All the right moves

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 12, 2011
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San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's <i>Number<br>Nine.</i> Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Number
Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet has risen in the world's esteem gradually over the last 20 years, moving up through the ranks of respectable provincial companies, gaining prestige every year. SFB now occupies a position as one of the most exciting dance companies that works from a classical base to be seen anywhere in the world. This does not mean they go to St. Petersburg and dance Swan Lake better than the Russians do; it means they go to London, Paris, New York, the Edinburgh Festival, the major artistic capitals in Europe and Asia, and dance new works that nobody has ever seen before in a way that's sharp, fleet, and exhilarating, with uncanny grace. They then return home in triumph, bringing accolades and prizes and reports of the biggest walk-up (i.e., last-minute, as the word got around the grapevine) sales in the history of the theater.

To see the kind of show that's making us famous abroad, you should check out SFB's Programs 6 and 7, which opened at the Opera House last weekend and will run there through Wednesday of next week. Both are mixed bills. The oldest piece, Petrouchka, was a sensation in Paris 100 years ago, when Stravinsky's music dazzled Western audiences for the first time and Nijinsky knocked the socks off the balletomanes as the sawdust puppet with the soul of Everyman. The other ballets on the programs are all 21st-century. Two of them are brand-new to us, and one was just made a few months ago for these dancers, who have taken to it like a hungry man to a steak. This ballet, Number Nine by Christopher Wheeldon, sweeps across the stage like a series of storms, scouring the eyes and leaving you feeling braced and enormously refreshed, and wondering what just happened to you. The other ballet new to us, Chroma, comes from London (where it won the Lawrence Olivier Prizes at its debut five years ago), and looks at first viewing like a sci-fi version of the blues, like Etta James' "I Feel Uneasy" set in motion and articulated by a new multi-racial breed of dancer, possessed of the finest motor skills on the planet.

Number Nine sends 24 dancers moving at a mad rush to the drastically propulsive music of Michael Torke's "Ash." It's virtually a disco beat, unrelenting, with the major displacements in decibel levels and tone color. It's the kind of beat that can drive a nightclub crowd into a trance (and the audience was screaming at the end). The dancers on opening night were fantastically alert – they had to be, the moves are so sharp, so clear, so risky. There are places where streams of dancers move through colonnades of other dancers like water through a hydroelectric dam, or set up a line of sculptured forms 1-2-3-4-5-6, just like that, all pointing like bird-dogs at the same place. Then the whole set-up dissolves, the stage empties, and more rush on. Or at least I think I saw that. Each new image scrubs the last one off the mind, which leaves you exhilarated, breathless, and remembering only the  colors: lemony gold for the 16 corps dancers, turquoise, carmine, key-lime for the principals. The strongest after-image I have left, and the only one I'm certain of, is the gorgeous Myles Thatcher poised like the Nike of Samothrace, center-stage, in the opening tableau.

The new Wheeldon piece closes Program 7. His last-but-one ballet, Ghosts, formed the opening of Program 6, and turned out to be the most satisfying of all the works. It gives a great role to the ballerina Sofiane Sylve, a sovereign diva whose majestically objective dancing is matched by a generosity of spirit that makes her a presiding presence over this melancholy, silvery, slow-motion wonder. The dancers' bodies sink and subside, float, are eddied about, like the passengers of the Titanic seen through to the end from the perspective of the gods, as a cosmic event.

The other new-to-us ballet, Chroma, closes that program. Chroma also looks at human life from a compassionate but remote distance. Wayne MacGregor has made this piece to   Stravinskian re-orchestrations of the "alternative-rock" music of The White Stripes (Jody Talbot, composer). He uses very strange, bird-like movements that nevertheless seem totally appropriate to the searing, fascinating music coming from the orchestra (brilliantly led by Martin West). This is not typical ballet. It's as if he tried to ignore the bones and made the moves come from the viscera, from very deep inside, as if the spine were a snake, or a swan's neck. It's not pretty, but it is fascinating. Seen against the vast off-white stage setting – itself a monumental piece of architecture, designed by John Pawson – the dancers look very vulnerable. They're wearing very little, some kind of underwear, "short teddies," perhaps? The garments look like towels tied under the armpits. They look vulnerable, but not afraid, not in the least.

Also on the bills were the neo-classical Bach piano-concerto ballet Seven for Eight, Helgi Tomasson's finest work (Program 6), and the dark, lovely allegory Underskin, set to Schoenberg's ravishing Verklaerte Nacht, by Renato Zanella on Program 7. Everything was danced to perfection.