“From Foreign Lands,” “Beaux,” “Classical Symphony,” “Symphonic Dances”
“Trio,” “Ghosts,” “Suite en Blanc”
San Francisco Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
October 17, 19 (matinee), 2013
By Leigh Witchel
Copyright © 2013 by Leigh Witchel
If you want to know what San Francisco Ballet is about without getting on a plane, the recent New York season was a great place to start. It kicked off with a week of repertory showing off the company's designer fashions: commissioned ballets by top choreographers.
Paradoxically, the weakest piece was from the most recently acclaimed – Alexei Ratmansky, part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Class of 2013. “From Foreign Lands” is an updated divertissement for six men and six women to tuneful music by Moritz Moszkowski. It had a looser quality than it did in March with an alternate cast in San Francisco, but it still had the generic feel of diluted character dance. The costumes by Colleen Atwood, a one-design-fits-all-nationalities template of a tiered skirt and bodice for the women, and tight pants with a side gold braid for the men, didn't help the confusion.
Ratmansky shuffled the dancers through more permutations than the League of Nations. The leads in the Russian and Italian sections changed costume colors for the Spanish dance. No big deal, they were Chinese and French anyway.
“From Foreign Lands” could have been a sendup of character dance – when done at full tilt the style can seem close to parody – but Ratmansky is quoted in program notes as saying, “With music like this . . . you can almost switch your brain off and just let your body do [the choreographing] . . .” It looked that way. He seemed to barely go beyond enchaînements. There was lip service to character work – tarantellas in the Italian section, hands touching the head à la Raymonda in the Hungarian, but the vocabulary felt like a sampler, not an exploration and all the more anonymous: if it's Tuesday, this must be Anywhere.
It was up to the dancers to make something more of this, and Sarah Van Patten always does. She raced out in the Tarantella, but before she began, gave a furtive, smitten gaze at Pascal Molat when his head was turned. And no dancer would look better borne in on a litter than Sofiane Sylve. Alas, she entered under her own power, though accompanied by three hard-working peons who carried her about in the German adagio – a dance that was about as Teutonic as a frankfurter. The role, which had seemed less disproportionate in San Francisco, got inflated by Sylve's personality into a parody of a big ballerina role: the Rose Adagio performed with the hired help. Her technique and aplomb in turn after rock-solid turn anchored a flimsy ballet, but also threw off any sense of structure that Ratmansky had attempted in his seamless blending of ensembles and solo work.
The meat of Mark Morris' “Beaux,” created for the company last year, isn’t in the steps, but the tableaux. Set to Bohuslav Martinů’s 1935 “Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra” the work seems to reach even farther back to World War I: “Testament of Youth” in Isaac Mizrahi's hot-pink and yellow camo leotards.
Nine men with a wide range of body types and company ranks danced Morris' mix of ballet and Duncan-ish turned-in arabesques. “Beaux” is tightly structured with a few striking dance moments in it; Sean Bennett did a solo close to the end featuring high, revolving extensions punctuated by low runs with shrugging shoulders. More memorable are the gestures such as tentative reaches that stop before an embrace. The men raised one of the group overhead and piloted him across the stage, later a totentanz of men shuffled on, staggering or dodging bullets.
As Arlene Croce thought about women in “Emeralds,” this ballet explores the possibility that men are most honestly themselves when women aren't there. In “Beaux,” Morris looks not at how men actually are, but how we think they are when no one's watching.
Yuri Possokhov's “Classical Symphony,” which premiered in 2010, was an audience favorite in New York. A long-time principal dancer, Possokhov is now the company's Choreographer in Residence. Trained at the Bolshoi, Possokhov made the piece as an homage to his teacher, Peter Pestov. Ratmansky was a younger classmate and both men have an affinity for their homeland's music. Outfitting the dancers in Sandra Woodall's sleekly updated jackets, bodices and light, springy tutu discs, Possokhov takes Prokofiev’s score and maneuvers both on its surface and under its skin. Possokhov hears both the classical homage and its frantic exuberance. In his hands it veers close to hysteria.
Possokhov overpacks the ballet, and pushes everywhere into hyper-romanticism – the corps women stop dead as the music ticks and start snaking through elaborately curled arms while arching their torsos. Somehow Hansuke Yamamoto and the company's iron snowflake, Maria Kochetkova, made it through the fusillade. He soared through each breathless circuit of leaps; she nailed every squiggle and did fouettés changing her spot. But at the opening of the adagio, she got dragged around like a carcass. Moments such as these make “Classical Symphony” quintessential Possokhov: it typifies his unique voice, curiosity about classicism and a willingness to take risks, yet also his lack of editing.
Edwaard Liang's “Symphonic Dances” is more polished, but also looks more like a skilled extension of other people's work. In the large, long three-movement work, he mined Wheeldon's vein of elaborate partnering and combination of classical legs with a more mobile, circular torso. Eight corps couples slid, kicked and raced across the stage, led by one couple per movement. Leading off with her impossibly attenuated limbs, Yuan Yuan Tan was Queen of the Squiggle. Her partner, Luke Ingham, had the drum corps/forklift role, popping her into double tours as if she were a twirling baton and swinging her downwards so her forehead came perilously close to the floor.
Like anyone trying to budget wisely an expensive trip, the company managed the New York tour with prudence. Debuts were doled out sparingly; but an important one was Mathilde Froustey, a soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet, in the first movement of Helgi Tomasson's “Trio,” to Tchaikovsky's “Souvenir de Florence.” Froustey, whose career at POB took off rapidly and then went into a holding pattern, has that company's inimitable style through and through, visible first in her suspended carriage in the chest and shoulders. Froustey danced in an alternate cast of “Suite en Blanc,” it would have been fascinating (and perhaps telling) to see her in her own repertory alongside the company's other women.
With its three-movement structure and lush Tchaikovsky string score, perhaps it was inevitable that Trio seemed like “Serenade” lite. The second movement is the emotional triangle of the Élegie given a sex change. Dana Genshaft was a woman torn between two lovers, Ruben Martin Cintas as the first and an interloper, Damian Smith. In a further echo at the end, Smith covered her eyes and backed her out. Genshaft was warm, lush and confusing, looking at Cintas in an almost teasing way while dancing with Smith: the mixed messages seemed unintentionally cruel.
If “Trio” didn't have the enduring emotional impact of “Serenade,” it was competently made with burnished set designs by Alexander V. Nichols, and showed off the company's dancers – Tomasson's most deft skill. Froustey's debut looked tailored to be the first-movement “hostess,” and that fit her demeanor of confidence and authority rather than drama. In the final movement Taras Domitro led a squad of the company's guys as they turned and soared across the stage with vigor and precision – and you could see why San Francisco is a men's company.
Wheeldon's “Ghosts” is a long, substantial offering made in 2010 to a four-movement score by rock musician Kip Winger, who composed a handsome, atmospheric classical composition, which, if it had as many echoes of film as of dance, was without a hint of irony. It also gave us a glimpse of senior ballerina Lorena Feijoo, who arrived pulling and snaking in a trio with Cintas and Shane Wuerthner.
The ballet missed a scenic element used at the opera house in San Francisco – a moving sculpture by Laura Jellinek that was too complicated to use at Lincoln Center. At the beginning, the dancers looked up, staring with foreboding at something that should have been there, but wasn't. Aside from that, little harm done to the piece; the sculpture added mood and visual interest (Wheeldon has always been good about dressing his ballets) but not much additional meaning.
The work was solid, but typical Wheeldon, emphasizing partnering in a style that's now recognizable, and even copied, as in “Symphonic Dances.” The women floated onstage on their partners' arms, then were carried out again with legs circling or beating. Shortly after, they were brought in arched over the man's shoulder, but reaching back towards what was left behind.
Wheeldon is like Rossini; his prolific output means he borrows from himself regularly – something you don't see unless a company visits or you travel. A collective audible gasp the cast takes at the end of one section of “Ghosts” became the opening of the Royal Ballet's “Aeturnum” three years later.
Serge Lifar's “Suite en Blanc” was the odd ballet out, neither a commission, nor contemporary. Lifar's 1943 demonstration of the mettle of Paris dancers was alien turf for San Francisco's. They could just about get through it. The three women in La Sieste were having trouble with the pirouettes; Vanessa Zahorian managed the pas de trois, but with tight shoulders and no épaulement. Van Patten's tendency to inject drama into her roles saved her in “From Foreign Lands” but led her astray here. She danced La Cigarette like a parody of a Russian ballerina, vamping the audience and demanding applause with every haughty port de bras. But Zahorian's husband, Davit Karapetyan, overcame the complexities of the Mazurka without overdoing it, and Sylve finally got her rightful due. At the beginning of La Flûte, she was carried in on the shoulders of two men. Alas, no one fanned her with palm fronds or ostrich feathers, but she was the one who with the steely, deadly technique and the sangfroid to pull off this final exam of a ballet.
By bringing an almost all-commission season, SFB ran the risk that not everything would be a masterpiece. Yet if the season wasn't the company in excelsis, what other one in America could fill a week of repertory with even decent commissioned ballets? It was as clear a picture of the company – its strengths and its shortcomings – as you were going to get.
copyright © 2013 by Leigh Witchel
Photos by Erik Tomasson:
Top: Sofiane Sylve in “From Foreign Lands”
Middle: The company in “Beaux”
Bottom: Maria Kochetkova and Hansuke Yamamoto in “Classical Symphony”