Bespoke choreography at SF Ballet

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday April 12, 2017
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San Francisco Ballet is bringing the season into the home stretch. The grand finale will be Cinderella, opening at the end of the month. But to give lift-off for that, there's a very strong mixed bill of one-act ballets that opened last week and runs through April 18. Made for SF Ballet alternates with Swan Lake, and to my mind is the better show to see.

These three ballets �" Trio, Ghost in the Machine, and Within the Golden Hour �" were all made specifically for these dancers, and they own them. The movement seems to come from inside them, and despite the stylization and enlarging that classical technique gives the steps, you can still feel a personal impulse in every move they make. So it's almost a spectator sport; it's idealized, but it's very familiar.

Trio and Golden Hour got superlative performances, but we knew they could do that. The big news is two-fold: a.) The new dance, by corps dancer/young choreographer Myles Thatcher, is really good, and b.) The stage-sets by Alexander V. Nichols for Trio and for Thatcher's ballet are first-rate creations of atmosphere, epoch, terroir (to borrow a term from wine-making). A world has been suggested and encompassed, it belongs to the people we see in the ballet, to the very bottom of their being, and it does so without encroaching on their living-room in any way.

It's not news that Nichols' sets for Yuri Possokhov's RaKu and The Swimmer did everything the choreography needed. But the way Nichols has clarified Thatcher's aesthetic is worth mentioning, since it is so tactful it might go unnoticed. Saturday night the set drew a round of applause when the curtain went up, before anybody moved. Thatcher has arrived, and the ballet is good. Not only do the dancers tear into his new work, it is also worthy of them: a big ballet about the struggles of modern life, how hard it is to do everything you're personally responsible for, before you can hope to have a relationship with someone you could be responsible to.

But Nichols made it clear: A series of cables, like those supporting the Bay Bridge, rises from the stage frame and wraps around a gigantic, fluorescent-light Rooftree at the center of the stage. The cables' silhouette suggests a Japanese temple, but when we first see them they're blood red and seem to scream conflict.

"No, I am not moving to New York just because you've got a job offer!" seemed to be Vanessa Zahorian's answer to Joseph Walsh's offer of his hand. She took it, but she pushed back; in no time he'd thrown her over his head in the splits, and the fight was on. For the first numbers, virtuosic combat was the order of the day, the relentless Minimalist music by Michael Nyman.

San Francisco Ballet in choreographer Myles Thatcher's Ghost in the Machine. Photo: Erik Tomasson

But when a follow-spot found the wistful Sasha de Sola center stage, and she started a lamenting solo pleading for sympathy, the cables went pale and receded into the shadows as her drama came front and center. Friends tried to help, first a potential lover (Stephen Morse), who hung in there but finally had to back out as she pulled into a paroxysm of dealing with her demons. When she came round out of that, she found he'd receded into the shadowy strangers at the back.

At this point a remarkable sequence of supporting gestures came from other members of the corps, and a fantastic set of supportive tableaux took shape and dissolved, one after another. Then came another duet, ravishing, to Nyman's famous "The heart asks pleasure first," for Carlo Di Lanno and Dores Andre.

Opening night was not so authoritative, but by Saturday, the dancers had found the groove, and the audience went wild. A silver-haired gentleman in front of me leapt to his feet crying bravo, and by the end of the bows, you had to stand up to see what was going on onstage. This ballet should have legs and will give SFB a new face to show to Europe and Asia when they go on tour.

Thatcher has always been able to make young dancers look strong and beautiful and move them through counterpointed trajectories that built big tension and paid off with committed performances. The dancers would go beyond themselves, and the level of physical excitement in Spinae and Stone and Steel burnt a deep impression in the mind. Dancers like Max Cauthorn, who's now been elevated to soloist rank but was in those ballets when he was in the school, help to give the work its feeling: this is us, take it or leave it, this is what we're up against. Does it ring true for you?

In Trio and also in Golden Hour, Sarah van Patten melted the heart as the ballerina in our company whom everyone resonates with. De Sola and Andre, with the help of her partners Tiit Helimets and Aaron Robison, show signs of having learned from her, how to reach the heart. It's wonderful to see the dancers receiving material worthy of their talents and dedication. Their careers are so brief. Vanessa Zahorian, a technician we could always count on to give us a glorious ride, had a great role made for her by Helgi Tomasson in Trio, wherein she could let herself go and dance with an open heart. She's arrived at retirement and will give a farewell performance this coming Saturday in Swan Lake, with her husband, the noble danseur Davit Karapetyan. We wish them well as they go off to teach young dancers how to make this magic happen for us.