Ballet in a chasm
of natural beauty
by Paul Parish
Some 10,000 people turned out last Sunday for San Francisco Ballet's annual free performance in Stern Grove, the magnificent public park donated to the city by Sigmund Stern, where for 75 years now there have been free concerts open to the public every Sunday all summer long. San Francisco is a city blessed with wealth and natural beauty, but even in a city with so many spectacular sights, Stern Grove must be counted as one of the most amazing. It's a deep, romantic chasm sheltering a natural amphitheatre of perfect proportions, shaded by hundreds of eucalyptus trees and carpeted with ferns and nasturtiums, whose golden blossoms wink like fireflies from all over the forest floor.
The Grove's natural features were enhanced by Lawrence Halprin, the Bay Area's world-famous landscape architect, in the tradition begun by Capability Brown in the great parks of England. Halprin's final enhancements to his original designs were completed not long before his death a few years back: his massive fieldstone terracing is yielding to the lichens and mosses he knew would take over, and its majesty is relaxing, already comfortable for picnicking. One audience member had slung a hammock up in the trees.
The ballet presented a lighter program than usual this year, a delightful, fresh, easy-to-like program of superbly danced works in contrasting styles that showed the company's strengths and high spirits and command of a wide range of styles. From the apprentices and trainees up through the ranks to the principals, everyone showed the superb technique that's a prerequisite to the art, but on top of that showed the musicality, feeling, and finesse, without which who'd care? The company is recently back from a tour, dancing in Germany and Russia, where the large Russian contingent in our company got a hero's welcome at the Bolshoi. If they were tired after all that travelling, it didn't show.
The light fog in the air was perfect for Balanchine's Scotch Symphony, which features a Sylphide as the ballerina and benefits from suggestions of highland mists. There's a stageful of handsome youths in kilts and sporrans, leaping about like lords, and ladies in diaphanous skirts with smart jackets skipping lightly among them in a free fantasy entirely dependent on Mendelssohn's Scotch symphony, to which the ballet is set. It's more a set of kaleidoscopic glimpses of Scottish themes than a narrative. A kilted soubrette flashes through in red knee-socks: Nicole Ciapponi flies in on winged feet, creates a lightning impression, and disappears, never to be seen again. A melancholy laird comes in for the adagio, glimpses a glowing, airy spirit who points him to another world, but hostile forces intervene and separate them. She's tossed into his arms, then held back by an army of conventional forces, they reunite, she's gone again – then in the sunny finale, everybody dances together as if there's no problem.
For most viewers, looking back on the ballet creates an emotional disharmony, but it doesn't bother you much, since the ebb and flow of the wonderful dance inventions do echo the music naturally, and the ballerina's astonishing solos are like apparitions of a creature so rare you could barely imagine her. Yuan Yuan Tan had a triumph in the role. In steps of astonishing difficulty, she remained light and free, her upper body, the breast-bone, collarbone floating like a breath, her lovely face like a flower dancing in the breeze. The ballet's "meaning" is elusive as a Sylphide.
The second act was Spinae, a glamorous showpiece for the company's young trainees and apprentices choreographed by SFB corps dancer Myles Thatcher. This is Thatcher's second impressive composition: he has a gift for deploying the facility and flexibility and motor-drive of young dancers, creating in this case a palette of bird-like moves and postures for them that made them look like young gods. The characteristic pose looks like an eagle stretching its wings back, about to land. They all looked glorious, especially Alexander Reneff-Olson and Lacey Escabar.
Then followed a virtuoso piece danced at top speed by brilliant male stars of the company: Hans van Manen's Solo is a quirky piece set to prestissimo violin solos by Bach. Three dancers run onto and off the stage, one at a time, which gives each a chance to breathe and us a chance to enjoy the different colors each Mercurial dancer brings to the choreography. James Sofranko is an adorable punk, Hansuke Yamamoto is sweeter and more abandoned, the genius Gennadi Nedvigin is completely on top of his rapid-fire assignment and has almost more than enough time for his switchbacks and sudden poses. His clarity in the midst of all this flux is astounding.
The show's finale was Christopher Wheeldon's perpetual-motion machine Number 9, set to a driving score by Michael Torke. It's not the best Wheeldon, but the corps and principals danced it to the nines. Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison Oliveira looked free and easy in its tight figures, and Sasha de Sola, a corps dancer who's been shining like the brightest star we've got for a year now, made it look easy, lovely and natural. Maybe it helps that she's blonde. Dancers don't have the benefit of stage lighting at the Grove, have to make do with ambient light, then shine with their own energy. A blonde has the advantage of looking sunny on a dark day, but deSola's radiance advances steadily from a brilliant center and flashes like a star in all directions. She had the enormous advantage of having the tall, strong, musical, witty Vito Mazzeo as her partner. All the soloists danced well: the others were Vanessa Zahorian, Gennadi Nedvigin, Sarah van Patten, and Carlos Quenedit.