Fantasia in the fog belt

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday August 2, 2011
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San Francisco Ballet last Sunday gave their by-now annual free outdoor midsummer show in Stern Grove, where every week all summer long there is a free concert  (this Sunday: Aaron Neville). The Festival �" did I mention it's free? �" has been going since 1932, and is one of the outstanding reasons to live here.

So how can you criticize it? The concerts are all great, and the park itself is wonderful. You descend by winding down paths into a deep, romantic chasm lined with eucalyptus trees, the forest floor covered with nasturtiums whose gold spangles glow like fairy lights in the deep green shade. An acoustically perfect amphitheater nestles in this declivity, and all you have to worry about is where to sit, the weather, the possibility of bee-stings, and the roaming people who occasionally block your sight-lines. You could wish at times for theatrical lighting to heighten the mood. But did I mention it's free?

It's also wonderful to see your fellow citizens; this is the kind of event that creates community, shows us our gay-friendly multicultural mix of humanity, comfortably dressed, babes in arms, picnicking, some of us rapt with attention. The program was shrewdly made to show the rise of excellence out of natural talents inherent in the community: students from the SFB school danced the first two numbers (very well indeed), and then the company �" which is a mirror-image of us all, just in better shape and with better-honed motor skills �" danced Helgi Tomasson's exquisite eight-person ballet to music from Bach's keyboard concertos, and finally performed one of the great masterpieces, Balanchine's Symphony in C, which epitomizes the dance of joy.

The students' first dance, set on them by one of their teachers, challenged them to find a deep-felt place to bring their movement from. It's set to the Andante Sostenuto of Schubert's great piano Sonata in B-flat, which anyone who's ever stumbled through it at the keyboard will know is among the deepest and most moving experiences you can have. I've never been able to play through it myself without crying. Though Enrique Martinez's ballet does not fully realize the visual possibilities this music evokes, I was moved to see the weight and seriousness the student-dancers brought to their work. You could see in them the spiritual, almost monastic level of discipline that ballet requires.

Their next ballet showed just how glamorous and gorgeous they can be. Timepiece, choreographed by SFB corps dancer Myles Thatcher, used the space in fascinating ways, gave boys and girls wonderful ways to partner each other, and was over long before you wanted it to be.

Higher levels of professionalism followed. In the Bach, there was truly exalted dancing from the Spanish-trained Jaime Garcia Castillo. He floated on the music, rose into positions of extraordinary expansion and amplitude, as if the majesty of the music were opening him up, sustaining him, and he had abandoned himself to its power. Elizabeth Miner, whose early promise seemed to have come under a cloud the last couple of years, rose to this same level and danced with him in a similar way, as if there were all the time in the world and grace abounding. Everybody else danced well, but they were transcendent.

San Francisco Ballet's Vanessa Zahorian and Gennadi Nedvigin in Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight.

(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Then, to top that, came the divine Sophiane Sylve in the adagio of Symphony in C, which has a long, sinuous "Arabian" melody (the composer is Bizet) that it takes two oboes to play, one spelling the other, since no single human being has such breath control; Sylve made that music visible as if her whole body were singing.

"Bizet," as this ballet is known backstage, has four ballerinas, one for each movement of the symphony, and by the end each diva, with her cavalier and her little court of dancers, is dancing side by side with the others on a stage full of dancers. The ballet builds to a climax of stupendous joy, and you can go home satisfied. The ballerinas, each of them wonderful, were Lorena Feijoo (partnered by Vitor Luis), Ms. Sylve (Vito Mazzeo), Frances Chung (Isaac Hernandez), and Nicole Ciapponi (Lonnie Weeks). Among the demi-soloists Courtney Elizabeth stood out, and the aforementioned Myles Thatcher (choreographer of Timepiece) looked very good indeed.

Contemporary turns

Across town, our contemporary dancers showed excellent work as well. Indeed, this past weekend our dancers ranked with New Yorkers and anyone in the world. Nol Simonse and Christy Funsch were the last word in Dadaist brilliance, performing at Dance Mission in Simonse's Etudes in Detention, a suite of zany duets to music by Radiohead, Buzzcocks, New Order, Pole, and Joni Mitchell. They play off each other like Abbott and Costello, and it's impossible to say what's going on or why it is so brilliant, but there is no question it is.

Even more mysterious was the fantastic success of a choreographic collaboration by no less than four dance-makers �" Kara Davis, Miguelito Biag, Katie Faulkner, and Alex Ketley �" presented at Z Space (in the converted factory formerly known as Theater Artaud) by the Westwave dance festival. It was a piece of anti-dance that got itself going somehow, rose to a peak wherein two guys danced a pas de deux where one of them wanted to talk and finally declared that they needed to break up, all the while being opposed by his stupid and very sexy lover, who could not see that there was any problem. There were many events along the way, some of them absurd, with cameo appearances by each of the choreographers. What was most impressive was the sustained mastery of tone �" one episode followed another like new landscapes appearing on the drive to Stinson Beach �" each emerging naturally, some sunlit, some in very deep shade, but the mood and quality of the movement were somehow always exactly right.