Last call for dance at the opera house

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 6, 2014
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This weekend marks San Francisco Ballet's last shows in the Opera House until Nutcracker. They're going out with a bang, ending a great season with alternating triple bills that are both well worth seeing.

Hummingbird, the highlight of Program 7 (plays again Thursday and Saturday), pulled the audience to their feet for the sincerest standing ovation I've seen in a long time. People kept rising to their feet as if they'd been lifted by the same internal forces that had held the dancers so high off the floor. Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet-based choreographer, has set a visionary fantasy to Philip Glass' Piano Concerto (2000), a shimmering, melancholy score with a tremendous theatrical sweep to it, with shifting emotional weather that keeps you floating on ambiguous harmonic progressions that never resolve. It's perfect for Scarlett's dark scene of creatures that seem to be floating in a modern ether where everyone's sensitive, moody, brimming with life and profoundly alone.

Scarlett comes from the Royal Ballet's Anglo-Russian tradition. Unlike the American neo-classical dancer, whose personality is in the witty feet and high-flashing legs, the British classical dancer's soul is in the bust �" the breast, shoulders, arms, face, which reveal the workings of the heart, and for which the legs form a moving pedestal. Think of Margot Fonteyn or Lynn Seymour. The most salient thing about his dancers is their breathing. You're very aware of their ribs; tiny changes in their emotions are reflected in how the breastbone takes the light. In the audience, we actually feel this. Scarlett's dancers seem suspended, almost as if they were jellyfish, and their legs seem to hang away from them. Sarah van Patten's legs seemed impossibly long, and her feet were like baguette diamonds.

This fits Glass' dazzling ambiguities just fine and creates a postmodern kind of romance, where the journey is not "there, and back again" (to quote from JRR Tolkien) but some kind of quest to know where you are that is never answered. It's a brave new world with wondrous creatures in it, who are nevertheless even at their most intimate profoundly alone.

In the colossal pas de deux to the concerto's slow movement, Lorena Feijoo is lifted by Vitor Luiz in moves derived from Kenneth Macmillan (Romeo and Juliet) and John Cranko (Onegin ), in trajectories where his strength takes over to lift her and float her over his shoulders, as if she were swimming and reaching her limbs into places she'd never explored. It creates a portrait of penetration and response, longings explored on a Wagnerian scale �" without, however, ever coming to a resolution. It feels forever unresolved, like a dream you can't forget but likewise can't remember.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Helgi Tomasson's The Fifth Season. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Still, there were arresting images I will never forget: Isabella deVivo, a new corps dancer, hovering, delighted; van Patten, impetuously shoving Pascal Molat away from her; Gaetano Amico, Miles Thatcher. The pianist, Brenda Valhur, hurling brilliant notes at us like showers of hail. The whole thing was a kind of cool delirium.

Also on the program were SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson's equally cool The Fifth Season (new in 2006) and Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc (1944, created when Lifar was AD of the Paris Opera Ballet). Fifth Season is a showcase of the style of our dancers, and it was impeccably danced to a suite of dances by Karl Jenkins that would suit as mood-setting for a BBC drama. Yuan Yuan Tan and her great partner Damian Smith made a very glamorous couple, while Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan etched silhouettes of stunning clarity. Suite en Blanc displays the strength, accuracy, and style of a great classical ballet company, and it represents a tremendous challenge to pull it off with elan. Our dancers did all the steps, but only Mathilde Froustey (who is, in fact, French-trained) kept her shoulders free enough from strain to make it look like she was to the manner born.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Program 8 contains two of Balanchine's works �" one of his greatest, that paean to the Age of Anxiety Agon (1957); and a curiosity, the Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (new to us) �" as well as Jerome Robbins' brilliant Glass Pieces.

Sunday night there will be a special performance to bid farewell to Damian Smith and Ruben Martin Cintas, dancers it will be hard to replace and even harder to forget.  More on that next week.