Arts & Culture » Dance

The way we live now

by Paul Parish

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's "Bound To." Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's "Bound To." Photo: Erik Tomasson  

San Francisco Ballet ends their season with a splashy festival of new works. They've been building towards this all season, holding back a stellar dancer, Solomon Golding, whom we've never seen before but bowled us over on opening night in a cameo role. SFB is capitalizing on what the company is famous for abroad. In London they've set box-office records for first-night walk-ups, and critics point to our troupe as "where ballet is going."

Since they must be out of the Opera House for more than half the year (because the Opera is in), SF Ballet make it up by touring the world, and over the span of Helgi Tomasson's 30+year career as Artistic Director, they've wowed them in Europe, Asia, and especially Britain, with programs like the four that opened last Friday night and will run three weeks, into early May.

Tomasson's programs cohere like good menus. Variety rules, but each piece fits the bill, and it deep down makes sense as a whole. Festival fare is spicier, and gets more so. Opening night was sober compared to Program B. If you're interested in the question mark in "LGBTQ?" Myles Thatcher's Otherness is the one you need to see, and the overall trajectory predicted by Friday and Saturday night's shows makes a moon-landing look likely. Program A was excellent, and it headlined our own Alonzo King, whose company Lines has been SF's outpost of hyperballet for 30+ years, and whose world-premiere The Collective Agreement showed both the up- and the downsides of living in a diverse community: the alienation in urban life (Sophiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets), the fads (the bluebird corps de ballet), the conflicts (James Sofranko), the persistence of ethnic values (the fabulous Mr. Golding, new to us from the Royal Ballet, and the only one who got the style immediately and actually looked like a Lines dancer), the possibilities of finding someone simpatico (corps dancers Jahna Frantziskonis and Joseph Warton) and the difficulties they have. The queer-and-married Christopher Wheeldon's Bound to also appeared on that show and was loveable, a puppy-dog-friendly ballet, and the take-away favorite so far.

Sean Orza and Max Cauthorn in Otherness by Myles Thatcher. Photo: Erik Tomasson  

Festival-ballet viewing is always a little feverish. "The thrill of first-nighting" is nothing to the pitch of a festival kick-off, when the barrage of first impressions creates a happy dazzle made of the party atmosphere, the celebrities in the audience, and the self-creating aesthetics of each individual ballet. All have their virtues.

Thatcher's piece fielded a brilliant hexagonal gateway set by Alexander V. Nichols and schematic pink and blue costumes for his two gangs by Sylvie Rood that unzipped to reveal that the Sharks and Jets were both yellow fellows deep down inside. Thatcher's LGBTQ?-theory-based piece sets various binary oppositions at odds with each other. Each group has members who have packages and some who don't, the baby-blue group is elegant (Golding is so queeny it's a scream) while the pinks favor jagged moves, and they attack each other and nearly kill the sweet pinkie (Seth Orza) who dances like a galoot but kinda falls for the blue kid (Max Cauthorn) who takes off his sunglasses and his swim-cap, and unzips his singlet by way of showing he's Harry Potter sincere. The piece is brainy-modernist and leaves you with lots of questions and lots to dislike. But it's a brave move for a sissy from Atlanta who's trying to tell it like he sees it, and bravo to SFB for giving him the chance.

The most beautiful thing so far was Yuan-Yuan Tan's ballerina turn in Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To, where she embodies the deep contact we all want with another human being: ravishing arabesques in a pas de deux set by contrast to the main thrust of a ballet about the way we live now, cell-phone addictions pulling us apart. Lonnie Weeks embodied the suicidal teenager defenseless against his alienation who's "trying to breathe," the kid attacked on social media by haters who don't know him at all. It's a virtuoso performance by the newly promoted-to-soloist Weeks. He soars through a series of jumps sailing backwards like Giselle, flying high as if he'd never touched the ground and could use the air as other dancers use the floor, for lift-off.

The second most beautiful thing so far was David Dawson's white ballet Anima Animus, a heavenly beautiful piece in which the dancers seem to float and extend like anemones underwater, reaching out in all directions, arching, spiraling, extending as if their limbs were never-ending, in an abstract ballet that brings the lakeside scene of Swan Lake into the 21st century. It's all about longing, about finding a wingedness in the arms and the shoulders that makes you intoxicated by their beauty. The arms extend into places that ordinary people cannot reach; they're dancing in front of a pearl-gray radiance that back-lights them and puts them in eclipse. You can't see their faces, even their white tights seem shadowed. It's mysterious and beautiful, and if they keep dancing it this way, it will have legs and conquer audiences from Moscow and Beijing to the whole world.

Last: I must mention Sarah van Patten in the Bette Davis role in Snowblind, the glorious dramatic ballet by England's Cathy Marston based (lightly) on Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. It's a study of a hostile dependent love triangle, with a corps de ballet depicting Calvinist thoughts and a central trio of a man and the woman who married him and the servant girl he loves and who loves him. If it were not for the eloquence of Mathilde Froustey, as the beloved, and the dramatic power of Ulrik Birkjaer as the helpless man caught in this Vermont small-town misery, and van Patten as the miserable unloved wife, the piece could not be strong. But with them, it's overwhelmingly beautiful.

More to come, next week. Joe Bob says check it out.


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