San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
April 8, 2011
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano, 2011
The penultimate of this year's San Francisco Ballet's repertory programs provided almost unalloyed pleasures. The dancers showed no sign of season fatigue; they danced magnificently, none more so than the redoubtable Pascal Molat who took on major roles in all three of the evening's works and looked none the worse for it. "Petrouchka" proved to be the gem that last year hadn't quite shown its luster. Renato Zanella's "Underskin," new in 2010 pretty much held on to its darkly luminous secrets. Christopher Wheeldon's "Number Nine" -- his ninth work for SFB, the seventh commission -- was new. Sort of.
One of the pleasures of watching Wheeldon's choreography is the sheer skill that he brings to every ballet. He can fill the stage with billowing movements one moment -- here a lot of unisons for couples or gender-differentiated groups -- and the next he swipes them away like the sponge that cleans the dry-board, making it look new and full of promise. Whether Wheeldon's ongoing fascination with couples will become a creative handicap or whether he'll find ways to redefine the challenge for himself remains to be seen. "Nine" sports spiffy, M&M candy-colored costumes by Holly Hynes: the corps in daffodil yellow, the four couples color-coordinated. They were eye-candy but so was much of the choreography.
"Number Nine" is a wild ride, set to Michael Torke's propulsive but also retrograde 1989 "Ash", a score that previously inspired Peter Martin's eponymous 1991 work. Wheeldon made the most of it, diving right into its speed, easy harmonies and infectious energy. Starting with a moment of stasis, the front-oriented V-shaped whose visual dynamics promise an explosion, Wheeldon delivered. He deployed the corps in oppositions, canons and interlacing patterns that would have made Balanchine smile perhaps even with the choreographer's easy use of the floor's possibilities.
By now Wheeldon knows the dancers well. The choreography for the four couples reflected the familiarity. Speed and trust were at the heart of Maria Kotchekova and Gennadi Nedvigin's intricate entanglements. Ruben Martin Cintas -- with a rare smile on his face -- sailed Yuan Yuan Tan across the stage, her limbs unfolding like sails. Molat and Frances Chung nuzzled each other before engaging in a friendly tug of war, and Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz' engagement felt like a trio -- with the bassoon becoming the additional partner.
Sometimes program notes confuse more than they elucidate. Choreographer Zanella has said that in his "Underskin" the forest -- a series of huge, sometimes swaying poles -- of Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht stood for the soul. It's probably as good a metaphor as any. Why however, his searcher in the figure of the redoubtable Sofiane Sylve wears a lizard-like unitard, with a long braid taking the place of a tail might also have warranted an explanation.
"Underskin" boasts a splendid set and costumes from Anne Mari Legenstein. Lit by the master designer David Fin it suggests a deep space which sends forth and swallows rather small looking humans. These passages for the small corps, which includes a strongly danced octet for the men, are among the work's more intriguing passages. In avoiding the trap of responding to the music too literally -- the lush romanticism of Schoenberg's evocative score -- Zanella's response suggests an edgy, fractured eroticism. However, it is neither strong nor individual enough to stand as a convincing response to the music.
Sylve, magnificent in her statuesque extensions and stalking, appears to be some kind of priestess calling up three types of couples: Fejoo and Molat, torquing against each other with wing-like arms; the powerfully dancing Frances Chung and Nedvigin starting out lyrically but becoming more dramatic. Tan and Luiz' build toward an emotional trajectory with him shaping her body and sailing her across the stage. Tan is the one who emerges with having, perhaps, undergone some kind of transfiguration herself.
It's no secret that Stravinsky is "Petrouchka's" real "choreographer". Benois and Fokine helped. A lot. But "Petrouchka's" soul is in the music, particularly when it is as masterfully performed as the SFB orchestra did under guest conductor Emil deCou.
In this year's reprise, "Petrouchka" has jelled. The flow within the initial festivities was better shaped. Individual incidents -- flirtatious gypsies, Hopak-dancing grooms, an assertive merchant, drunken coachmen- -- are spotlighted and then smoothly melt into the crowd. Later on as the tensions rise, the emerging sense of anarchy even begins to affect the demure nursemaids. So when these odd animal creatures, brought on by the boisterous, high-leaping devil (Diego Cruz) appear, doom -- fulfilled by Petrouchka's death -- becomes a possibility. "Petrouchka" demands a common purpose from the ensemble. As coached by Isabelle Fokine, the SFB dancers brought conviction to the ebb and flow of these Shrove Tuesday festivities.
At times Molat's finely detailed Petrouchka seemed to have his soul in his hands -- clumsy inarticulate paws which reach out and find nothing to hold. With his flopping, collapsing legs and a mask-like face, Molat's impeccable interpretation brought to life both a puppet and an eternal loser. You couldn't help but admire Clara Blanco's Ballerina. Every stiff little step was carefully measured by feet clad in red toe shoes that looked painted on. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira's voracious Moor affected the appropriate mix of dim-wittedness and brutality. Seeing him hug that coconut was thoroughly disgusting.