Monday, February 12, 2024

San Francisco Ballet
British Icons
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
February 10th, 2024 (matinee)

If there is one word that can describe San Francisco Ballet’s current British Icons program, it is most definitely ‘cinematic.’ Onstage at the War Memorial Opera House until February 15th, the double bill brings the work of two legendary British choreographers in two SFB premieres, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. There was much to take in throughout the afternoon, and based on the reception each ballet received, SFB patrons were delighted with the grandeur transpiring before them. Though if one had to choose a highlight of the afternoon, my choice would be 1963’s Marguerite and Armand. Not only did Ashton provide an epic love saga, but he also showed audiences that you don’t necessarily need three acts and three hours to get a story across. His narrative was more than successful in a tight forty-five minutes.

Marguerite and Armand is a quintessential soap opera, in a really great way. With a score by Franz Liszt, there was everything that a soap opera coupling might have - love at first sight, love forbidden by outside forces, desperate pleas from an ill woman, jealousy and ultimately, death. It was romantic, tragic, turbulent and sweepingly dramatic. At the same time, there is something quite sophisticated about it. Cecil Beaton’s décor was full of billowy curtains and draped bunting; the gilded statues and chandelier felt inspired by 1920s art deco. Jasmine Jimison and Wei Wang in the title roles were stunning and sublime. Every pas de deux they danced felt like a love letter to each other. And the cleanliness of the technique, particularly Wang in his opening solo variation, was a thing of beauty. 

In contrast, technical cohesiveness was a bit elusive in 1965’s Song of the Earth, at least on Saturday’s matinee. There was certainly refinement over the one-act’s six sections, but the first group sequence had issues with both unison and Ashton’s choreographic phrases. Having said that, the composition itself is quite a tour de force. A conceptual suite that contemplates life and death, togetherness and lone-ness, Song of the Earth blends contemporary ballet with avant garde sensibilities. The movement and shapes were striking yet delicate and subtle. A grand plié in sixth position, fluttery parallel assemblés, flexed feet and hands, upper body contractions and sharp directional changes. Set to a song cycle by Gustav Mahler, with live operatic vocals by Nikola Printz and Thomas Kinch, each chapter had its own unique quality – somber and serious sections were followed by fun and whimsical moments. The third song was almost courtly, with the men of the company supporting Carmela Mayo through a series of split cartwheels. Sweeping arms and complex gestural hand phrases imbued the equally light fourth episode. 

Song of the Earth has decidedly neo-classical moments peppered throughout. The accent of various musical motifs with choreographic steps. The use of demi-pointe in pointe shoes. The super quick footwork. And when it comes to the neo-classical genre, SFB is well-versed. The company’s repertory is full of Balanchine ballets, as well as multiple choreographers who are often considered part of the Balanchine lineage. I’m excited for the artistic staff and the dancers to spend more time with other choreographic voices in this neo-classical realm and experience how they interpret movement and physicality. 

San Francisco Ballet in MacMillan's Song of the Earth
© Reneff-Olson Productions

Song of the Earth was lengthy, clocking in at one hour. And while I loved the live vocal presence, when the orchestra was at full volume, it was difficult to hear the superb soloists.

British Icons runs until February 15th in San Francisco.