Garden party in Stern Grove

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday July 28, 2015
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Even Stern Grove is looking dry this year. Last Sunday's free outdoor performance by the San Francisco Ballet, with their full orchestra, on the natural-amphitheater stage of the city's often fog-bound park, was danced under more hot sun than I can remember in 20 years of attending the event. Several thousand people, it looked like, brought their picnics and spread out on the lawn, on the terraces, and up the cliff behind us into the eucalyptus trees, where it looked like they had to dig their heels in to keep their purchase on the steep forest floor.

But nobody seemed to be complaining. Well, some of the babies cried, but that's part of the deal when an entertainment like this is free and whole families can come out. The audience was on the move throughout the show. Latecomers looking for places kept perching on the low stone walls and getting shooed away by park officials. It was a never-ending dance that competed (along with birds, bees, and dragonflies) with the SFB dancers for your attention. Under these circumstances, the ballet's light-hearted program seemed perfect summer-festival fare �" especially since it's, as always, our only chance to see our world-famous ballet company during the summer, which they usually spend touring the world, making themselves even more world-famous. It was extremely well-danced.

They led off with Rush, a light, bright, sparkling affair by the Royal Ballet-trained Christopher Wheeldon set to Bohuslav Martinu's Sinfonietta la Jolla , which has some of the atmosphere of the pretty sea-coast town it's named after. SF Ballet debuted Rush at the Edinburgh Festival a dozen years ago, where it was a smash. It's still delightful; the slow center movement had a heavenly flow in the expansive phrases shaped by Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Vincent, while in the allegros the fleet corps de ballet was led in sharp, rapidly unfolding patterns by newcomer-soloist Lauren Strongin (with Hansuke Yamamoto) and newly promoted principal dancer Dores Andre (with Joseph Walsh).

After an intermission came a trio of bravura pieces: The powerful music of Tchaikovsky, which underlay the first (an abridgement of Balanchine's Theme and Variations) made you realize what it takes to really command your attention at a fete champetre. For those 10 minutes I was riveted, didn't notice anything but the dancers, and when Balanchine kept adding more and more dancers to the stage for the bombastic polonaise that finishes the thing off, and Vanessa Zahorian led her squad of kicking, turning, wheeling Rockette-like corps de ballet, with all those men doing double air-tours, they set the audience on a roar.

San Francisco Ballet dancers WanTing Zhao and Carlo DiLanno in Myles Thatcher's Frayed. Photo: Erik Tomasson

This was followed by a sexy adagio, Frayed, our first sight of the "contemporary" duet that helped SFB soloist Carlo DiLanno win the Erik Bruhn Prize in last year's competition. His partner WanTing Zhao and the pianist Mongo Buriad helped sustain the mood of decorous lust in this well-crafted vehicle, made for them by the prolific and talented Myles Thatcher, who is also a gleaming dancer in the corps de ballet.

Then came Solo, a mercurial, perpetual-motion romp set to Bach that requires three human dancers to perform it, since doing the whole thing would kill anybody except Mercury himself. They were Wei Wang, James Sofranko, and the god-like Gennadi Nedvigin.

The show closed with a crowd-pleaser, Val Caniparoli's Lambarena, which fuses ballet with West-African rib- and pelvic-isolations, and often achieves a spinal fluidity that is intoxicating to see. I don't have the statistics, but Lambarena has entered the repertory of a huge number of dance companies and has become one of the most-performed contemporary ballets.

Caniparoli made the piece for the San Francisco Ballet's United We Dance Festival in 1995, which commemorated the drafting and signing of the United Nations charter in the Opera House here in San Francisco at the end of World War II. (Hence UN Plaza.) The piece succeeds because it is a sincere and moving response to the music by Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson, which is an electronic layering of traditional African music on top of music of J.S. Bach, created in homage to Dr. Albert Schweitzer's work at the hospital he founded, Lambarena, in Gabon.

Many purists don't like it, even (perhaps especially) those who do like the neo-classical ballets of Balanchine that incorporate a lot of African moves. It is "middle-brow," and it is too long. Nevertheless, I'd argue that it's a good ballet, even as it's possible to admire Schweitzer's humanitarian work while deploring colonialism. The main reason to like Lambarena is that it develops the American style of dancing in a new way. For a hundred years, since the Charleston conquered the polka, American dancing has been African-inspired. Lindy-hop, jazz, swing, rock-and-roll, hip-hop, for a hundred years American popular dancing has been African-American. Caniparoli collaborated with the West African dancer/drummer team Dr. Zakariya Diouf and Naomi Johnson-Diouf, directors of Oakland's Diamano Coura Dance company, and teachers at Oakland's Malonga Casquelourde Center for the Arts, who continue to conserve the specifically African material when the ballet is set on a new company.

The great thing is, dancers love to do it. It gives them material they can just tear into. Ellen Rose Hummel's phrasing took my breath away. Sunday we saw blazing performances by everybody in the piece, right down to the corps: everyone was wonderful, but the men took the cake. Frances Chung, Kimberly Braylock, Ms. Hummel, Anthony Vincent, James Sofranko, and Wei Wang led the dance. Miranda Silveira and Sean Orza also deserve honorable mention.