San Francisco Ballet
Program 1 – “The Joy Of Dance”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 4th, 2017
The curtain rose to reveal a gorgeous impressionistic tableau of blues, greens and oranges. Lauren Strongin ran towards Angelo Greco and with a sky-high staccato lift, Haffner Symphony was off and running.
Moments like this one, of exuberant elation and luminescent artistry, sang from the War Memorial Opera House Sunday as San Francisco Ballet closed the first program of their 2017 season. Aptly titled, “Joy Of Dance”, this first triple bill welcomed Jiří Bubeníček’s new work Fragile Vessels alongside two returning compositions: Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings and Haffner Symphony, by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson.
Set to Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major, Tomasson’s Haffner Symphony was a lovely choice to open the program. A four-movement suite for one lead couple, three featured pairs and a corps of six, Haffner Symphony demonstrates the breadth and possibility that neo-classical choreography possesses. While certainly beautiful and elegant, so often neo-classical ballet can look overly placed and perhaps even a little cold at times, but this 1991 composition has an invigorating spirit, while maintaining the technical acuity that the form demands. Freedom soared in the upper torso and arms; gooey pliés seeped into the floor; surprising and inventive batterie sequences abounded. Strongin and Greco led the ballet with confidence and charm both in their duet choreography and in the sections where they each had the chance to shine independently – she, in the lengthy adagio phrases that informed the second movement; he, in the varied turns (arabesques, fouettés and outside pirouettes) that peppered Haffner Symphony’s third chapter. And together, the directional shifts and echappé portion of their final pas de deux dazzled.
Designed by his brother Otto Bubeníček, the setting for Jiří Bubeníček’s Fragile Vessels was all about grandeur and scope – flowing material draped from the rafters and oversized sweeping arches intertwined upstage left. And ensconced with Jim French’s lighting, the entire set looked sun-kissed, like it had been ever so lightly blanketed in gold. As Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 arpeggiated, bodies similarly rose and fell, cresting through the space. Arms twisted behind heads, legs swiveled – statuesque poses emerging in every corner. An examination of the strength, subtlety and range of the human experience, this one-act ensemble ballet creates an intimate container where raw emotion is expressed through avant-garde, sculptural choreography. And this was especially apparent in the lengthy middle section – a penetrating trio danced by Dores André, Joseph Walsh and Wei Wang.
|Dores André, Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh in|
Bubeníček's Fragile Vessels
Photo © Erik Tomasson
With simmering intensity, the pas de trois began on the floor and then moved to standing through a series of picturesque poses. As they cycled through these unexpected contemporary lifts and shapes, their relationship was in a constant state of flux. Sometimes all three performers moved as a unit, sometimes the formation was two together and one alone and occasionally, André, Walsh and Wang all danced their own distinct choreographic material. By exploring these various aspects within the pas de trois structure, Bubeníček made room for the narrative themes to radiate and resonate. You could see times of belonging and times of isolation, instances of being known and then quickly being forgotten. Near the end of the movement, jealousy and anger even made their way into the story. And in the final image, a collective and collaborative curved pose, it seemed that the three had reached some semblance of harmony and compromise.
With a combination of revisited motifs and new phrase material, Fragile Vessels left its audience with some astonishing imagery in its final chapter. Jennifer Stahl’s miraculous solo centered around the spine, turning in towards it and then outward into space. Wang, Francisco Mungamba and Carlo Di Lanno toggled between canon and unison in a brief, but memorable vignette. And an emotive pas de deux between Stahl and Di Lanno expertly wove through the entire cast like the route of a maze.
Program one closed with a shining star from 2016’s season – Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings, set to a glorious score by Sufjan Stevens. The full cast begins upstage center, carefully arranged in a cluster formation. Slowly, they peel away leaving Mungamba (The Protagonist) lying alone in the center. In a sublime solo, he stands and discovers his surroundings. As one of the dancers who interpreted this role last year, Mungamba was absolutely stellar, but on Sunday, he was on a whole other level, inspired, superb. With a sense of community and togetherness, the corps enters the scene, travelling around as a group, gently framing and energizing a number of featured pas de deuxs.
In the Countenance of Kings has so many noteworthy moments, a few warranting special mention - Strongin and Henry Sidford’s luscious duet; Isabella DeVivo and Mungamba’s sparkling emboîté and sous-sus turns; the athletic, shifting temps leveé sequence; the ensemble’s wave at the front of the stage; and the women’s unison work towards the end of the ballet. What a brilliant return from last year and a remarkable start to 2017!