Monday, April 24, 2023

San Francisco Ballet - "Romeo & Juliet"

San Francisco Ballet
Romeo & Juliet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 21st, 2023

Whether the ballet, the stage play or the original text, when you spend time in the world of Romeo & Juliet, a complex narrative unfolds. It’s a tragic love story. It’s a cautionary tale about hate. It unpacks how human beings value each other. It shows the consequences of rash actions. It’s about trajectory; about timing. On Friday night, as San Francisco Ballet opened the final program of 2023, all these themes percolated throughout the War Memorial Opera House. This is another ballet that SFB audiences are very familiar with – choreographed by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and premiering almost thirty years ago. As was the case with earlier full-length works this season, fresh interpretations gave the established work new energy. And opening night’s cast went a step further – they turned this known production into something astonishing, something sublime. Together, Jasmine Jimison, debuting as Juliet, and Angelo Greco, returning as Romeo, made this one of the best R&Js I’ve seen. Ever.

Angelo Greco and Jasmine Jimison in
Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Important narrative frames are established early in Act I. First is the hatred between the Capulets and the Montagues. Seething, violent and deep-seated, the charged environment brews in the very first village scene. It’s electric, angry and one wonders how anything beautiful can grow in such a hostile environment. Also, Act I shows a change of romantic trajectory. Originally, Romeo thought Rosaline to be his future and Juliet thought the same of Paris. How things would dramatically shift over the course of a masked ball. Romeo and Juliet meet and each of their paths are altered forever. 

Much exposition happens in Act II – it’s short and full of many compact scenes, but a lot of action brings us to R&J’s final chapter. There’s more village antics, which feel a little superfluous to be honest. Romeo and Juliet are married, privately and secretly by Friar Laurence (Jim Sohm). And then we return to the town square, where two people are slain, including Tybalt (Luke Ingham) at Romeo’s hand. Romeo is banished and the curtain falls. As the ballet reaches its conclusion, Juliet hatches a scheme to fake her own death and sends a message to Romeo revealing that it is all a charade. She will wake and then they can run away together. Missed connections mean that Romeo does not learn of her plan, and in the end, they both perish.

The above synopsis details the events of the story, but more is needed to communicate the magic that happened onstage. To impart the mood, the atmosphere, the emotion and the triumphs of opening night. Though the production’s visuals and design need some updating, there was much brilliance to behold.

Greco’s Romeo, Max Cauthorn’s Benvolio and Esteban Hernández’ Mercutio were not only technically impressive but how they related to each other made you believe that they were like brothers. That connection must be there in order to explain the tragic events that happen later. Jimison was superb as Juliet, capturing every aspect of the nuanced character - from joy and innocence to fright and defeat; from youthful excitement to mature determination. 

Timing and trajectory intersect in Act I’s balcony pas de deux, if only for a moment. This sweeping duet of arabesque slides and circular spins was explosively passionate and both Greco and Jimison’s characters seemed overcome with budding love. While the entire cast was one of the best I have seen, this particular balcony scene was indeed the best. Act III opens back at Juliet’s bed chamber, and again, we see the love between the pair, though this time, intense grief is also part of the picture. They desperately want to be together, and yet, circumstance, trajectory and timing are against them. This truth remains constant until the final moments of the ballet, where the War Memorial stage undeniably saw some of its best acting in years. Bravi!

Angelo Greco and Jasmine Jimison in
Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Romeo & Juliet runs until Sunday, April 30th, with Greco and Jimison back in the titular roles on Thursday and Saturday evenings. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Cal Performances presents
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
April 15th, 2023 (matinee)

Pictured: Jacquelin Harris
Photo Dario Calmese
Spring in the Bay Area has much to offer. Generally, the weather is pretty good. Flowers are blooming. The farmer’s markets are flush with new, exciting produce and longer days equal more time outside. It is also one of the best times of the year for the performing arts, especially dance. San Francisco Ballet is usually in the final programs of its season, Smuin Ballet is into its second dance series and there’s a plethora of contemporary work to take in. But by far, my favorite thing about Bay Area spring dance is the annual return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Cal Performances. Every year, their weeklong residency absolutely wows and delights the UC Berkeley community. And this year was no exception. As has come to be the custom, the company brought three unique programs to the Zellerbach stage. I was lucky enough to catch Program C, an epic, iconic quadruple bill of work by Founder Alvin Ailey and current Artistic Director Robert Battle.

Program C opened with Ailey’s Night Creature, a 1974 mini-suite set to Duke Ellington selections. The nocturnal atmosphere was undeniable – a constellation lighting effect projected across the back psych framed sparkling costumes of layered purples, greens and blues. The movement followed that same sense of collage with different vocabulary coming together to form a complete whole. Over Night Creature’s continuous three movements, many styles and genres were mined. 70s jazz with its sultry hips, slinky step-ball-changes and layouts; modern contractions, spirals and Horton laterals. Soft shoe influences. Classical ballet petit allegro and pas de chat. And while very different physicality, everything worked together so well. From lights up to the final cluster pose, Night Creature both mesmerized and captivated. And the Ailey dancers more than delivered in this technically challenging work. The music could have been a little quieter at the beginning, but it seemed like the booth adjusted as the piece wore on. 

Battle’s 2021 For Four also had music front and center. A compact, effervescent quartet, danced at this performance by Alisha Rena Peek, Xavier Mack, Deidre Rogan and Hannah Alissa Richardson, For Four celebrates the musical genius of Wynton Marsalis. At first, I wondered if each of the dancers might be following the line of one particular instrument, but as the piece developed, it seemed that their choreography, entrances and exits were more tied to specific musical phrases. Like the score, motifs recurred. Pointed fingers, knee falls, chaîné turns with goalpost arms. And while there were duets and trios throughout, each dancer also had a chance to solo mirroring the keyboards, saxophones and brass sections in Marsalis’ composition.

The iconic moments continued as Jacquelin Harris performed Ailey’s 1971 Cry, a haunting, potent solo made famous by the incomparable Judith Jamison. The program note for Cry shares this, “For all Black women everywhere-especially our mothers.” And the dance that Ailey crafted with that inspiration is both formidable and layered. Emotional tones varied – despair, hopelessness, realization and suffering met with resiliency, perseverance and at the end of the piece, joy. Harris reached along the diagonal before contracting inward; she strode forward in power before slowly curling down to the floor. Circular movements of the arms and upper torso took the focus towards the heavens. Cry communicates deep spiritual prayer and the brave act of remembering and on Saturday afternoon, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. 

Revelations (1960) closed the afternoon at Zellerbach Hall and it was no surprise that applause rang out before the curtain even went up. Like many AAADT fans, I’ve seen Revelations many times and have commented on multiple aspects of Ailey’s modern masterwork set to a collection of spirituals. Rather than repeat some of those thoughts, it seems fitting to revisit just a few of Revelations’ extraordinary, iconic moments. The opening wedge formation with its arm and palm choreography is simply thrilling. As are the gravity-defying back hinges that pepper much of Revelations’ first chapter. The écarté promenade and the final partnered pose are just two of the reasons why Fix Me, Jesus is so special. There’s the boat pose progression of I Wanna Be Ready; the double stag leaps of Sinner Man; and the bright yellow sun that ushers in that last scene. And truly, every instant of the finale, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham transports the audience to an entirely joyous plane.


Monday, April 03, 2023

San Francisco Ballet - "Cinderella"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella
Photo Lindsay Thomas

April 1st, 2023 (matinee)

When a ballet has been part of a company’s repertoire for quite some time, there is an upside of familiarity. Audiences know the story, the visuals, the choreography. The downside is that the work can start to feel stale after a while. But one full-length narrative that will never fall victim to time is Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. A co-production of SFB and Dutch National Ballet, this Cinderella has vibrancy to spare. Stunning landscapes, humor, a wild cast of characters, innovative design and the choreographic backbone that this familiar fairy tale needs. Cinderella saw its US premiere at SFB on May 3, 2013, and even though a decade has passed, the work’s ingenuity has rendered it ageless.

Like many story ballets, Act I has much narrative exposition. We meet the main characters; come to understand their respective situations and learn what motivates them. In Wheeldon’s version, that begins with a prelude of sorts, where the viewer encounters the leads as children. We see Cinderella lose her mother, and the onset of her protection by the four Fates (the Fairy Godmother character reimagined). We meet her new family and witness how their jealousy dominates and decimates Cinderella’s life. We are transported to the palace where Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin are, as children, already battling notions and assumptions of duty and responsibility. And as the Act moves on, and the leads grow up, there’s mistaken identity. Invitations to a ball. A forest bubbling with color, energy and animation. 

There were several special moments throughout this initial Act, especially from SFB soloist Isabella DeVivo, who debuted in the titular role on Saturday afternoon. Cinderella’s first solo at her mother’s grave is one of my favorite dance moments in the ballet, and DeVivo displayed such command and range. It feels like an intimate conversation between Cinderella and her mother – an opportunity to share about her life, her dreams, her fears. As such, the choreography is thematically and tonally nuanced. There’s joy, wistfulness, longing and grief and DeVivo delivered on all fronts. 

Elizabeth Mateer was fantastic as the severe, unforgiving (and in Act II, the drunk) stepmother, perhaps the best portrayal of that character since the ballet’s premiere. And Kamryn Baldwin and Jasmine Jimison were delightfully cringeworthy as Cinderella’s stepsisters. In the forest, before transforming for the ball, Cinderella happens upon a mélange of characters, led by the seasonal variations. Spring sparkles with buoyancy and spirit, while Summer’s circular, swinging choreography floats with vastness. Fiery and dramatic, Autumn’s footwork is all spice, and Winter closes things out with elegant coolness. Cinderella’s transport to the ball is a phenomenal visual effect, concluding an Act where much happens, and maybe a few too many characters appear in the final scene.

Next, we arrive at the palace’s grand ballroom for more action, fun and romance. The churlish stepsisters desperately try to one up each other to impress the Prince (Joseph Walsh), the stepmother has her gloriously tipsy solo and sparks fly between Jimison’s Clementine and Hansuke Yamamoto’s Benjamin. But what makes Act II special are the duets and solos by DeVivo and Walsh. Innocence, grace and curiosity informed all their partnering. Relevés were confident and secure. Each phrase had an undeniable ‘swept off your feet’ tone – DeVivo skimming the stage with every lift, turn and gentle hop. Act II does drag a bit from time to time and the corps’ segments needed some attention. Their opening waltz sequence is another favorite dance moment of mine in this ballet, but on Saturday afternoon, coordination and timing was a bit elusive for the group. 

The final Act of Wheeldon’s Cinderella is all about finding the foot that fits the golden slipper left behind at the ball. After many humorous attempts, it is discovered that Cinderella is the owner of that shoe, and the love story is fully realized. Cinderella and the Prince’s final pas de deux celebrates that love, certainly. Though it also reveals another layer or level to their journey – freedom and choice. In the end, their triumph is that they have the freedom to choose each other; to live the life they want and to be happy on their own terms.