Ballet in the great outdoors

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday August 2, 2016
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At Stern Grove, San Francisco Ballet dancers Frances<br>Chung and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's <i>Swan Lake.</i><br> Photo: Erik Tomasson
At Stern Grove, San Francisco Ballet dancers Frances
Chung and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake.
Photo: Erik Tomasson

You always take your chances when you see a performance outdoors. Last Sunday's outing by the San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove was a welcome sighting of the dancers, even if you couldn't really see them for the glare and the waving screen of large heads in wide, floppy-brimmed hats that kept popping up like unwelcome ads. The weather was muggy, borderline oppressive, but the crowd was huge and enthusiastic, and our internationally famous dancers did us all proud in their only hometown appearance before Christmas.

It always makes me swell with civic pride to see our premier dance troupe dance for free for the fans in this noble philanthropic institution. The Stern family set the bar high for the new money to come when they gave this sublime natural park to the city, challenging the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters to step up and do something magnificent, high-minded, no-strings-attached for the community they call home.

This year it was harder to feel that way, partly because of the actual weather, but mostly for the tempestuous political atmosphere, which has made all but the most captivating diversions seem but shadows. The turbulent Zeitgeist kept tugging at me, reminding me as SFB wheeled into a beautifully danced Act II of Swan Lake that our Chinese-Canadian ballerina Frances Chung, who made an immaculate debut as Odette, comes from north of the border, and that her Prince Siegfried, the danseur noble Tiit Helimets, who came to us from Estonia, becomes a naturalized American citizen on Aug. 3.

Yes, the corps de ballet danced like a dream. Yes, the four little swans " Isabella deVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Norika Matsuyama, Emma Rubinowitz " stole the show, as the cygnets always do. How beautifully they matched each other in the precision, clarity, and attack of their brilliant movements, and how anatomically the same these dancers are in feet, calves, and thighs, in the shapes they make as well as in their timing, so each picture flashes at the same moment. It was a stunning example of the power of dancers of widely different backgrounds to commit to a single ideal, and of a ballet company to present a production in which no small mistake distracts from the overall effect.

The mesmerizing pas de deux from After the Rain, by Christopher Wheeldon, to hypnotic music by Arvo Part, proved once again to be able to cast its spell despite complete lack of stage decoration or atmospheric lighting. Wearing the simplest costumes " he bare-chested, in grey leggings, she bare-legged in a saffron leotard, they moved in infinitely slow motion with astounding intimacy through a range of contortions that held our attention through every transition. It's an acrobatic adagio that's been filled with spiritual content, wherein the noblest positions alternate with the most abject, as the music winds its dreamy way through permutations like those of the Moonlight Sonata translated into a major key. At one point, Luke Ingham (from Australia) supports Yuan Yuan Tan (born and trained in Shanghai) as she telescopes herself out horizontally into space, as if she were leaning out over the Grand Canyon only anchored to existence by faith in her partner and by his rock-solid commitment to her. This duet resembles The Dying Swan in its simplicity, coherence and universal appeal; it has one great idea, developed to perfection. There is no one who does not understand that a great deal has been communicated with no words spoken.

The afternoon ended with a brilliant reading of Rubies , the playful setting of a jazzy capriccio of Stravinsky's for piano and orchestra, played to the hilt by the SF Ballet orchestra (Martin West, conductor) and Natal'ya Feygina at the piano. They're all in red, the dancing is American Broadway hoofing done with classical technique, and the ballerina Vanessa Zahorian (Armenian-American) rollicked through it like a great comedian. The corps dancers threw themselves into it with huge panache. I especially liked Francisco Mungamba (from Spain). But the laurels went to Joseph Walsh, a principal dancer (from Pennsylvania) who's built low to the ground like the tennis player John McEnroe, with a fantastic grip on the floor and an ability to hurl into the air that resembles that of Edward Villella, on whom the role was created.

They all made the dance and the music seem as American as George Gershwin, to inflect the steps with syncopations and everyday gestures that pulled you into the action and made you feel like you were flying around the stage with them. At one point Walsh cocks his head in the universally understood gesture "come on, guys" and races clockwise round the stage, throwing in 720s every now and then, whereupon the other guys hit the ground as if a bomb had gone off. But it doesn't feel like a bomb went off, it just feels like you just had the time of your life.

Finally, I was able to forget my troubles and get happy for the time being.