School mastery

  • by Paul Parish
  • Sunday June 2, 2019
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San Francisco Ballet School students dance in Maya Wheeler's "Ne me quitte pas." Photo: Lindsay Thomas
San Francisco Ballet School students dance in Maya Wheeler's "Ne me quitte pas." Photo: Lindsay Thomas

The whole thrust of the San Francisco Ballet School's graduation recital (three shows last week; I saw Thursday night's) was to display the competitive edge the school gives its graduates. They looked technically outstanding, both in classical and "contemporary" work, and their mastery made them proud and eager to present themselves. The most compelling performer all night was a still-developing dancer, Zoe Lucich, who commanded the stage like a queen and drew your eye at all times. Without the technical chops of some of the stronger women, she nevertheless projected an idea, the Princess Isoline, so vividly, her light shone so bright, that whenever she was offstage you missed her, and when she came back she created the focal point. It may not be an accident that her mother, former SFB principal dancer Julia Adam, is a remarkable choreographer. Alone onstage, she seemed to hold and keep the sense of a whole ballet taking shape over time, and at different tempos. To be able to hold an idea and make it grow like that is rare these days, but it's what marks the difference between a good dancer and a ballerina.

In the two years since SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson appointed Patrick Armand as head of the School, the dancers have looked sharper and stronger year by year, especially the men. Now their classical strengths are largely equaled by their smooth control in contemporary ballet, which uses both the expressionist angularity of modern dance, and also the postmodern "release" technique that re-centers the body not in the pelvis but in crouches, handstands or bear-crawls, with movement swirling like water down a drain. It's germane that a) Armand is a big honcho at the Prix de Lausanne, b) ballet competitions now require both a classical display-piece and a contemporary piece; the big prize-winners are those who excel at both, and c) the choreography for the kids going to competitions is getting gaudier and more vulgar with every passing year (e.g., a six-year old girl dancing to "Save a cow! Ride a Cowgirl!")

San Francisco Ballet School student adjusting her pointe shoes during rehearsal for the Spring Festival. Photo: Lindsay Thomas  

Not that anything we saw was cheesy. Yet none of the choreography we saw was first-rate. All the dances were medium-good, but performed very well. Perhaps the best, because it had no pretensions at all, was the demonstration choreographed by the teacher Karen Gabay to show all the students from level 2 to the top, to the very danceable music from the Strauss family.

The kids looked fantastic, especially the boys: little guys who did fantastic brisees, a big guy, Gabriel Gudim, who did grandes pirouettes, sailing around with his leg 90 degrees to the side inscribing sharp circles, the working foot pointed like a talon. Rock-solid, and he was enjoying it like a kid on a skateboard.

Gabay showed each in a manner that suited what they'd mastered, including the ability to bide their time, stay calm, wait their turn, possess themselves in patience. It was also lovely to see, in the pointe-work sections with dancers moving in mirror-image geometries, the natural faces of young women approaching their friends in the figures of the dance, as if this were a dance from "Pride and Prejudice" or "Soul Train." The steps are hard, but the situation is social. It was also good to see many young people of color onstage. More would be better, but it looks like that might be the trend, especially among young men.

Balthazar Senat was impressive in Marc Brew's "Quicksilver" solo. A dance in the dark, moody and beautiful, abstract but dealing with painful separation of a young man from his former friends.

Advanced women danced Jiri Kylian's "Falling Angels" with impressive control. It's minimalist, to "Drumming" by Steve Reich. Less rigorous but more appealing was Kylian's "Sarabande," in which Ruben Citores Nieto, Kobe Atwood Courtney, Johnathan Hart, Anicet Marandel-Broutin, Duc Hieu Nguyen, and Jasper T. Stafford all took the melting, flowing style to gorgeous lengths, to an electronic arrangement of Bach.

There were several nice short pieces by student choreographers, e.g., "Ne me quitte pas," to the well-known recording by Nina Simone, danced by Tyla Steinbach (entering SFB as an apprentice next year) with Guido Saranataro, to effective choreography by their fellow student Maya Wheeler, the school's Bob Ross Scholar.

Helgi Tomasson's "Ballet d'Isoline," a big-cast neo-classical ballet in the Balanchine manner to infectious music by Messager, closed the evening brilliantly. The stage did not seem big enough for everybody. Zoe Lucich and her excellent partner Adrian Zeisel created the sense of generosity, large, clear-minded spaciousness. We all went home happily dazzled.