Making waves

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday February 16, 2010
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Critics came from several New York papers to report on San Francisco Ballet's programs 2 and 3, excellent mixed bills which opened last week and continue through this Sunday at the War Memorial Opera House. The critics were here to see how the company dances the great Balanchine pieces on program 3, and most of all to check out the impact and potential staying-power of the new work on program 2, Ghosts, the fifth new ballet choreographed for SFB by the bright-shining young choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. It turns out to be a silvery, shimmering, floating tissue of melancholy, with dancers drifting in currents they make visible as if they were suffering a sea change before our eyes. The mood is not tragic but mysterious, and the dancers delivered the goods, the audience roared its approval, and the Times critic gave a lot of space to its praise. There is reason to hope it may become a classic and join the other ballets on the two bills, which are all of them more beautiful than they can be danced.

What do we mean when we say something is a classic? Aside from the throwaway slang sense, "classic" means it's something that you'd want to see or hear again, because there was more there than you could get the first time. If you still think it's a classic after the third time, it's because you're still sensing ways it coheres that make it answerable and speak to you from an even deeper level, as if it knew you in return.

Wheeldon can give you that feeling. He can let the dancers' weight pour down through the body into the floor (which was developed by postmodern contact-improv dancers) and make it into an oceanic spectacle. Ghosts might be showing us the Wreck of the Titanic in extreme slow motion. Waves of dancers pour across the stage, sometimes sliding down onto their backs, receiving the weight of another dancer as if the impetus came from beyond themselves. The corps dominates the ballet to the point where it seems an organism, though there is a gorgeous, melting pas de deux (danced ravishingly by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith) and a very vivid trio dominated by the diva Sofiane Sylve, who alone of all the dancers seems to be fighting for control, and even at the end seems to be swimming as if on a dolphin's back to safety as the curtain comes down on the whole doomed world.

There is room for the dancers to grow into their roles. Wheeldon's last piece for SFB, Within the Golden Hour, became mesmerizing after the company took it on tour and felt their way into all its spirals and whorls. So far only the corps dancer Martyn Garside seems to have felt the true stretch and amplitude of the movement. As good as it is, this one could be great.

Balancing act

Both programs are magically balanced – the ballets seem to speak to each other across the evening, in mood and in movement. It is stunning to see the same dolphin-like dives of Ghosts turning up among the khaki-clad folks in Paul Taylor's Company B. But that ballet, despite its jaunty hard-swing music by the Andrews Sisters, is very much about the pleasures that helped young people face their anxieties during World War II, when any moment a sweetheart could be sent into battle and get killed. It is classic in the best sense – every viewing yields new insights, as Jennifer Tipton's genius lighting design allows dancers to emerge from anonymous silhouette into vivid colorful life and fall back into the grey line-up of cannon-fodder, as the world turns. The roles continue to challenge young dancers to give more than they knew they had. It's hard to pace, and a charismatic dancer like Luke Willis ("Oh, Johnny") may find he's blown us away in the first two minutes but still has 45 seconds to go, and his thighs have given out and have to fake the rest of it. Or James Sofranko (whose role is more rehearsible) may give us the performance of a lifetime as the Bugle Boy, who's the swing dance equivalent of Schubert's Musensohn, the child and darling of the Muses, who is the first soldier to fall in the opening dance. Dancers who distinguished themselves were Liz Miner, both the Stewart twins, Gennadi Nedviguine (the other fabulous Bugle Boy), Sarah van Patten, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Danielle Santos, Katita Waldo, and Quinn Wharton.

Company B is a greater work than Jerome Robbins' Opus 19: the Dreamer, or so I thought until I saw Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan dance the leads in that haunting work, with its overtones of lost worlds, folkways, which in the course of the ballet come more and more to life, like a dance you learned from your mother can come back when you find yourself at a friend's wedding. "I know that step," and suddenly you're overwhelmed with feelings you can't account for. I can't say why Zahorian was great except that her timing was sensationally exact, and her phrasing came from the heart. 

The Balanchine program is nothing but greats, and not to be missed. It includes the immortal Serenade and Theme and Variations. See, if you can, Sofiane Sylve, who burns with a hard, gem-like flame in the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which contains more dance fun per square inch than ought to be legal.