For the last two mixed bills of the 2011 season, San Francisco Ballet presented six ballets, including one world premiere, one SFB premiere, three contemporary reprisals, and one early twentieth century classic. Two are wholly integrated works — total syntheses of music, choreography, and production values; two others are appealing celebrations of their music; and two are disconnected from the music and settings, obscuring their choreographic intent.
The Complete Package
Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe operated during 1909–1929, a two-decade period that altered ballet staging forever. The impresario and his company specialized in presenting works that were a balance of choreography, music, and art in equal proportions and all designed by composers, artists, and choreographers at the cutting edge of their individual art forms. For example, artists like Picasso, Matisse, Dali, and Braque created sets and costumes for the ballets, which were choreographed to music by Debussy, Satie, Ravel, and especially Stravinsky, whose original ballet scores are now in regular repertory with symphony orchestras worldwide.
One of these ballets set to Stravinsky scores, Petrouchka, debuted in Paris in 1911 and featured choreography by Michael Fokine and sets and costumes designed by Alexandre Benois; the famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky portrayed the title character, Tamara Karsavina danced the Ballerina, and Enrico Cecchetti was the Charlatan. Pretty much the “A” list of the period. In staging this production for SFB, the choreographer’s granddaughter Isabelle Fokine commented, “It’s a great piece of theater, without being limited by what any one art form can be.”
Because Fokine often veered from strictly classical steps, tailoring his choreography to the subject material, this brief tragic tale of a puppet with a human heart tells the story in a naturalistic style that is more like a silent film, rather than old-school structured ballet mime. Strong portrayals by SFB principals, especially Pascal Molat as Petrouchka, who conveys the sadness and agony of this perennial outsider, and Clara Blanco in an eerie portrayal of the Ballerina — all wide-open eyes and emotional disengagement — play against a backdrop of excellent performances in the supporting roles and corps.
From the Wealthy Merchant of Quinn Wharton and the Head Coachman of Garen Scribner to the saucy Gypsies of Pauli Magierek and Danielle Santos and the twisted Devil of Diego Cruz, the SFB dancers clearly define each individual character. Additionally, corps members maintain the timing and spacing needed to outline the individual elements, successfully capturing the audience’s focus on the busy, packed stage.
While on the surface Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, here in its SFB premiere, seems as far away from Petrouchka as can be imagined, each ballet contains a similar sense of unity and presents a complete theater piece.
In contrast to Fokine’s 1830 Shrovetide Fair setting, Chroma‘s visuals are modern, stark, and severe. Dancers in Moritz Junge’s faintly tinged gymslips enter and exit through a cutout in the back of architect John Pawson’s plain white lightbox/movie soundstage set or appear from the shadows onstage as if by magic through Lucy Carter’s skillful lighting design. While at times almost too busy, the inventive movement occasionally pauses just enough for the dancers and the audience to regroup. It’s chilly, even icy, yet sensual.
The aesthetic pushes the dancers to physical extremes, sending them into jaw-dropping hyperextensions, effective when used sparingly, but in this case, become increasingly less notable with each repeat. Ditto for the frenetic hand and arm movements, which tend to get less precise as the ballet increases in intensity.
The company, of course, is up to the technical demands, embracing the post-Forsythian vocabulary with self-assurance, skill, and speed. Although an ensemble piece, each dancer’s strengths are showcased as their versatility is challenged. For Chroma, Maria Kochetkova trades in her romantic Giselle, becoming a speed-infused dynamo; Yuan Yuan Tan exchanges her dramatic gifts for a cool study of the human body’s flexibility limits. McGregor also has crafted an exciting pas de trois for three strong male dancers, ideally suited on opening night to Isaac Hernández, Pascal Molat, and Garen Scribner’s abilities.
What pulls it all together, though, is the music by Jody Talbot and Jack White III (of White Stripes fame). Essentially cinematic, the orchestrations build and increase in intensity, driving the dancers to more and more incredible speed. It’s great fun, but Chroma lacks a central core purpose, which causes it to just miss achieving its full potential.
In contrast, both Wheeldon’s Ghosts and Renato Zanella’s Underskin appear to have little or no connection to their music, and program notes are needed to decipher what content purports to be there.
Ghosts is all drapey and drippy, lovely and abstract, and unrelentingly gray. Is there a narrative, or not? Do we have to care about these people, or do we just say, “I like it; it’s pretty.” Perhaps these questions could have been answered by pulling the music more into focus, rather than merely using it as a backdrop. Unfortunately, the ballet appears to have been choreographed in the studio and the music tacked on as an afterthought.
Underskin capitalizes only slightly more on its score. That’s a shame since Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is one of the best-known early works by this important early twentieth-century composer. Zanella goes literal by setting the ballet in a forest, as in the poem that influenced the composition, but the pseudo-S&M costumes for the corps and a skin-tight catsuit for a commanding Sofianne Sylve are way out of whack with the neo-Romantic music and abstract forest setting. Add to this a muddied narrative, prosaic entrances and exits, and a limited step vocabulary…. Good thing the orchestra was in good form.
Dance to the Music
There’s something to be said, though, for finding a decent piece of music and just making a good dance. Not edgy, not pushing any envelopes, and the only statement made is that when you have great dancers and terrific tunes, it’s cause for a party.
Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight happily falls into this category. Set to assorted Bach keyboard concertos, and played beautifully by Michael McGraw, it is an intimate, immediately accessible love note to the composer and the SFB dancers. The sections flow into one another and make for a complete one-act ballet, yet individual movements can be broken out as individual party pieces that the dancers can use for guest gigs. Clever.
Chic, black Sandra Woodall costumes and the predominately white lighting plan by David Finn serve to pare the work down to its visual essentials, allowing Tomasson’s choreographic design to stand on its own merits. From the unusual slow opening section featuring Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets (one of this season’s more felicitous pairings) to the brisk male solo danced by Joan Boada, all the action is in service to the music. Especially effective is the 3rd Movement trio danced by Dores Andre, Elizabeth Miner, and Joan Boada. Fluid and flirtatious, it is a real charmer.
In its world premiere, Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet Number Nine also uses the music to command the work’s structure. Choreographed to Ash by Michael Torke, speed, power, and excitement fill the stage — and after a night of serious subjects, the audience was ready for a good time. Completely hooked into the score, Wheeldon pushes the dancers to jump higher and go faster — and they do.
In the pit, guest conductor Emil deCou went for concert tempo, never slowing the pace for a moment. A speedy bunch, SFB is one of the few companies up to the challenge. And although all company members are fast, special kudos to Frances Chung, who always gives the impression that she could happily go for another, even faster, round without losing any precision or performance quality.
Holly Hynes’ colorful costumes and the bright spectrum of Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design boost the mood. The yellow-decked corps comes and goes in inventive exits and entrances, and principal dancers divest themselves of star ego to become one with the moment. And how many brisés were there in this ballet, anyway? At first they were notable, then a bit boring, when suddenly it all shifts to “Holy cow, this is amazing!” How cool is that?
Number Nine is Wheeldon’s post-modern response to the minimalism seen in McGregor’s Chroma and in much of Wheeldon’s other work. And it is a welcome respite. We live in a world encumbered by far too many grim and serious concerns. Number Nine is a reminder that there is still joy in the world and that dance can be fun.
San Francisco Ballet
Program 6: Ghosts, 7 for Eight, Chroma
Program 7: Petrouchka, Underskin, Number Nine
In repertory through April 20
War Memorial Opera House