Monday, April 08, 2019

San Francisco Ballet - Program 6

San Francisco Ballet
Program 6 - Space Between
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 6th, 2019

In danceland, many musical scores end up being inexorably linked to particular choreography. When I hear the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, I anticipate the corps de ballet dressed in light blue for George Balanchine’s Serenade. The whistles and unexpected intervals at the beginning of West Side Story make me crave Jerome Robbins’ signature relevé in second. But I also love it when dancemakers break with convention and posit new, different, unexpected language with such scores. That’s what Justin Peck did with Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, the opener on San Francisco Ballet’s sixth program, Space Between. The 2015 work takes Aaron Copland’s stirring music, originally composed for Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo ballet, and asks what it has to say some eight decades later.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
Photo © Erik Tomasson
And the answer is, a lot. While Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes certainly pays homage to the past with nostalgic western tropes and old-school musical theater motifs, its choreographic syntax is undeniably twenty-first century. Pedestrian motions are seamlessly combined with highly technical phrases, making the work approachable and fresh. In one instant, the ensemble runs full speed across the stage; in another, they execute perfectly timed unison pirouettes. Peck isn’t afraid of stillness and uses it well throughout the ballet. Impactful, frozen postures of waiting and searching abound: palms splayed, long lunges and expectant upward glances. And the sense of camaraderie amongst the cast of fifteen men and one woman is palpable – they looked like they were having so much fun. But it is the sole female role, danced by Sofiane Sylve, that is most intriguing. From the moment Sylve appears through her pas de deux with Carlo Di Lanno to the final blackout, one is struck by incredible self-assurance. She enters partway through Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, and so, is indeed joining an ongoing, in process conversation that the men have been having. But with every step, every glance, it is clear that she feels no need to adjust her reality or fit into some perceived mold. Not only is this embodied in her solo work, but also in the primary duet. Peck imbued this pas de deux with abundant counterbalances – shapes and positions requiring equal force from both dancers - and at several points, it was Sylve who was providing the base of support for the partnering. And no discussion of Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes is complete without some bravura highlights. Hansuke Yamamoto wowed with his series of brisés cabrioles, and Esteban Hernandez’ purposely slowing fouettés were met with uproarious applause.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Die Toteninsel
Photo © Erik Tomasson
As the lights slowly warmed on Liam Scarlett’s new work for SFB, Die Toteninsel, it was clear that Program 6 was nowhere near done exploring the relationship between movement and music. Die Toteninsel impresses on many levels. Narratively, it has a real Rite of Spring vibe to it, minus the sacrifice part. There’s a community; there’s a feeling of ritualistic purpose; and there’s a definite ominous undercurrent. But the ballet’s shining glory is in its mirroring of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music. Both have an air of unpredictability and morph from one space to another in a deliciously porous wave. Rachmaninoff’s compositions are known for having a wonderful quality of surprise and change, really transcending genre. In a single piece, you might hear the virtuosity and rubato of the Romantic era, the tonal ambiguity of the Impressionists, Baroque counterpoint and 20th Century chromaticism. And the genius is that it all works together. The same is true of what Scarlett created with Die Toteninsel. Defying a particular sense of time, the piece looked futuristic, biblical and mythological all at the same time. Its tone was concurrently determined, worshipful, passionate and foreboding. Partnerships were constantly in flux as the cast navigated their relationship to David Finn’s large circular light sculpture (which itself also shifted and pivoted throughout the work). Choreographically, Scarlett mined a range of styles and dynamics - pedestrian walking, classical arabesques, contemporary inverted lifts and serpentine twisting. And while there were plenty of large poses and vast extensions, Scarlett spent ample time with low positions. Low arabesques, low passés and turns in ¼ relevé felt a metaphor for being on a journey. A journey that, like those positions, hadn’t reached its final leg yet. A journey through a tunnel of moods, tones and atmospheres, that, even if you weren’t quite sure what was happening, you wanted to watch.

San Francisco Ballet in Pita's Bjork Ballet
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Space Between closed with one more chapter celebrating the choreography/sound connection: the return of Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet, which debuted last year as part of SFB’s Unbound Festival. A tribute to the musical artist, Björk Ballet takes a very typical compositional form - the dance suite, a larger work comprised of multiple consecutive choreographic chapters, each one usually accompanied by a different musical selection. Pita followed the formula, with nine episodes set to nine songs. But other than that framework, there was nothing typical about Björk Ballet. There were characters, costumes and masks aplenty. We met fire soldiers, a sparkling butterfly, an army of chess pieces, a warrior Queen and a masked fisherman. Visual spectacle was everywhere: mirrored Marley floor, ardent make out sessions, fiber-optic palm trees falling from the ceiling, dancers standing atop a bright red platform, a giant fishing pole. Pita pulled from many movement genres including jazz, figure skating, yoga and acrobatics; I half expected aerial artists to make an appearance at some point. The piece was definitely entertaining. It moved quickly, was visually engaging and thoroughly inventive. Having said that, there were a number of sections that looked bizarre simply for the sake of being bizarre, which doesn’t speak to this particular viewer. And there was a missed opportunity near the end. One of Björk Ballet’s later chapters sees the large cast funneling on and off the stage in a jumping, pulsing staccato flurry. It felt like the conclusion, and because it did, the scenes that followed were a bit of let down.

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