Friday, May 2, 2014

A Night in San Francisco

The marvelous Yuan Yuan Tan in Liam Scarlett's new Hummingbird, photo Eric Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s program 7 (huzzah for innovative titling, guys) shows the traditions, possibilities, and limitations of an all neo-classical style. The company looks great, and the evening featured two stunning ballets, Suite en Blanc and Liam Scarlett’s new Hummingbird. 

But the night opened with a bit of a dud, company director Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season. The dancers were doing well, especially Lorena Feijoo, whose duets with Vitor Luiz were remarkably expressive, and Daniel Deivison-Oliviero, who wowed the audience with his powerfully virtuosic dancing. Sadly, there’s only so much that even great dancers can do with such quotidian choreography. And the foundational problem of the choreography is that there’s only so much you can do with bad music. The string quartet by Karl Jenkins is a mildly neo-Romantic, mildly minimalist work, and ends up most of the time sawing away in some middle register. Other than the final movement, a fun Vivaldi pastiche, it was too dull to choreograph or dance to.

Maria Kochetkova dazzles in the finale to Suite en Blanc

The evening took a happy turn for the better with Suite en Blanc, a ballet from 1943 by Serge Lifar, a who served as Paris Opera Ballet’s choreographer in the mid 20th century. The ballet uses a delightful musical suite by 19th century composer Edward Lalo. The choreography is very neo-classical - everyone in white tutus dancing in little groups with a minimum of emotion or narrative, and nothing is strictly speaking particularly innovative. Lifar’s sense of balance and wit, however, make the ballet as enjoyable as sipping champagne cocktails on a summer evening. Three ballerinas begin in flowing white dresses, stepping delicately across stage to hypnotizingly repetitive music (some proto-minimalism to fit the evening’s musical theme?). Later, four men bounce in a series of leaps and spins while a ballerina performs a diagonal of virtuosic pointe work. Part of the joy of the ballet is that however challenging it is for the dancers, it always appears simple, effortless.  The San Francisco dancers were up to the task, particularly Maria Kochetkova, who brought wonderful musicality and an almost elastic quality of movement to the final principal role.

 Suite en Blanc selections with San Francisco Ballet

Liam Scarlett is having quite the year, or perhaps I’m just having a very Liam Scarlett year. After premiering a work with the New York City Ballet in January, he’s now created a work with San Francisco. Titled Hummingbird, Scarlett uses Philip Glass’s minimalist Tirol Piano Concerto as a score. The music is rhapsodic, overwhelming, and emotional, and Scarlett has crafted a ballet to match. Four different couples move in and out of the spotlight, their movements echoed and magnified by the corps. The stark grey and blue costumes with almost puritan-like dresses for the women make the outbursts of emotion all the more powerful. Yuan Yuan Tan put in a particularly haunting performance in the central role. The audience (yours truly included) lapped it up, and Scarlett’s name was on everyone’s lips as we spilled out onto the streets. Here’s hoping he returns many times to San Francisco.

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