"The Fifth Season," "Suite en Blanc," "Hummingbird"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
May 9, 2014
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano, 2014
The dancing in this season's penultimate program was of such a high caliber that, for once, even if the choreography had been of lesser quality, the enjoyment factor probably wouldn't have been much affected. Fortunately, that was not the case. With an intriguing world premiere, a glance at the past, and a relatively recent work that has acquired a lovely sheen, the program showed a fine company that is confident and at ease with itself. There was very little not to like.
Liam Scarlett, artist-in-residence with the Royal Ballet, is the latest of these choreographers that seem to come from nowhere, and all of a sudden are in such demand that you worry about them burning out too quickly. Judging from "Hummingbird," Scarlett's commission for SFB -- something like his 20th work at the age of 27 -- there is a lot of potential in this still young choreographer. His musicality has yet to be determined. Throughout, walking patterns easily coexist with ballet steps. The lifts are prominent and athletic, very much in the current style. Fresh was Scarlett's uncommonly fluid and promising approach to his handling the relationship between corps and soloists. He set the piece on three primary and two subsidiary couples and only eight corps members whom he divides and subdivides -- sometimes in the shadows, sometimes stepping to the forefront; they comment on the soloists but also swallow them up. Yet with such a relatively small number of dancers -- sixteen -- Scarlett manages to fill the large Opera House stage with airy and spacious choreography.
The dancers often descend and disappear on a ramp underneath a large abstract canvass in John Macfarlane set. Macfarlane also designed the color-coded costumes in blues and grays.
Using Philip Glass' intermittently appealing three movement Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, "Hummingbird" focuses on one pas de deux per movement. The central one showcases Yuan Yuan Tan -- at her most languid and most dramatic -- wonderfully supported by Luke Ingham, who joined the company in 2012. (He was just promoted to Principal.) Rarely has Tan had the chance to use those extraordinary limbs, tendrils one moment, broken at the joints the next, to such expressive purpose. When we first see her, she looks world-weary, weighted down by a mysterious dread. Ingham supports, challenges and questions her. At the end, they both collapse, no better off than before. Theirs is very long duet that, sadly, outlives its emotional trajectory. You can, partially, blame Glass' second movement; it flows like a stagnant river.
Glass' first movement has a lovely lyrical quality in the way the piano (strongly played by Brenda Tom Vahur) interacts with the strings. The choreography for the sometimes-feisty Frances Chung and gentle Gennadi Nedvigin is playful and teasing. An upside down lift devolves into cambré only to spin off into supported pirouettes. She may push him to the ground but they also companionably wrap their arms around each other's shoulders. Though in the final duet Dores André and Joan Boada have a lovely rapport, as if they had had a long-time performing relationship--which they don't--the choreography felt rather conventional. Almost like an after thought.
The evening opened with Helgi Tomasson's 2006 "The Fifth Season." In its third incarnation, it looked clear and shiny. Each of its six relatively short movements sports a distinct profile with romance everywhere. In the first section, André and Vitor Luiz's playful back-and-forth left enough space to showcase individual turns, leaps and extensions. They returned in 'Romance', in which she ended curled around his neck, but in which you also couldn't take your eyes off her exquisitely liquid port de bras.
In the lilting 'Waltz', Sofiane Sylve and Sarah Van Patten seemed like friends who happed to have good partners in Tiit Helimets and Ingham. The couples sometimes mirrored, sometimes followed each other in canons. At one point, they traveled around the periphery in a mock polonaise. Grace, ease and elegance flowed from their dancing.
Trying out one partner after another (Helimets, Ingham, and Luiz) Sylve's sultry, slightly mocking 'Tango' took command.The 'Largo's' slow-paced but lush partnering, with Helimets lifting Van Patten on fully-stretched arms and packing her close to his chest, came across as intimate and yet was sensually pungent.
The return of Lifar's witty and light-hearted "Suite En Blanc," bathed in both show business -- think Folies Bergère and Busby Berkeley -- and ballet à la française, was a pleasure. But it's also a work in which exactitude of timing and spacing is essential so the hiccups, few as they were, jarred. "Suite's" unisons -- whether tiny bourrés for the women, grand jetés for men--are this work's backbone
Watching "Suite", three thoughts kept running through my mind.
The 19th century story ballets, it is said, need to be part of every company's repertoire in order to preserve the classical language. Here is a ballet that excels in all those cabrioles, entrechats, pirouettes, épaulements and petit allegro, yet puts them into a fresh context. The other arose from the perception that so much of "Suite" aimed towards the pose, that moment of stillness which imprints an image on the eye. Finally, I kept thinking of its genesis: Paris 1943. What an odd relic to have survived those difficult days though, who knows why, it received its premiere in the safety of Switzerland.
"Suite's" grandiose and bombastic overture (by Edouard Lalo) opens into a high gloss tableau vivant straight out of a double spread from Vogue magazine. That glistening image dissolves, starting with the women port de bras, and it finally leaves us with three sylphs (Kristina Lind, Grace Shipley and Jennifer Stahl), including one weeping. Theatrically speaking, that is about as unlikely a series of non-sequiturs to be seen on a ballet stage.
In the smoothly performed ménage à trois, a fouetté-whipping De Sola and Helimets both included and excluded a nicely leaping Shane Wuerthner. Mathilde Froustey's 'cigarette,' shadowed by Spanish-looking hombres, was frothy, yet precise and ever so chic. The 'Mazurka', however, is choreographically pale; it didn't show Luiz at this best. Finally, Chung sailed through 'flute's' fast and challenging footwork with joyous musicality. What a fine dancer she is.