The colorations of the three pieces made it seem as if a genie-in-a-bottle stagehand had encircled San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 in a mood ring.
A brushfire of a work, Symphonic Dances, Edward Liang’s first commission for the company to Sergei Rachmaninov’s work by the same name, ignites with fiery bandeau-georgettes (the women) and shorts and tanks in the same color (the men). Two parallel lines reach from downstage to up, as male and female dancers angle into a copse-like snow break, from which they roll out as partners into expansive duets. Vito Mazzeo and Yuan Yuan Tan arrive in the same costumes, but cream-nude hue’d, and initiate a centripetal pas de deux, circling each other, arc-like. Then they meld into one another, much of the work shown in profile. She winds around him in arabesque and they keep spooling into poses until they can tie arms and legs that meet in infinity into a gyroscopic Gordian Knot. Mazzeo holds Tan aloft as if she were a figurehead, and indeed, if anyone represents the banner of this company held high, it is Tan. Lifts swing across the diagonals of their bodies from top to bottom, and back again, until Tan’s languid body has encircled Mazzeo’s extensive legs.
Frances Chung is as resilient as bundled cable. Davit Karapetyan partners her with genteel correctness. They are a brilliant match, swimming over and under each other like sea creatures, as the corps de ballet floods in, and indeed under Jack Mehler’s lighting, individual faces are lost to bodies that leap like flames; you can almost hear the hiss of the aquatic couple’s exit, as if extinguished by the conflagration.
As Tiit Helimets’ partner, Sofiane Sylve is a wildflower coquette whisking from positions to elisions with a lightness that enchants. She is perhaps the most versatile of the dancers in her rank in the specific way that she can take on any technical or dramatic challenge, whether it requires tensile strength or fleet lightness.
Speaking of lightness, Vitor Luiz and Maria Kochetkova float in like two halves of an eggshell, as if they were jigsaw pieces chosen out of hundreds to fit together perfectly. When she jumps into his waiting arms full-face, it is as if she lightly snaps into a die that has been cut with precision to receive her. The choice of who partners whom in this piece is brilliant.
The return of smudgy charcoal abstract panels reminds us that Helgi Tomassen’s The Fifth Season captures in its name and feel the many discordant weather systems that blow in and out of San Francisco in a single day. Arms in slate blue camisoles with a light pass of rhinestones alternate with legs in grey tights. The limbs are attached to the bodies of Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan in the opening piece of the program. Their work becomes larger, more elevated and more generous with each extension, a kind of moving enigma defying the discord of the Karl Jenkins score. Outstanding is the confident and zestful corps de ballet work by the willowy and vigilant Madison Keesler, the sprightly Sasha de Sola, spunky Koto Ishihara, and limpid Alexandra McCullagh, all partnered gallantly by Diego Cruz, Francisco Mungamba, Benjamin Stewart and Matthew Stewart. In the “Waltz” movement, Tiit Helimets and Sarah Van Patten make luscious and vulnerable every count of their swift interlude. Ruben Martin Cintas is masterful in his squiring of the glittering Vanessa Zahorian as they add heat and intensity to the accompaniment of the smudgy music for strings. The en l’air ronds de jambs are a cut above, as are the feline high stepping passés in parallel that move the dancers offstage. “Romance,” featuring Chung and Karapetyan offers aerated-to-languorous lifts, exalted stretches, and fast bourées, folded into repose-like caesuras. The nuanced lighting by Michael Mazzola enhances the dramatic quality of the pas de trois Chung dances with Helimets, Martin Cintas and Karapetyan; she is her regal in her space. Martin Cintas and Zahorian whip through taut tango steps, and Sarah Van Patten navigates the panels as Helimets shadows her. He nearly inhales her just before pressing her up into a slow lift over his lowered, stretched back. Van Patten also reigns from a place of surmise for a moment, and then out comes a loopy reproach from that slightly vertiginous corps to close the piece by bringing us out of our trance state!
The evening ends with the crowd-pleasing dyads and doodads of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces to music by Philip Glass. The grid backdrop plays host to dancers without borders in activewear crossing the stage like “civilians,” that is to say, not turned out, and not “held.” Once the audience lets in the contradiction of diagonal strides going against the grain of the horizontal/vertical grid, dancers who have been crossing without interference suddenly randomly surprise us with quick fake-outs that throw a monkey wrench into the works.
“Rubric” has three couples dancing duets of stylized poses, slo-mo lifts aborted by pauses, and steps that move in plaintive syncopation to match each note of the score. At a certain point, I see dead people—like Tchaikovsky and Balanchine—and my mind conjures up the latter’s Theme and Variations, and the challenge of embroidering a ballet around a simple theme composed of just a few notes, and while that doesn’t prevent me appreciating the distinctive partnering of Yuan Yuan Tan by Damian Smith in “Façades,” it does invite comparisons, and by the “Aknaten (excerpt)” I feel like I’m the civilian who has unwittingly bumped into a “Back to the Future” flash dance moment.
I walk to my car with the Glass Pieces dyad hopping up and down in my brain, and then just for the fun of it, I switch to the two-note Theme and Variations theme. See it and try it!
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.