"Chroma," "Beaux," "Number Nine,"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
February 14, 20
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano, 2012
Sean Bennett, Apprentice dancer to San Francisco Ballet, could hardly control his smiles such was his delight performing in the world premiere of Mark Morris' incandescent "Beaux" with some of the company's finest male dancers. And why not? Morris has created an elegant, decorous nonet, suggesting perhaps an 18th Century garden party, perhaps an ancient Greek gymnasium. Basing the work on Bohuslav Martinu's lively neoclassical "Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra" and "Two pieces for harpsichord", he proposed a male community at ease with itself, though not without its moments when playfulness and gamboling reveal emotional undercurrents. Bracketed by fine performances of Wayne McGregor's "Chroma" and Christopher Wheeldon's "Number Nine," this was a program in which contemporary ballet -- at its purest and at its most diverse -- shone.
The novelty of "Chroma" has worn off. In its second SFB season McGregor's ballet communicated better. It's a work with a strong abstract component built around speed, clarity and negative space; all of it propelled by Joby Talbot and Jack White III's no-hold barred score. The design -- an opening that changes colors within a huge white wall -- is stark and manipulates our perception of the dancers through the changing relief. They look like impersonal shape-shifting beings but clearly are in control of their given tasks. A curious conundrum.
McGregor's choreography stars joints and broken lines, and it's hard work. It also sets up expectations which sometimes are even fulfilled. What fascinates most is the struggle and effort that the choreography demands of the dancers and they way they handle it. I have never seen Garcia Castilla shoot his leg into twelve o'clock with such gusto or Maria Kotchekova be in attack mode even as she melts like butter. Yuan Yuan Tan's limb-challenging solo actually was a duet -- she danced it with her shadow. However, when paired with Taras Domitro, to that lyrical piano line, the encounter became an impersonal test of tensile strength.
While it is disconcerting to see dancers being tools for an apparently extraneous purpose, it is also fascinating to observe their handling of it. The small pauses, the glances, the taking of a breath, the pushing and yielding and the gusto of a stride are individualized. "Chroma" overtly puts the physics of the body on to the stage but now it also succeeded in becoming emotionally involving.
Wheeldon's dense "Number Nine" -- it's his ninth piece for SFB -- has only one major flaw: Michael Torke's music runs on empty -- full speed to be sure, but it's still vacuous. The irony is that the score is the driving mechanism of a work that so intriguingly looks at Ballet's relationship between the Corps and the Soloists. Wheeldon set the piece on four color-coded couples and a yellow-clad ensemble of sixteen, often used in identical duets. The invade the stage like storms.
This is a Corps that has a mind of its own. "Nine" looks windblown from the moment the ensemble dancers line up in not quite a V-shape, drop onto their bellies and roll off in stops and starts at the soloists' entrance. A principal couple might be swallowed up by the Corps which may or may not shadow other principals. Often the Corps dancers go off on tangents which have little to do with the foreground action. They peel off from unisons and jetés in every direction, sometimes two by two mimicking the soloists, sometimes demurely stepping into traditional framing functions. It's fast, it's fun, it's furious, and SFB's Corps performs admirably.
The duets for the Principals are nicely designed and were well cast with an eye to fresh relationships. Newly appointed soloist Dores Andre exuberantly soared with Daniel Deivison. We'll probably see more of their easy grace together. A lush calm infused Sarah Van Patten and Ruben Martin Cintas' intimate though formal relationship. I don't remember having seen Vanessa Zahorian being partnered by Garen Scribner -- he did it solicitously and yet with joy. Sribner, still a soloist, is becoming a nuanced dancer perhaps attributable to the more interesting roles he has lately been given. But the man who really stepped up to the task was Mazzeo, a tall, elegant but reserved company member since 2009. Paired with a regal but warm Sofiane Sylve, he opened up like a flower. No wonder, he kissed her hand at the curtain calls.