San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 9th, 2016
While I would never presume that Program 7 was the triple bill that all San Francisco Ballet fans were waiting for, it was definitely the one that I was most looking forward to this season – George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (1947), Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum© (2002) and the much anticipated premiere of Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings. Program 7 more than lived up to my expectations.
The curtain rose to an elegant, regal tableau: a lead couple (Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz), four featured soloists, a corps of eight women and two hanging crystal chandeliers in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. A beautiful picture to launch a beautiful afternoon of dance. In true theme and variations form, a main statement, or ‘the theme’, was communicated first – here, a sequence of épaulement positions, delicate footwork and flowing port de bras. Over the next twenty-five minutes, a number of variations would follow, all paying homage to this primary theme, though they would be compositionally altered. Balanchine took the initial movement sequence, built on it, reverted in, developed it and moved it off the floor into the most extraordinary soaring choreography.
Two separate bourée chapters for the women delighted, as did Luiz’s series of pirouettes and tours. Chung was luminescent in Theme and Variations, her solo Russian pas de chats a thing of pure beauty and perfection. And in the main pas de deux, the circular attitude lifts drew gasps, as Chung’s foot touched the floor for a single second and she was whisked back up in the air, over and over again. A structural surprise, the men’s ensemble joined the action in the last third of the ballet, escorting the women onto the stage in the grandest of entrances. The promenade of waltz steps and chaîné turns that followed continued this noble atmosphere – the stage looking like a ballroom scene plucked from an epic story ballet.
While not the newest piece on Program 7, Wheeldon’s Continuum© was certainly the most avant-garde ballet of the group, a work that speaks of where ballet stands in the twenty-first century. Continuum© presents a chamber suite of brief duets, solos and two quartets, bookended by full cast statements and set to highly contemporary music by György Ligeti.
Carefully and deliberately, the eight dancers walk into the space (the women across the back and the men across the front) and proceed to communicate choreography of constant structural change – patterns, directions, circuits, and accents – all against an understated backdrop. The lighting, by Natasha Katz, evolved throughout the ballet’s forty minutes, simple and deconstructed yet captivating and effective at the same time. The final scene, where the shadows of the dancers were illuminated on the cyclorama was particularly beautiful.
|Vanessa Zahorian and Luke Ingham in|
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Specificity and clarity of intention informed all the choreography. Koto Ishihara cycled through a whimsical solo, complete with Cecchetti-inspired arms; Myles Thatcher and Lauren Strongin offered a pas de deux of living physical sculpture. But the standout performance in this ballet was given by Vanessa Zahorian. Wheeldon’s choreographic vocabulary suits her well – the flexed feet positions, the compressed attitudes, the inverted lifts. The middle section’s pas de deux may be on the lengthy side, yet it commands attention with changing conditions, innovative choreography and Zahorian and Luke Ingham’s spectacular dancing.
And then the finale - Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings. This thirty-five minute ensemble work did not disappoint. It is glorious piece of choreography set to a stunning score by Sufjan Stevens. As the curtain went up, the cast was assembled in a cluster upstage center. Gently and gracefully, they unfolded from their opening position, leaving Francisco Mungamba alone on the stage. In his solo, moments of breath and suspension abounded. Accents were ‘up’ and initiated from a deeply internal place. And the arpeggiation in the music rippled through his every movement. The corps returned and took over the stage in a cascading wave-like phrase, which then lead into a series of duets. Henry Sidford and Strongin’s pairing elicited lofty grand rond de jambs, joyful jetés and elastic developpés. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Norika Matsuyama blazed with vitality and energy, every extension seeming to go on forever. And Mungamba and Isabella DeVivo brought a jazzy duet full of abandon and flair, with some charming emboîté turns. The depth of talent in this company was readily apparent on Saturday afternoon, especially considering that with the exception of two soloists, the entire cast was from the corps.
Peck infused the ballet with abundant directional shifts, including the recurring and athletic arabesque motif. But what made the changes even more potent was how so many were initiated in the upper torso and solar plexus; like the movement started in the soul and the body followed suit. And still there was more to love about In the Countenance of Kings! Peck’s treatment of Stevens’ orchestrations was inspired. He used the complex time signatures to unlock endless choreographic possibilities. What can happen when there is five or seven beats per bar? Or when one measure is in duple meter and the next is in triple? Or when a quarter note is equal to one and then suddenly, an eighth note is equal to one and then, without warning, it’s a half note that is one. The result of his inquiry was a visual feast that electrified the space right up until the final moment when the cast ran full speed into the downstage left wing.