Blazing energy at the ballet

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday April 13, 2016
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San Francisco Ballet dancers Frances Chung, Jennifer<br>Stahl, Dores Andre, and Joseph Walsh in choreographer Justin Peck's <i>In the Countenance of Kings</i>.<br>Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet dancers Frances Chung, Jennifer
Stahl, Dores Andre, and Joseph Walsh in choreographer Justin Peck's In the Countenance of Kings.
Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet is sweeping towards the end of its season with two mixed bills that opened last week playing in alternation through this Sunday's matinee, to be followed on Sunday night by a one-off farewell performance for three star male dancers.

Program 7 is the highlight of the year so far. The whole show was sharp, beautifully projected, imaginative in the extreme, with three one-acts that contrasted in thrilling ways, each true to its own logic and fascinating in its own way ‚Ä" like a perfect meal at a great restaurant. Justin Peck's highly anticipated world premiere In the Countenance of Kings brought down the house, and was followed by an even more exciting performance of Balanchine's Theme and Variations.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in George Balanchine's Theme and Variations. Photo: Erik Tomasson

For New Yorkers the news is that Peck, the new kid on their block, had a bigger success here than Alexei Ratmansky, who's been their reigning choreographer since he defected from the Bolshoi a decade ago. When SFB showed Ratmansky's blockbuster Shostakovich Trilogy here last year, we all went away stunned.

But the SFB premiere of his Seven Sonatas, to Scarlatti's intimate piano pieces, seemed trifling and enjoyed at best a succes d'estime. They danced it without style, without the internal dynamics that Ratmansky can be seen in YouTube videos asking for: suspended motion, with one part of the body already falling towards the next step while another yearns in the other direction, which embody in movement the dissonances in Scarlatti's Baroque music. 

Ratmansky did not make his work on our dancers, nor did he set it on them. Peck did make his ballet here, and though it's a West Side Story-esque, dazzling, high-spirited romp, he's inspired the dancers to fill it out with such blazing energy that it swept us all away. The dancers get it. We never had a moment to catch our breath, we never knew what was coming next, and after it was all over we did not know what had hit us ‚Ä" but no question, we loved it. A very small child sitting near me was agog all the way through.

As Balanchine once did with Serenade, Peck has exploited the speed dancers can get to now, and orchestrated turbulence into an image of the surging urban world. He's used a cheerfully pulsating score by Sufjan Stevens called The BQE (the Bronx-Queens Expressway). As Stevens' rhythms dart about and tumble into 5/4 jazz waltzes, the dancers change directions like birds, dart among and through each other on paths we see but don't have time to register.

And at times the picture clears, with star turns for six principal dancers. Peck has made an important role for Joseph Walsh ("The Protagonist"), a great dancer whose clarity and power make him the man in the crowd we can best identify. And he has made a star of Dores Andre, unveiling a presence who, when you look at her, you suddenly feel like you're about to cry. The other men are Gennadi Nedvigin, who has a hilarious waltz with Frances Chung, and Luke Ingham, who squires Jennifer Stahl.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Jahna Frantziskonis and Max Cauthorn in Christopher Wheeldon's Rush . Photo: Erik Tomasson

Program 7 opened with Christopher Wheeldon's Continuum, a thoughtful array of tableaux, many of them yoga poses, set to clangorous music (etudes for piano by Gyorgy Ligeti). The tension between the high-brow noise and the calm of child's pose, table-top, plank, and cobra fascinated me.

On Program 6, Helgi Tomasson's Prism made us wonder why the ballet was so well-admired when it premiered at New York City Ballet in May 2000. SFB danced it efficiently but without style, except for Taras Domitro in the scherzando finale (it's set to Beethoven's First Piano Concerto), who brought wonderful brio and snap, enough to make things brilliant and save the day. The first two movements had many good moments from the corps (Diego Cruz, Max Cauthorne, and Francisco Mungamba, especially), but overall it was dull.

Christopher Wheeldon's Rush closed Program 6 with fizzy energy and sharp, intriguing pictures. It's brilliant, but Bohuslav Martinu's 1930s score is so tangy, the piece lacks the joy it would need to lift the evening to put it over the top.

Program 8 arrives at the end of the month. Onegin, a tempestuous, full-length romantic-story ballet (music by Tchaikovsky), extends into the first week of May, and then no more ballet until a putative appearance in Stern Grove at the end of the summer.