Arts & Culture » Dance

Vanishing acts from SF Ballet

by Paul Parish

Frances Chung and Esteban Hernandez in Stanton Welch's "Bespoke." Photo: Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Esteban Hernandez in Stanton Welch's "Bespoke." Photo: Erik Tomasson  

The second half of San Francisco Ballet's "Unbound" dance festival opened last week, again with full houses and standing ovations after nearly every piece. Programs C and D are well balanced, with a definite uptick in the festivity level in the season-ending Program D. Both are well worth seeing, with spectacular dancing by the company. If your great love is the grace in classical dancing, you'd prefer Program C, with astonishingly pure dancing to great music like Bach violin concertos. If your understanding of contemporary ballet leans towards expressionism and outbursts of drama, Program D tends that way.

Arts festivals should best be viewed on vacation, away from home, when all you have to do after bingeing on brand-new sensations is stumble back to the hotel and prepare for another day of same. Nevertheless, all four opening nights of San Francisco Ballet's "Unbound" festival seemed to fill the Opera House, with 12 new works by choreographers from all over. Maybe the best, "Anima Animus" from Program B, was by a European choreographer, David Dawson, whose work has never been seen in this country before.


Maria Kochetkova in Björk Ballet by Arthur Pita. Photo: Erik Tomasson  

It's foolish to predict which new ballets shown in festival atmospheres will "have legs." All ballets are vanishing acts, in which moments of brilliance flash by like fireworks, and the best you can hope for is after-images that will stay with you forever, and a sense of their belonging together in a sequence that adds up to an emotionally or intellectually satisfying whole. Sometimes a little squib becomes iconic, like "Dying Swan," which was composed as entertainment for a fundraiser. It's not rare; but you never know.

Dance-makers were given free rein in this fest: Make something new 30 minutes long, you've got the SFB orchestra, a dozen dancers (more or less), a sizable budget, plenty of rehearsal time, the excellent lighting designer James Ingalls. Then they were allowed to follow their bent. A shrewd guess would be that Arthur Pita would make something very glitzy (he did) that could be planned to end everything like fireworks (it did), that Trey McIntyre would do something exquisitely tender with popular songs (he did, using Chris Garneau), that David Dawson would make something with a soaring, winged reach to it (he did). On the other hand, Stanton Welch's heart-breaking classical new piece was nothing like the aboriginal, floor-pounding ballet he made for the company years ago.

What could be counted on was that our fabulous dancers would come through, and that we'd see them from angles we hadn't seen before. I'd never seen the slutty side of Sarah Van Patten until Pita's "Bjork Ballet," nor the gamine in Isabella de Vivo until McIntyre's "Your Flesh Shall be a Great Poem." We'd only seen hints of the majesty that the Greek-statue-beautiful Benjamin Freemantle brought to that same ballet, with a poignancy reminiscent of Housman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young." Sasha De Sola was a heroine of the entire festival, wonderful in fresh ways in everything she did, perhaps the most versatile star in the company after Van Patten. De Sola can sink to the floor like a contact-improv dancer (in Wheeldon's "Bound To"), she can spin like a steel ball in a pinball machine, stop on a dime; whatever, she's always radiant. And yet another breakout role made Dores Andre a stone diva in "Guernica," which displays her dramatic temperament, knowing legs and tragic face in an over-the-top "moment of truth" showstopper. This ballet may age well. On opening night, it seemed punched out, felt more like a Vegas Paso-doble production number than Picassoesque.


Dores André and Vitor Luiz in Guernica by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo: Erik Tomasson  

The dancer who loomed over the whole festival was principal Angelo Greco. He's not just a cavalier, he is a protagonist. His fearlessness and off-the-charts technical power, and a kind of gravity in his temperament, encouraged a pair of choreographers to go for something fated in their ballets, as if his ability to conjure the immortal begged them to show a hero's doom. He can move with the weight that feels right for Bach's music. His presence alone in Stanton Welch's pure classic "Bespoke" (Program C) and in Dwight Rhoden's Greek-tragic-feeling "Let's Begin at the End" (Program D) would give me reason to see both programs.

It might have helped if they'd handed out tabs of Ecstasy before the premiere of Arthur Pita's ravey, glitter-spangled "Björk Ballet," which fielded two dozen dancers and seemed to have been costumed from the glam-rock and spider-web wings of a pop-up Halloween store. "Altered consciousness" maybe? Armchair folklorists could have a field day arguing, Was it just drugs, or maybe full-tilt possession Pita had on his mind? How deeply in debt was he to Vodun rites when he created his tinselly ballet? Was the black-clad, white-masked MC a misremembered reference to Papa Ghede, the white-faced, black-clad top-hatted MC of the dancers who become possessed by the ancestral gods from Africa?

Among the brilliant effects in "Bjork," the magenta socks surrounding Maria Kochetkova's entrechat-quatres spring to mind, since these are among the last of her appearances with the company, and since she became so famous through Instagram and the fashion mags for her personal style. The forest of tinsel palm trees that hung over the stage at curtain-rise fell to the ground all around her and formed a grove she danced through on her way offstage. But that was just the beginning. The crowd pogo-ing in the big group number presaged the entrance of a giant table with Dores Andres dancing on it (an echo of Nijinska's "Bolero"?), which was the climax to a ballet that would have been nothing but climaxes had it not been for the haunting spirit in the white mask, who so strongly recalled for me the Haitian dance as I've seen it performed at the Ethnic Dance Festival. In Pita's ballet, he's a fisherman and rather woebegone, rather than the arbiter. Still, he is the convener of all these spirits who do embody the strange, haunted qualities of Bjork's weird world.

The festival closes as it opened, with Program A, on Sunday, May 6. Check it out. Many of the ballets will look good from the cheap seats upstairs, especially "Anima Animus" and "Bespoke," which should project to the gods.


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