San Francisco Ballet's two dramatic mixed bills, through Feb. 13

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday February 8, 2022
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San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's 'Trio'
San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's 'Trio'

San Francisco Ballet is back in the Opera House after two years, looking strong. The house was ready (new velvet on the chairs, it feels like the soft side of Velcro) and it looked full. Audience masked, dancers unmasked (and yes, one corps dancer came onstage with her mask still on, and tossed it off with a laugh when the choreography took her close to the wings and she could ditch it). They're performing two mixed bills, three ballets each, alternating in repertory through February 13. You still have time to see both shows, and both are worth it.

How do they look? At the first show, they looked well-rehearsed, eager, energetic, but as if they weren't used to the glare of our attention and couldn't quite hear the music. They found the groove fast, though. By the second movement of Trio (choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, the company's artistic director, to Tchaikovsky in neo-classical style), the ballerina Dores Andre gazed out at us with her dark, sad eyes and delivered a magnificent performance.

If you're a fan of the home team, you take your chances as fate sends winning seasons and bummers. Since this is Tomasson's last season. He's handing over directorship to Tamara Rojo, currently the forward-looking Artistic Director of English National Ballet in London. We'll be seeing a lot of his "almost very good" choreography.

Under his direction, the level of classical dancing has risen from bumpy to phenomenal. He's built, on a budget that's risible next to that of the great companies of Paris, St Petersburg, London, New York, a company that can be mentioned in the same breath with theirs by creating a community of talent.

This is not a string of pearls company. The question he seems to have asked is, "Can they dance?" When Jacques d'Amboise came to set Apollo on SF Ballet decades ago, he said he wondered if there was a male dancer who could do the role. After he got here, he said, he was amazed to see that any man in this company could do Apollo.

Tomasson has reeled them in from all over the world — Spain, China, Estonia, Korea, Russia, Mexico, Sweden, Canada, France, Armenia, Britain, Australia, Italy, Cuba, and of course the U.S. If they won the Prix de Lausanne, or Moscow, or Jackson, he was interested. So what we have is many-colored, many body types, many schools of technique. But they're all quick studies, they're hungry to dance — and they're back.

Polar Opposites

Program One features the world premiere of a dramatic ballet, Mrs Robinson, seething with resentment and sexual hunger. Program 2 is the opposite, a suite of joyous, adorable dances in a hyper-balletic style that looks like young friends clubbing to the eerily wonderful electronic music, "The Colour in Anything," by James Blake (an album rock critics rave over).

Blake's voice rivals Roy Orbison's for uncanny heights of longing and pain. It's almost creepy, but the dancers are so in there with him, it's almost comfort food for them. Which means, this parallels the way dancers feel about the blues. It's so honest, it sets you free in a way that brings joy.

Sarah Van Patten in Cathy Marston's 'Mrs. Robinson'  (Source: © Erik Tomasson)

So take your pick. If your last two years have been spent on the picket lines characterized by political outrage, Program 1's long-awaited premiere of Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson might bring some relief. It's a ballet about social injustice. Marston meets the test George Bernard Shaw set 100 years ago in his "unpleasant plays," which stir you up with a desire for justice but send you home not with an answer to the problem posed but with a new question.

Marston belongs in that British school of choreography that uses gesture and posture to make a moving picture. The best example is Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake. Mrs. Robinson opens one thigh and promises both: she turns her back to him coyly, but then sparkles her fingers on the back of her neck, which means "Unzip me," and when he does, another second-skin leopard-spotted cocktail dress appears, and she's twice as sexy as she was.

She keeps winning the battle without realizing she's losing the war. And you notice that van Patten may be a senior ballerina, but still, she's beautiful like Princess Diana was beautiful. She's lost her baby fat, her bones are glorious even though she looks hungry as an ocelot, she'll never be lovelier.

The ballet opens with explosive entrances for "the boys." It's the rat race, each guy is busting with energy, the back-slapping is edgy. And then the women of the corps enter Bambi-legged, teetering exquisitely on brilliantly mannered ankles, which ripple like pearls falling from a necklace that's gone unstrung.

It's a marked homage to the corps of Les Biches ("The Does," 1924) of Marston's great predecessor, Bronislava Nijinska, the first "life-style ballet" by "the first great woman ballet choreographer," and perhaps not incidentally, the first ballet to portray a lesbian couple (discreetly, but everyone knew, and moreover, they're obviously in love).

Tour de force for the principals
Mrs. Robinson is a tour de force for the stars, Sarah van Patten and Joseph Walsh, whose performances must be seen to be believed. They could not be improved upon. But it ends with Mrs. Robinson seeing the collapse of her delusion, the realization (to put words in her mouth) that "the Taj Mahal was not built on a great fuck," and if security in marriage to Mr. Robinson (Luke Ingham) isn't the thing, what is it, that she really wants?

Sarah Van Patten and Joseph Walsh in Cathy Marston's 'Mrs. Robinson'  (Source: © Erik Tomasson)

This ballet has a Bette Davis role (with a Timothee Chalamet —or better, Lucas Hedges— role for her co-star) and will offer a vehicle for performers who want to stretch their powers long into the future. It was fascinating, by the way, to see a dancer of Joseph Walsh's immense strength and power, cast against type as a J.D. Salinger figure, choking in the "phony" world he's come home to.

Mrs. Robinson also strikes a blow for dramatic ballet: for gesture and outburst of feeling, rather than the limpid flow of dancing. The most striking "move" in this ballet (which is not really about dancing) is the flat 'onto your face head-first' collapse of a corps girl. This move spreads like a disease through the group until the last time they appear, they all face-plant and then rise back up somehow. It's a miracle nobody's hurt.

This is not after all Tom and Jerry —those dancers are real people— that should hurt, although pratfalls are clown technique probably going back to ancient Rome. These collapses by the corps express, I suppose, Mrs. Robinson's subconscious fears of catastrophic failure. But perhaps it's also a thought-problem; what would a truly free woman want from life?

Which is the question Mrs. Robinson is left with when Benjamin runs off after her daughter. "Whatever shall I do? What do I want?" It's a burning question.

The ballet needs editing. There's too much repetition after the point was made, and it looked like Mr. Robinson was in hanky-panky with his own daughter. They played that too foxy.

Tiit Helimets and Jennifer Stahl made the most of minor roles as Benjamin's parents, and Madison Keesler as Elaine Robinson.

Unexpected superpowers
On the other hand, if it's fun you'd rather, there's no more fun to be had anywhere at the moment than Blake Works, which William Forsythe made for the Paris Opera Ballet and has sent over to us, staged by his assistant Ayman Harper. It's the west-coast premiere here at SFB.

Blake Works is populated by young folk at their most adorable, suddenly appearing as if they'd apparated on the spot. Moving like people we know who have hitherto unexpected superpowers, they can spurt into the air, flash through a series of brilliant positions, and alight as if it were nothing.

Blake Works is a vision of an ideal peer group. Sasha de Sola (principal dancer) and Julia Rowe (soloist) are a little more equal than the others, and I think Rowe gets to have more fun onstage than any dancer I've seen for years; she is tearing it up.

Aaron Robison in William Forsythe's 'Blake Works'  (Source: © Erik Tomasson)

Men who're a little more equal are Aaron Robison and Max Cauthorn, though Joseph Walsh gets to wear blue jeans and do almost nothing except moon over Ms. Rowe to the title track ("The Colour in Anything").

The piece starts off and ends quietly but beautifully, with dancers moving smoothly, like a yoga-flow class, through the small ballet poses in "the eight directions of the body" of a Cecchetti class, with extra-pulled contrapposti which make them only the more gorgeous, like little statues. These poses are the bases of the pictures they'll make when they "stand in the air" gleefully, as the ballet builds to its happy dazzle of a finale.

They're all in celadon (except of course "the anomalie"); women have skirts but the sexes are at ease with each other. There's playful competition to shine as dancers, but it's "innocent." When Esteban Hernandez cuts his brilliant figures, or Sasha de Sola (both principals) tosses off the Bluebird's brisées (a specialty of Hernandez's), there's no rivalry. We in the audience are applauding, as if this were a jazz concert and the pianist or clarinet had just done a riff—and in fact, the dancers onstage were applauding each other (as they might do in class, dancers do that).

When Joshua Jack Price does his crazy Groucho-esque moves with a lot of hang-time, and Luca Ferro dashes off wonderful what-nots, or Henry Sidford stretches his mile-long legs, it's all fun, it's just wonderful fun. It put me in mind of Cavallia, the great Cirque de Soleil piece, where the horses and their whisperers were friends and there was no lord or master, as it was in the Garden of Eden.

Forsythe is famous for his experiments with technique. He should be better known as a major fantast. He creates worlds with his movement, and in this one, he shows us the world of equality that is so dear to us all right now.

It must be said, these are the two novelties on mixed-bill programs. There were two classics: the glorious Symphony in C, and Jerome Robbins' In the Night, set to Chopin Nocturnes. The three couples who danced the Robbins were deeply in the mood. They all deserve praise: Benjamin Freemantle with Mathilde Froustey, Tiit Helimets with Jennifer Stahl, and Ulrik Birkjaaer with Sarah van Patten.

Other dancers who made me see them were Swane Messaoudi, Davide Occhipinti, Tyla Steinbach, Steven Morse (in the act of catching a dancer in mid-air and arresting her flight!), Lonnie Weeks, Sean Bennett, Carmela Mayo, and the ever—thrilling Daniel Deivison-Oliveira.

Programs 1 and 2 thru Feb. 13. $29, $110 and up; season passes for various dates available. 301 Van Ness Ave.

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