San Francisco Ballet’s first performance at the natural yet sumptuous Stern Grove outdoor venue took place on August 22, 1943. From that day to this, the 75th anniversary of the Stern Grove Festival, planning to see the dancers has been an adventure, filled with anticipation, trepidation, and even foreboding. One can never be sure that they will dance, because if the temperature plummets to 55 degrees or below, provisions in their union contract assure that they will not.
July 29th was one of those pilgrimage days when an estimated 10,000 balletomanes, ballet students, ex-dancers, and other Stern Grove-goers, brought layers of clothing, friends, companions and newborns, along with picnic baskets filled with assorted pièces de resistance to the festival grounds. Part of the ritual conversation is to recall chilly summers when the concert was almost called off, and one when it actually was. Happily for SFB devotees, the show did go on, and between bites of fried chicken, eggplant parmesan sandwiches, thickly (blue-)frosted chocolate cupcakes, premier Pt. Reyes cheeses, and wedges of tomato spice cake, all washed down with whites or reds, courtesy of a Stern Grove supply line, we commented on how great the dancers look this season, especially the corps de ballet with its several newer members now fully in harness.
Since it is an outdoor theater, there is no curtain, but the corps’s entrance in George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony was tantamount to a rising curtain. Among them, Madison Keesler, Koto Ishihara, and the very present Charlene Cohen, torsos lifted, arms held in a generous second position, offered a cordial, yet formal welcome. Cohen has an uncanny ability to remain completely focused at the same time as her steps go adeptly outward bound. In this setting, the men’s Celtic costumes, with their carmine red velvet tops and green plaid kilts, created a woodsy and fraternal hunting lodge sense of place. They might have seemed overbuilt for a summer performance, were it not a San Francisco summer, and up until the last minute, audience members were consulting their hand-helds to check whether the temperature had indeed dipped into the 55-degree no-dance zone. Climate change was forgotten in short order, as the men fell into crisp formation, setting the stage for the trio of Nicole Ciapponi, Myles Thatcher and Steven Morse, whose work lifts Balanchine’s best intentions into sharp relief. Ciapponi has a sense of herself that is fired by confident, lively dispatch shown in her downstage brisés. The three kick up a jaunty tempo, a perfect prelude to the pas de deux by Davit Karapetyan and Yuan Yuan Tan.
Tan’s costume with its pink top and long white tulle skirt blend into the deeper color scheme better in natural light than they did indoors last season. Tan’s slow, deliberate, and generous développés are acknowledged gallantly by Karapetyan. Her head and neck elongate wistfully, as she glances back over a shoulder, and there is both delicacy and purposefulness to her work. Karapetyan is fully ceremonial and masterly in his partnering of Tan, where no detail is too incidental to overlook. Tan’s retreat—backward steps with a winning épaulement—brings closure to the duet. Both dancers sustain the loftiest level of performance quality throughout.
The after-show comments were all about the afternoon’s brightest work, corps de ballet member Myles Thatcher’s Spinae. It was set on and performed by the San Francisco Ballet Trainees and company apprentices, who show a promise that is bittersweet, in that it far exceeds the Grinchy number of contracts that dance companies are currently offering. Wearing raspberry watercolor unitards from Saut de Basque Dancewear, the dancers lean forward facing the audience, with eyes searing through the fourth wall to make contact, and then in twos or fours that become threes and then fours again, to insistent strumming from a Dream House and Ethel score, they find and show nearly everything that can be done with a spine. The thing about Thatcher’s work (and I’ve now had the privilege of seeing three of his pieces), is that his intellect is ever-present, cradled in the kinesthetic, such that the movement sends our heads on a little journey around the spine: See how the men lift the women so they are able to face out and send a dolphin bobble through air instead of water? See how the coryphée is a woman leading a mixed-sex cannon, and how a woman brings up the rear of a flock of dancers? It’s a statement without being an overstatement, or for that matter, a distraction from how the piece takes shape. Then Thatcher has us take a peek at what the spine does to take up the torque in a dehors arabesque turn. A quick toe-touch before an extension commands attention as a pointer would. Sweeping or skater glides suddenly brake, a foot is planted, as a pliant torso circles above it. See? Using the spine, we can have both stasis and motion simultaneously. Some of the steps about two thirds along do not work with the music, but overall, the piece invents a magical conveyance for a tour of the body in motion. We come away with a more complete appreciation of what this fragile yet forceful contraption called a spine can send out into the world.
Hans van Manen’s Solo is not for everybody, and by that, I don’t mean everyone in the audience. I mean that it’s not for every dancer. It is a musically challenging piece set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Suite No. 1 in D minor, “Correnta” and “Double,” a score that skids along quickly and erratically, never seeming to stop, even as the choreography shifts radically from one direction or level to another. The title “Solo” notwithstanding, it is actually performed by three dancers: Gennadi Nedvigin, James Sofranko and Hansuke Yamamoto, all past masters at the technical hi-jinx that are essential to its success. For example, Nedvigin falls to the floor like a feather, never losing ground in his timing; Yamamoto engages in a battle with the air in something akin to a sped-up Sleeping Beauty Violante (Finger Fairy) variation; and Sofranko glides in all directions, rooting the steps in the accelerating tempo. Nedvigin’s artistry always arrives when you think he has just completely nailed a combination, and then he adds a most subtle and offhanded flourish, such as a shoulder shrug with palms upturned, punctuated with a devilish smile.
At my picnic table, the most controversial piece was the program’s closer, Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine. One tablemate, remarking on the yellow costumes that “look like highlighters,” offered the opinion that Wheeldon should have “stopped at Number Two.” Others, including myself, were delighted by the addition of Sasha de Sola to the cast as the female half of the couple in purple. She brought a frothy, playful, but at times, spitfire quality to the duet with Vito Mazzeo. For me, Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison, as the couple in orange, delivered the most virtuosic performance, with lifts and counterpoint that in their athleticism seemed to channel something Olympic. The fanning of dancers on the floor, facing the audience like human footlights, was a touch of class that transported me from Grove to groove, as a blue dragonfly made a spectacular landing a leaf or two stage left of center.