A feast of pure dancing

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 3, 2015
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The big news in San Francisco's dance scene last week was the first-class revival of Jerome Robbins' 1969 masterpiece, Dances at a Gathering, on San Francisco Ballet's Program 4. It runs on a double bill with Hummingbird (new last year, and a big hit with the audience, by Liam Scarlett of the Royal Ballet) through this Sunday, alternating with Program 3, also a mixed bill, the highlight of which is the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from the 19th-century classic La Bayadere .

Music was secondary to the movement studies that made up Program 3. Even the selections from Bach's Musical Offering and Goldberg Variations (arranged by Matthew Naughton) that made up the score for Myles Thatcher's Manifesto felt like they'd been put through the wringer. It seemed Thatcher, who is unquestionably very talented, in making his manifesto was competing with Bach in contrapuntal ingenuity. Movement motifs would surge up in the group of dancers that were at odds with what was unfolding in Bach's music. Perhaps it was just a contrary mood of my own that made this seem so misguided. I'd like to see it again, but on one viewing, Manifesto struck me as a squandered opportunity, quite perverse, a young talent trying to avoid the obvious and achieving confusion instead. Though it must be said the dancers performed with stirring conviction, hitting their marks thrillingly. Thatcher is himself a member of SFB's corps de ballet, a versatile dancer who can gleam in many styles and can handle featured roles of many sorts. We've seen the advanced students of the SFB School look marvelous in several of his earlier works. Outstanding in Manifesto, his first full-scale work for the company, were Jennifer Stahl, Sean Orza, Norika Matsuyama, Steven Morse, Dores Andre, and Hansuke Yamamoto.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Carlo DiLanno in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill Of Exactitude. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Perhaps best-danced was a cryptic Variations for Two Couples by Hans van Manen, which was set to pieces by four different composers. Our great ballerina Sofiane Sylve, who starred with the Dutch National Ballet, understands the austere style �" it's like being Narcissa Malfoy, as if one had to work under extremely onerous conditions without revealing any personal feelings.

William Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude was not well-danced; it needs to be cast with five principal dancers, or else it just looks like an ordeal. The men fared best, especially Francisco Mungambo.

And that evening's finale, the exacting "Shades" scene from La Bayadere, failed to cast much of a spell. It's the sort of thing where tiny flaws in the background eat away at the grand spectacle. Nobody actually fell down, but again and again someone would be seen struggling to hold a position where everything needs to be as uniform as one of the minimalist Carl Andre's arrangements of bricks on the floor for the spell to hold. The principals, Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz, danced superbly.

No such problems assailed Dances at a Gathering, which is being cast at record-height. I've only seen one performance, but I could go back every night from now till the end of the run and have a satisfying evening in the theater. Robbins made this hour-long feast of pure dancing �" no story, no characters, no sets, no hooks �" after a tremendous long run of creating commercially sure-fire-hit shows on Broadway, the high points of which are still famous: Peter Pan, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof. He was almost notorious for being able to "doctor" a play that was dying with the audience and "make it work." It's hard to believe, in today's climate, that there was ever a period in which this was regarded as "selling out."

San Francisco Ballet dancer Mathilde Froustey in "The Kingdom of the Shades" from Makarova's La Bayadere, Act III. Photo: Erik Tomasson

He was burnt out and went to Balanchine, asked to work with New York City Ballet, was accepted, given free rein, and was able to work completely unencumbered by the lawyers, the backers, the critics, the bridge-and-tunnel mentality of crowd-pleasing, and just work on themes that resonate with Fiddler �" the old country, tradition, young love, the love of dancing �" with artists like Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, whose imaginations and abilities set him loose. The dances to Chopin poured out of him; it was just going to be a duet, but suddenly there were more and more pieces, and whoever was free to work that day got worked into the process,  and something emerged that seemed imaginatively all of a piece. It was a hit immediately, and before the end of the year the Royal Ballet was performing it in London �" which is where I first saw it, with a cast that included Rudolph Nureyev, Anthony Dowell, Antoinette Sibley, Monica Mason, and Lynn Seymour.

The performance I saw last Saturday night, with Roy Bogas at the piano, was up to the same level as that. Perhaps the women were not as distinctive, but the five men were the finest I have ever seen. Joseph Walsh excelled as the Boy in Brown: this is a role with which Helgi Tomasson, who is now Artistic Director of SFB (and has been for 30 years) won the Silver Medal in the Moscow Competition 50 years ago (Baryshnikov, the local favorite, won the Gold Medal). All the men were beyond praise: Davit Karapetyan, Carlo DiLanno, Joseph Walsh, Vitor Luiz, and Steven Morse. The women, who were merely wonderful, were Maria Kochetkova, Lorena Feijoo, Vanessa Zahorian, Dores Andre, and Mathilde Froustey.

Also on this bill is a revival of last year's hit Hummingbird, set to the brilliant Piano Concerto of Philip Glass, which was thrillingly played by the SFB orchestra, with Brenda Tom as piano soloist.