy" with such truth and passion, turmoil oozing from every space and every dancer on-stage.  Inasmuch as the strength of desire was captured (including a stunning light effect where part of Francesca and Paolo's pas de deux was enlarged and reflected on the scrim behind them), Possokhov was also able to inject a nuanced attempt at redemption. 

Program 3 concluded with Alexei Ratmansky's whimsical "Le Carnaval des Animaux".  A funny and clever ode to the animal kingdom, the 2003 composition (also originally set on SF Ballet) shows that this company is very adept at comedy.  The entire cast excelled at Ratmansky's interpretation of Saint-Saëns score, though Pascal Molat as the lion and Sarah Van Patten as the elephant were hilarious standouts.  The opening scene finds the cast gathered in a center stage huddle around Molat, perfectly introducing each dynamic character.  And, alongside the humor, a hint of neoclassicism was still present as the choreography matched with and emphasized the musical traits: specifically the elephant's arabesque sequence and the chorus' lifts during the spattery scalic glissandos.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"TAO: The Art of the Drum"

presented by Stanford Lively Arts
Memorial Auditorium, Stanford, CA
February 14, 2012

This season, Stanford Lively Arts planned a Valentine's Day treat for its subscribers, bringing the dynamically electric Japanese drum company, TAO, for a one-night engagement at Memorial Auditorium.  Like “Cirque du Soleil”, “River Dance” and “Stomp” before them, TAO has taken a specific individualized artform and transformed it into a total theatrical experience, merging its musical foundation with sets, costumes, and dance.  The result is a rhythmical wonderland mixed with a futuristic undercurrent and a little heavy metal edge.

As evident by their complete commitment and abandon, TAO's drumming is not simply an upper-body exercise but rather a total physical expression.  Integrated cyclical motions take over their entire body and the drums become an extension of themselves; the instrument breathing, moving and responding as they do.  The company seeks and accomplishes militaristic precision in every moment onstage and for every aspect of the production.  Their percussive prowess is met with equally impressive dance acumen: death-defying barrel rolls that were almost horizontal to the stage and a repeated saut de basque/axle jump that soared above the earth.

Alongside the large ensemble numbers were some resourceful and humorous smaller group scenes.  In one, the cast was outfitted with paddle-shaped drums and the beat became a ball that they were tossing back and forth, like a game of tennis, ping-pong or badminton.  It was a clever way to represent the notion of catching the beat and keeping it alive. 

Photo courtesy of Stanford Lively Arts
With a two-hour evening of drumming, I expected the sound to get to me after awhile.  But, for the most part, it was very pleasant.  The only section that I found audibly-challenging was the 'bricks & sticks' vignette - the particular pitch and timbre of those instruments were a little too piercing for a venue the size of Memorial Auditorium.   

The company members of TAO are consummate performers – dancers, actors and musicians all rolled into one.  As they continue to bring “The Art of the Drum” to more and more audiences during the  current US tour, I believe they will develop an even larger following than they have already captured.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's "Onegin"
Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
January 31, 2012

An evening of choreographic and artistic brilliance awaits at San Francisco Ballet's production of John Cranko's "Onegin".  A superb choice to open the 2012 season, this full-length narrative ballet is a multi-layered composition that combines risky choreography and infinite thematics (thus appealing to both the traditionalist and the modernist).  "Onegin" tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a gallant man whose visit to one village changes the course of many lives: his friend Lensky, Lensky's fiancée Olga, her sister Tatiana and also himself.  Infatuation, tragedy, romance and selfishness plague the four primary characters throughout the three Acts, and as the curtain falls, the true message of Cranko's masterpiece becomes clear: do-overs are few and far between and the deep sadness and pain from previous actions can live forever.  You may be able to move forward, but are still without reconciliation or resolution -  your reality being not as you hoped because of consequences from long ago.

Act I is all about expectation.  As the curtain rises, a family of women are revealed and in these opening moments, we come to meet the two sisters, Olga and Tatiana, who are each anticipating what their respective futures may hold.  Olga, danced by the delightful Clara Blanco, is engaged to Lensky and has the giddy, hopeful, elated demeanor of any bride-to-be.  Tatiana is quite the opposite, displaying a inner solitude and romantic imagination found in the pretend world of her books.  Lensky arrives, bringing with him his dashing friend Onegin, who, for Tatiana, becomes the flesh and blood manifestation of her fantasy.  In their first pas de deux, she is literally being swept off her feet in a series of breathtaking fan lifts and as she bourées towards her ideal, the tiny, quick steps are the epitome of exhilaration.       

SF Ballet in Cranko's "Onegin"
Photo: Erik Tomasson
Act II brings the story to a place of reality and a harsh one at that.  During Tatiana's birthday celebration, Onegin (Vitor Luiz) commences a dangerous game of flirtation with Olga.  Those around him are deeply affected by his indifference and thoughtless cruelty, and Lensky (Gennadi Nedvigin) reacts by challenging Onegin to a duel.  Nedvigin's solo prior to the duel was one of the most thrilling moments in the ballet.  The movement was so infused with reflective emotion, almost as if the character knew this was the end.  Cranko choreographed an incredibly difficult variation for this dramatic moment: all of the pirouettes finishing up in relevé passé and the posé arabesques  followed by a pull into deep plié.  There was such suspension and tension in these steps; Lensky trying desperately to hold onto hope, yet knowing and eventually giving into the fate that would likely befall him.  The constant switching between en dedans (inside) and en dehors (outside) turns also provided a physical depiction of his internal turmoil.  Nedvigin was fantastic and heartbreaking - I had eerie chills by the end of the sequence.

We come to "Onegin's" final Act to experience how the regret of the past still abides in the events of the present.  Onegin once again encounters Tatiana; she has moved on and is now married to a Prince.  The two meet for one last time to tell each other their truths - he of his love for her and she of her resolve to keep to her marital commitment.  Vitor Luiz and Maria Kochetkova as Onegin and Tatiana then dance their ultimate pas de deux.  Filled with constant spinning and abandoned lifts, this duet tells of longing, detachment, sorrow and inevitability.  Yet, the most revealing moment was as they stood still hand-in-hand facing out to the audience - a tragic resolution, yet really, the only way their union could have turned out.

Performing any role in a John Cranko ballet requires an intense commitment to the combination of flawless technique and emotive depth.  SF Ballet's "Onegin" reveals Maria Kochetkova as one of the great dance actresses of her time.  Kochetkova has a natural dramatic ability - she can move the audience with the forceful accent of an arabesque penchée, the lowering of her arm or with one simple glance.  She looks equally at home as the innocent young girl of Act I, Scene I or as the mature, regal princess of Act III.  No matter the movement or the scene, Kochetkova pulls you in and makes you akin to her character's journey.