Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Dance in the open air


San Francisco Ballet dancers in a previous Stern Grove Festival performance. Photo: Scott Wall
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It was a grey day in Stern Grove, the spectacular wilderness-park where San Francisco Ballet danced last Sunday out in the open air. There, for three-quarters of a century, free concerts have been presented all summer long. The old philanthropists made amazing gifts: Mrs. Sigmund Stern made a magnificent bequest, as grand a gesture as the park itself, which is a miniature Yosemite within the 7x7 of San Francisco. It's as if some god had dropped his ax and left a gorge 500 feet deep, now carpeted in deep forest green, spangled with nasturtiums, bristling with towering eucalyptus trees. On the floor of this valley rests a natural amphitheater with perfect acoustics, which the late, great Lawrence Halprin "methodized" into a landscape garden.

A crowd of thousands, babes in arms to folks in wheelchairs, showed up to picnic on the lawn, on the terraces, up the hillside among the trees, to see the home team dance for them, and they gave them a heart-warming welcome. SFB gave a mixed program of pieces, two of which they'll be showing in New York this October. I hope New Yorkers like it as much as we did.

Sunday's program was a parade of the strength of our dancers. What a company! The men must rank as one of the world's best ensembles – of which the finale (Suite en blanc, which looks a lot like a suite from Swan Lake ) gave overwhelming evidence, with wave after wave of men doing cabrioles, entrechats, tours en l'air, all "the steps out of the hard book," in a mounting crescendo of leaps and turns that amounted to an applause machine. The women went likewise through their paces – pirouettes ending on pointe or in total genuflection (and all this in the open air, on a cold stage in the fog), with no hint of whining, no evidence of effort. They're up there in white tights, which reveal every flaw and do little to keep you warm, while the grateful audience is bundled up in hats and down jackets.

Perhaps the best evidence of the dancers' strength came in the new ballet Stone and Steel. It was made by corps dancer Myles Thatcher for the trainees (the very bottom rank of SFB, those who have not even been named apprentices) and had its premiere at a community matinee last year – and was utterly worthy of presentation by the real company on a real stage. Thatcher knows how to capitalize on the appeal of young dancers – without asking them to dance like mature artists, they can move with the power and finesse they have in abundance, in rhythms that resemble those of club dancing. The attack is juicy and powerful, like hip-hop – they hit their marks right on time, with a little extra creamy effort locking into place, like the door of a Mercedes making its expensive closure. Their tensile strength is like that of a knife hurled down into the floor.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in a previous Stern Grove Festival performance. Photo: Scott Wall

They're dancing to strong-mood movie music ("Time Lapse" from Man on a Wire, "I Saw Daddy Today" from Goodbye Lenin!), music that's unsubtle but compelling; Thatcher has such a gift for use of space, for timing, entrances and exits, and overall structure that it succeeds by limiting its emotional range, and maximizing what it does use.

Edwaard Liang's "Distant Cries," a pas de deux for the diva Yuan Yuan Tan and her excellent partner Damian Smith, displayed her spidery limbs impressively, but it rang hollow to me.

SFB has made an international reputation as dancers of new works, and this program reflected their touring ambitions. They're likeliest to have a hit with the new ballet From Foreign Lands by Alexei Ratmansky, which, though it's an effervescent, lighter-than-air divertissement, is a fabulous little ballet that's built to charm, and will probably last until dancers no longer want to dance.

Ratmansky is the former director of the Bolshoi, a choreographer of wit and imagination who's now the resident choreographer at American Ballet Theater in New York. He's got a huge range, but he excels at the kind of irony that Shostakovich made central to his music. Under the Soviets, the truth could only be told in a joking manner, and Ratmansky brings that tradition with him here. From Foreign Lands is an exquisite parody of the folksy ballet – it's built on the Central European "character dances" we know from the blockbuster "grand ballets" (Swan Lake, Don Quixote), the mazurka (Polish), czardas (Hungarian), tarantella (Italian), etc., and set to the "light-classical" music by Moritz Moskowsky from which it takes its title.

Ratmansky's use of this material is as sweetly and complicatedly ironic as the Coen Brothers' use of Southern Gothic was in O Brother, Where Art Thou? One example will have to do. In the Spanish section, the hot Latin lover we met in the Italian number (Joan Boada) enters with the Russian girl (Frances Chung) from the first dance, whereupon his original girlfriend  shows up and stares everybody down. The brilliant dancer-actress Shannon Marie Rugani triumphed in this role. The dancers were, as ever, engaging, wonderfully focused, brimming with energy, "hungry." Most of the pleasure in the afternoon's dancers was due to their appeal.

Contemporary ballet, right now, is mostly about what dancers can do. We're seeing levels of technique and finesse that are more impressive than the substance the ballets express, so the satisfactions are often those of seeing brilliance in unison, finesse in transitions, or of favorite dancers surpassing themselves. It remains wonderful to see what glorious dancers we have living and working among us.


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