Sunday, March 01, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Program 4

San Francisco Ballet
Program 4
War Memorial Opera House
February 28th, 2015

The double bill format is a rarity at San Francisco Ballet, with most mixed repertory evenings (at least over the past five years) featuring three separate dances. But fewer works does not mean less breadth or diversity. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and his creative team crafted a fabulous fourth program that reflected both classical and contemporary ballet - Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” (1969) and Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” (2014). And San Francisco Ballet is a company of dance artists who are not only well versed in each tradition, but as this program demonstrates, they excel at both. 

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering"
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” was and is a breathtaking masterwork of elegance, exuberance and grace. Set entirely to Frédéric Chopin’s music (played by the brilliant Roy Bogas on piano), this lengthy one-act ballet suite is a true collaboration between 20th century neoclassical movement and 19th century Romantic music. While there are many tenets and conventions associated with the Romantic era in music, one of the most fascinating is the player’s interpretation of the score. Individuality was of utmost importance; personality and virtuosity celebrated and encouraged. Robbins took these themes and in “Dances at a Gathering”, infused traditional ballet vocabulary with the unexpected; instances of sheer delight and surprise. Amongst the collection of solos, duets, trios, and full cast sequences, standout moments included Vanessa Zahorian’s chaîné turns on demi-pointe, Maria Kochetkova’s side split that folded into a double passé, Davit Karapetyan’s double tours en l’air that landed in a grand plié, Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz’s series of grand jetés that traveled backwards and the jump combination that toggled back and forth between sissones and soubresauts. Even the structure of “Dances at a Gathering” was atypical. Rather than beginning with an ensemble variation, it began with a captivating solo by Joseph Walsh. And though the ending did feature the entire cast of ten, it was a quiet scene of community. A serene finale of walking through space together, moving through a shared port de bras, bowing and curtseying in reverence, bidding each other farewell.  

Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” made quite a splash when it premiered last April at San Francisco Ballet, so it was no surprise that the contemporary piece was back for a return engagement this season. Saturday night’s cast was almost the exact group that I saw last year, and thus, many of my initial thoughts were the same. Rather than repeat that discussion, it seemed more useful to turn toward things I hadn’t previously mentioned. First, the visuals. John Macfarlane’s scenic and costume design for “Hummingbird” is quite stunning. A large black and white painted sheet scrim hangs from the theater rafters and meets a floor ramp. This scrim moves and transforms the space throughout the ballet, almost appearing as if it is rolling. The ramp converts the upstage space into an entrance and exit option, and when Scarlett uses that ramp during “Hummingbird”, it looks like figures are appearing out of nowhere. All the costumes are simple, in muted grays, blues, steels, charcoals and whites, which fits the piece perfectly. With “Hummingbird’s” constant sculptural motion, having busy costumes would take away and pull focus from what was happening on stage. Onto some choreographic observations. Last year I commented that on occasion, some of the partnering looked a little awkward. That was definitely different this time around. Without compromising the passion and power of Scarlett’s choreography, the transitions were better and as such, the positions looked clearer. And I noticed an important choreographic moment that I had completely missed before. Yuan Yuan Tan quickly boureéd backwards across the front of the stage, flat-footed. An instance of fluttering, perfect for a ballet with the title “Hummingbird”.    

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