SF Ballet brings joy to the fog belt

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday August 1, 2018
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Amidst reports of the hottest summer on record - Paris sweltering, Greece burning, wildfires all over our own state - San Francisco last Sunday afternoon was as cold as Mark Twain ever claimed. For the picnickers who went to Stern Grove for the San Francisco Ballet's annual outing on the amphitheater stage of that sublime local park, we sat under towering redwoods and a milky afternoon sky. As our world-famous dancers gave it their all, I kept thinking, "They must be cold!" - we sure were - and only in the wide-open spaces of Aaron Copland's wonderful music for "Rodeo" did the dancers really open up. They ended the show with a joyous finale, which built from strength to strength.

It had been spotty all afternoon until then. But in "Rodeo," everything was right at last. The tan wood-paneled backdrop stood in for the Western desert perfectly - that landscape Copland's music conjures, a wide-open, cheerfully lonesome expanse. It's a ballet for men, though Dores Andre, the only woman, cuts an unforgettable figure that evokes the spunky cowgirl of Agnes deMille's iconic heroine from 50 years ago. Her spirit presides even as the new choreography (by Justin Peck) sets new action in this landscape. San Francisco Ballet's superb men darted and cavorted like kids on skateboards, or cowboys cutting up. Then they'd also team up in tableaux, leaning on each other to create formations that echo the enduring sculptures of Monument Valley.

All the men were vivid and thrilling, dancing with expansive personalities - none more so than corps dancer Diego Cruz, whose smile alone made up for the lack of sunshine. Max Cauthorne, Wei Wang, and Hansuke Yamamoto seemed to belong in this world as Audie Murphy used to. Ulrik Birkkjaer, who comes to us from Denmark and is wizardly at the sparkling Danish footwork, cut some Western figures of incredible brilliance. And Andre took over the stage like Marlene Dietrich. Diva!

Three pas de deux took up the middle of the program, though only Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz managed to project continuous radiance, in the endlessly tender reconfigurations of Tan's limbs in lift after lift that Edwaard Liang has arranged for her to float through, in the strong, capable hands of Luiz. It's not a great piece, but it's a wonderful vehicle for a star ballerina. Everybody loved it.

Sasha de Sola and Esteban Hernandez showed lots of fire in Balanchine's "Tarantella" at first, but lost steam. It's a bravura piece that requires irrepressible temperament and stamina. De Sola is a radiant young ballerina, but hilarity is not her forte - and ultimately, that's what this ballet requires, not just indomitable warmth. Hernandez, a young Mercury, held on longer, but even he started to shrink.

The Soviet-era Grand Pas de deux that forms the climax of the Helgi Tomasson/Yuri Possokhov "Don Quixote" (coming next season on Program 1) is a magnificent display of the indomitable style. The ballerina Anna Sophia Scheller had a superb outing in the adagio, partnered by the newcomer soloist Vladislav Koslov, from the Bolshoi, where Possokhov used him in "Nureyev." Unfortunately, Kozlov is a tall, hyperextended specialist in the contemporary style and - at least on this outing - did not look right at all in the old Soviet manner, which suits compact, super-strong dancers like Baryshnikov. The luster of their opening number faded as they had to move faster. Scheller, who is a strong turner, lost her placement, and had to finish early.

I'd been looking forward to seeing the classic "Serenade" outdoors, since it was first shown outside in the park on the Warburg estate in White Plains, New York, in 1934. Balanchine's first ballet in America, it was designed to show young dancers how to use the stage, and it still, despite many revisions, uses many of the easier steps - running, posing, the easier balances and turns on pointe - to tremendous effect, creating wave upon wave of movement that evokes young energy, exile, life moving forward through new worlds. Even the end - maybe especially the end, where the heroine is born aloft in a sublime procession into another world - seems like a new beginning.

The ballerinas Sarah van Patten, Jennifer Stahl, and Frances Chung were each amazing in their ways, the corps danced like the ocean, with rushes of movement coming forward and around stationary dancers like waves around rocks, or water pouring through the sluices in a dam. And yet they were hard to see - the composition looked like an A&F plaid in sky-blue and tan plaid amidst the diffuse glare under the milky sky.

Still, it was our only chance to see them until November. It was wonderful to see them. The capacity crowd left happy.