November 3rd, 2013
San Francisco Ballet Fall Season at Lincoln Center
Watching San Francisco Ballet’s mixed-bill production is like sampling the history of Western cuisine in plate after plate of flavorful and unforgettable food.
SF Ballet’s 2013 New York Season at Lincoln Center opened with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Trio in four movements set to Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor. The exuberant musicality and longing melodies of the string sextet reminded me of the composer’s better-known score Serenade for Strings in C major. Each movement is highlighted by a color theme in the costumes, starting with a vibrant burgundy in the first movement, olive and ivory in the second, and a toffee-brown mesh in the third and fourth. Mark Zappone’s elegant long dresses with delicate trimmings for the women in each movement were thoughtfully designed and complemented the highly sophisticated yet simple and courtly set by Alexander V. Nichols.
Trio is reminiscent of a social gathering set in an early 20th-century ballroom. The trio that appears in the middle section shows Mr. Tomasson’s ability to create abstract narration with classical vocabulary and form; the subtle spatial arrangements of the three dancers, two male and one female, convey naturalistic human interactions, whereas the first and last movements exhibit more traditional and symmetrical spatial patterns and formations with no dramatic lines between the dancers as they execute vibrant and brisk movements.
The choreography showcases the dancers’ ability to perform classical movements, especially complex partnering sequences for the main couples throughout the work. At one point in the first movement, the lead ballerina, Vanessa Zahorian, started a pirouette with her partner, Vitor Luiz, supporting her at first; then he let go of one hand while she continued turning and completed the sequence with a lunge on pointe, a demanding combination that requires an incredible sense of weight and critical timing to accomplish. The technical performances of the women in Trio were flawless; they danced with such ease and natural quality that at moments I couldn’t see or hear their pointe shoes.
Next on the program was Ghost by Christopher Wheeldon, the most beautiful contemporary ballet I have seen in a while. The mystical and powerful feminist beauty seen throughout the piece featured the exquisite principal dancers Sofiane Sylve and Yuan Yuan Tan.
The ballet opens with a tableau of dancers beneath a backdrop of a glowing moon that illuminates their white flowing dresses and bare arms. They dance, glide, twirl and undulate across the stage in closed groups, as if they were gentle spirits meandering in the forest. Mr. Wheeldon has a unique sense of musicality; his contemporary movements come in unexpected shapes, sequences and executions. A simple sequential step of parallel turns in second position, for instance, becomes quite mesmerizing when the use of canon is done at the right moment in the choreography. While his movements are contemporary in style, with angular-shaped port de bras and delicate floor work, Ghost maintains a strong, classical choreographic structure, commencing with a group section into the main pas de deux, then back to the group with interludes of trios and solos leading into the group finale.
The duet with Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith left me in astounded admiration. The choreography accentuated Ms. Tan’s fine classical lines, and her extra-arched feet were highlighted through the flowing side-cut dress every time she executed a développé or an extension. Mr. Smith manipulated her with such gentle touch and precision that she looked calm and safe at every moment of her performance. The couple moved together so organically, so easily, it’s as if they were having an everyday conversation. Even when they danced apart, rolling on their backs to a shoulder stand while cycling their legs, they were like synchronized swimmers, moving as one.
Mr. Wheeldon chose to feature Ms. Sylve in solos throughout the final movement. Her strong presence covered the stage with a feminine authority, as if she was the Queen of the Willis come alive under this autumn moonlight. She spun, leaped and darted on pointe with such magnificent force and speed that every circle and diagonal line she drew came out clearly and visibly. Ms. Sylve is an extraordinary female dancer who has all the technical skills and an adventurous demeanor any choreographer would be eager to work with.
Borderlands, a group work consisting of quartets, trios, duets and solos by British choreographer Wayne McGregor, came last in the program. The piece is set on an all-white stage with occasional orange and blue lights swiping across like a photocopy machine. The simple, light-gray long-sleeve tops and matching briefs on the dancers created an atmosphere of a casual and unintentional encounter on stage. It was fascinating to see these classically trained dancers moving in strong athleticism while at the same time extending their limbs to extreme unconventional positions and postures. But after many repetitions of the same distorted á la sec-besque (a tilted turn-in développé á la seconde) on almost every ballerina on stage, Mr. McGregor lost track of the choreographic structure and everything started to appear arbitrary. Perhaps Mr. Mcgregor was trying to say that any conceptual land would end chaotically when order and form has vanished.
This is San Francisco Ballet’s eightieth anniversary and I am certain that they will continue to sustain and reinvigorate the classical form for a very long time. Every time a dancer came on stage, I sensed a kind of dedication and devotion that is rarely seen today. The dancers are the strength, source, inspiration and confidence of any choreographer’s work from classical to contemporary, and they are sure to make you go back for more.