Saturday, April 13, 2024

San Francisco Ballet - "Dos Mujeres"

San Francisco Ballet
Dos Mujeres
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 12th, 2024

It’s hard to believe that in less than a month, San Francisco Ballet’s home season will be over. The final two programs, currently running in tandem, close in the next few days. And after weeklong encores of Mere Mortals and Swan Lake, the company exits the War Memorial Opera House to embark on their summer engagements. It has been a stunning season filled with upending surprises and comforting classics. And upon entering the lobby and theater on Friday night, it was clear that something equally special was in the offing with Program 6.

Kudos to the SFB artistic team for making the whole environment feel alive and immersive. Rich, jewel-toned florals made ordinary surfaces smile. Art installations peeked out from every corner. And Maria Guzmán Capron’s breathtaking multi-fabric curtain, commissioned specially by SFB, adorned the proscenium arch. Program 6’s title spoke on two levels. First, it shares its name with a Frida Kahlo painting from 1928 or 1929 (sources differ on the year it was created). Kahlo was the inspiration for the second work on this double bill. Second, Dos Mujeres translates to ‘two women,’ and the evening featured work from two high-octane Latina choreographers - Arielle Smith and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Both pieces were premieres; Smith’s Carmen, a world premiere, and Ochoa’s Broken Wings (2016), an SFB premiere. While there were was much to comment on in each, it was the visuals and dance drama of these twenty-first century story ballets that captivated. The drama was heavy and intense; the dance, a little less so.  

San Francisco Ballet in Smith's Carmen
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions
Smith’s Carmen has been described in many different outlets as a ‘re-imagining’ of Bizet’s opera. And that word was chosen because it is truly apt. The main characters are present as are themes of jealousy, resentment, passion, duty and rage. But the setting, premise, relationships, gender and definitely, the ending, are different. I quite enjoyed this new take. I also loved that it was edited from the typical four-acts to just one. Having said that, with only forty-ish minutes, Smith had a lot of story to tell in fairly short order. Carmen’s pace was brisk. On the one hand, that fast-moving tempo was energetic and dynamic. It demanded its audience’s attention and engagement from one instant to the next. At the same time, the pace meant that the viewer wasn’t able to sit with the various plotpoints or characters for very long. This made some twists and turns hard to envision and digest.  

Riccardo Hernández’ set design and Gabriela Hearst’s costumes were arrestingly on the nose, though the lighting didn’t always work for me. I get what they were trying to accomplish with darker light patterns highlighting the dilapidated environment. But it was too dark on occasion. Dance-wise, it was wonderful to see a pas de deux between two women - Sasha De Sola’s Carmen and Jennifer Stahl’s Escamillo – which I would argue is still somewhat of a rarity in ballet. And the circular phrase for when Joseph Walsh’s Jose was spinning out of control was Carmen’s standout choreographic and technical moment. But it was the drama that was the focus here as opposed to the dancing. 

Like Carmen, Broken Wings sought to convey a formidable narrative – the life and work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. For fifty minutes, Ochoa invited us to be part of Kahlo’s personal and creative existence, with all its pain, uncertainty, whimsy, volatility and love. A tall order, to be sure. And a very successful result. 

San Francisco Ballet in Ochoa's Broken Wings
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions

Ochoa’s pacing of that journey felt reasonable, perhaps even a little slow in the middle. But the vibrant visual feast more than made up for any lulls. Color leapt from the stage – in fabrics, in headpieces and in the choreography, which was also a little more present. Imaginative creatures and beings that spanned the natural and physical worlds were introduced. Gender constructs were disrupted. A mammoth set box skated on the stage’s surface leading to penetrating questions. Was the box a metaphor for Kahlo’s imagination or a frame for her art? Was it somewhere she went to think, to hide or to escape?

Choreographically, Ochoa suggested Kahlo’s carefree joy with light, crisp batterie (entre chat quatre, and briseé). In contrast, she also injected twitching and tremoring motions into much of the phrase material, mirroring the physical ailments and chronic pain that Kahlo endured for much of her life. As one might expect, Broken Wings is a vehicle for the dancer that is cast in the titular role. Isabella DeVivo was a consummate Kahlo, commanding the stage with grace, clarity and depth. I liked the piece, though I will admit that it didn’t knock my socks off, but based on the reception on Friday, many in the audience clearly adored it.