SF Ballet – Program 5

Dances at a Gathering and Swimmer
March 16-22, 2016 SF Opera House

The Sublime and the Absurd

Dances at a Gathering, the Jerome Robbins work premiered at the New York City Ballet in 1969. SF Ballet first offered it in 2002. Unlike some of the elongated story ballets that fill the season, Dances… should be on the program every year. It is brilliant in design, plan and execution. The dancers perform it will joy and accomplishment.

To several Chopin etudes, mazurkas and waltzes, (delightfully played by Roy Bogas), the ten dancers in various color-coordinated costumes, wander, flirt, interact, attract, reject one another and then just dance/dance/dance. Mathilde Froustey, in yellow, provides humor; Sasha de Sola was a flirt; Loren Feijoo, in green, conquered with lyricism, Vanessa Zahorian (in mauve) with bravura and Yuan Yuan Tan (in pink) was, as usual, the splendid star.

The men, Vitor Luiz, Steven Morse, Davit Karapetyan and Caro Di Lanno, and especially Joseph Walsh (the wanderer), delighted us with their challenging technique and dazzling expansive energy. Dances at a Gathering is a masterpiece to which one can bring one’s own story. Robbins said, “Let the music make you dance.”

Swimmer on the other hand is full of confusion. Loosely based on John Cheever’s story The Swimmer, the ballet seeks to reconstruct the story’s events: a man swims through his neighborhood swimming pools; time passes; he arrives finally to his empty house.
These events are reconstructed on stage by means of electronically projected water scenes, desultory ‘night out’ events, contact with young boys and packs of fierce, intense young men, and finally drowning. In between the projections, the special effects and the various group numbers, Taras Domitro dances frantic repetitive solos across the stage dressed in a blue bathing suit. Maria Kochetkova, Tiit Helimets, Lorena Feijoo, Vitor Juiz and Yuan Yuan Tan contribute small roles to the mayhem. There is so much to follow that even these principles roles are obscured. The pack of young men prevail since there are so many of them and their energy is intense. Yuri Possokhov, the choreographer says, “There’s never a resolution.” Alas, there is not strong ‘though-line’ to help us comprehend.

Swimmer becomes a succession of events that creates confusion. The scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols is fascinating as is the costume design by Mark Zappone, the lighting by David Finn, the video by Kate Duhamel. The choreographer must integrate it all.

Jerome Robbins: Dances at a Gathering Photo: Erik Tommasson
Left to Right: Sasha de Sola; Yuan Yuan Tan; Joseph Walsh

SF Ballet – Coppelia

SF Opera House March 8-13, 2016

Reviving a Masterpiece

Coppélia has a long history as a ballet and an even longer history as variations of the E.T.A. Hoffman story, The Sandman.
The ballet was first produced in 1870 at the Paris Opera with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon, music by Léo Delibes. Subsequent performances with choreography by Marius Petipa (revised by Cecchetti) took place in St. Petersburg in 1884 and then in 1894. The San Francisco Ballet premiere was in 1939. The New York City Ballet produced it in 1974.

In the uncanny (weird, unhealthy … see Freud) story, the “inventor” (in this case the doll-maker,) Dr. Coppelius wants to bring Coppélia (the doll, not the heroine of the ballet) to life. To do that, he needs a “human sacrifice.” With a magic spell, he will take Franz’s spirit and transfer it to Coppélia. The original story is long and complex: it deals with the main character’s obsession with eyes, an obsession that eventually causes his doom. The ballet’s plot is more benign. Swanilda, the folk heroine of the ballet, is posing as the doll (who has intrigued Franz) she (the doll) is brought to ‘life’, with Franz’s life-force, which is an act consummated by love and trickery. The old story, a folk-tale, as well as Hoffman’s, is the narration of the second act, a complex challenge to dramatic dancing. Act I of the ballet, as performed in San Francisco and in Balanchine’s’ version, earlier in New York, consists of studies in folk dance forms popular in Poland. After all, Chopin was a master of the mazurka.

Act III continues the folk tradition but adds a ‘dance of the hours,’ including episodes of Dawn, Prayer, the Spinner (work), Jesterettes (children), Discord and War (danced by men and women) and of course, the grand ‘pas de deux’ as celebration of the marriage of Franz and Swanilda. All this coincides with the ‘celebration of bells’. Some critics note that the town is getting a new clock and moving into modern times and the celebration moves away from medieval beliefs. Critics are good at doing research and posing theories.

All this aside, the dancing in Coppélia as performed in San Francisco this season, especially by Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro was outstanding. Zahorian was skilled in Act II by the gradual transition from ‘doll’ to dancing girl and her dramatic role in fooling Dr. Coppelius and awakening Franz from his drunken sleep.

Rebecca Rhodes as ‘Dawn,’ Jahna Frantziskonis as ‘Prayer,’ Lauren Stongin as ‘Spinner’ and the four ‘Jesterettes’ (young ballet students) were all very effective in their roles. Rubén Martin Cintas provided the disabled humor of Dr. Coppelius. Zahorian and Domitro’s final ‘pas de deux’ was gorgeous and brought the complex work to a fine close. Ming Luke conducted the SF Ballet Orchestra with gusto.

Pascal Molat (Dr. Coppelius) and Frances Chung (Coppelia)
Photo: Erik Tomasson

FBI vs. Apple … what if?

What if Apple loses in the courts?

As I understand it, Apple, Inc. will be required to produce certain software for the FBI. But, Apple, Inc. is NOT a person. It is a corporation that employs persons. It is these ‘natural‘ persons who must do the required work. This work obviously requires significant skill and experience as well as access to what are undoubtedly carefully held Apple Trade Secrets.

What if there are no persons willing to do this work? Those with the necessary experience within Apple might just refuse, or upon learning of Apple’s defeat in court, might resign their positions. Despite the best of documentation, it is unlikely that recruiting outsiders would be able to produce the desired result except after a very long training and learning period.

What then?

San Francisco Ballet – Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet, SF Opera House
February 19, 2016 8 PM

Why a swan?

Many years ago, prompted by Gregory Bateson’s article, (as published in Impulse (1954), a symposium on Swan Lake) considered the many dimensions of this famous work. There were discussions of the folklore, the several varied productions and their history, its Tchaikovsky score, and finally, its audience appeal. One strong suggestion emerged. As Bateson himself suggested, it is an act of faith that one believes the real live ballerina has been transformed into a swan. For this reviewer, Yuan Yuan Tan, with all her skill and beauty did not accomplish this stage magic. Perhaps in these days of tested reality, we prefer not to believe; yet we might hope.

Tan is an accomplished artist, a brilliant technician and a commanding stage presence. But she does not deliver the nuanced, dramatic level that draws this historic work deeply into its folkloric mystery … the fairy tale of transformation through love.

Tiit Helimets, as prince Seigfried, gave a good performance as the ‘mother-dominated’ young man who is drawn into the romantic world of young maidens as swans … dominated by the magician Von Rothbart. Toward the end of the evening, he seemed tired and unable to give the technical work the bravura it needed. But as a charming young man, thoroughly surrounded by court life, he was endearing.

Helgi Tomasson takes credit for the choreography, though the Black Swan Pas de deux and Act II choreography is rightly attributed to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov from the Imperial Ballet production of 15 January 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Tomasson brings to the production a variety of folk dances, first in the birthday party scene in Act I (staged before the gates of a palace) and later, in Act III, at court as entertainment. The numbers in Act III are expected as part of the old Russian court entertainment (see Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker).

Act I is usually set in the woods, giving Siegfried’s birthday gift of a cross-bow some topical validity. These village folk dance entertainments offer a variety of introductions to the company and the school’s young students. It is all very pleasant but a bit long and dull. The ‘pas de trois’ by Dores André, Taras Domitro and Sasha De Sola, however, was brilliantly executed and brought a livelier dimension to an audience eager to get on to the story of Act II, the story and its tragic end.

Again, there are many conclusions to this work, depending on the history, culture, production choices and choreographer. Von Rothbart, obviously a German, is usually defeated after a short struggle with the betrayed Siegfried, who has been captivated by the Black Swan, Odile. Tan accomplished this role with more bravura than she did Odette. Intensity is her forte. Both Odette, in Act IV (back at the lake) and Siegfried climb the cliff and jump, supposedly realizing an apotheosis, though we last see them once again (Odette in a white dress) atop the cliff. Dramatically it is an unsatisfying finale. Once upon a time, two birds flew across the sky as the curtain closed. This time, we never did see the lake.

Credits are due to Alexander Reneff-Olson who dramatically portrayed Von Rothbart and to the always charming Anita Paciotti as the Queen Mother.
Martin West conducted the familiar but somewhat fractured Tchaikovsky’s score; Corula Merks contributed the violin solo and Eric Sung the cello work.

There is enough gorgeous staging (although the full moon could be dimmed), to please local audiences for all future performances. Other ballerinas (Mathhilde Froustey, Maria Kochetkova and Sofiane Sylve) will offer their unique dimensions and interpretations through the closing date, Friday, February 26. Swan Lake is a masterpiece fairy tale ballet. It deserves all the magic and charm, visual splendor and enchanted dancing the San Francisco Ballet can provide.

San Francisco Ballet Program 2

Rubies (Balanchine); Drink to me Only with Thine Eyes (Morris); Fearful Symmetries (Liam Scarlett)
February 6, 2016, 8 PM

Mixed Bill

It is always a delight, for me, to revisit a Balanchine work. Rubies, the second part of the 1967 complete piece entitled Jewels, is the flashy ‘red’ centerpiece that uses hip movement, flexed feet and hands and a jazzy take on Stravinsky’s 1949 Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. The brilliant teasing costumes are by Karinska. Balanchine’s choreography is as pleasing to the eye with its inventive stage design, use of corps, contrasting soloists and well-shaped movement vocabulary, as is Stravinsky’s rhythms. Roy Bogas, as usual, did a heroic job at the piano.

For this revival, the leading dancers were Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro and Sofiane Sylve, all in top form, entertaining, witty and wonderful. The lyric duet by Sylve and Domitro evoked sustained applause.

Balanchine maintained that, “ballet is woman,” and the idea is well demonstrated in his works. As we moved on to Morris’ work, Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, the women became angels, carried aloft and delicately handled, except in the ‘tango’ section, beautifully executed by Vanessa Zahorian and Pascal Malot. Hansuke Yamamoto echoed the same steps facing upstage.

Natal’ya Feygina played Virgin Thomson’s songs center stage on an elegant grand piano. Morris’ work brings a bit more of the modern dance to the ballet stage. His work, in this piece as in others, uses the upper body and arms in free swinging patterns. SF Ballet patrons saw this work before in 1996. It is pleasant, and except for the music, not notable.

The new boy on the block, Liam Scarlett brought a ‘world premiere’ of Fearful Symmetries to music by John Adams just this past week. It is a bang-bang ballet. The music is loud and percussive and only sometimes lyrical. Eight men and women dance, but the women take second place. It’s a men’s dance, characterized by big movement, in the air and on the floor, the men barely dressed in raggedy costumes.
The women wear scanty black leotards. Only one wears a skirt. The costumes are black: the stage is barely lit. Stark florescent light bulbs provide the décor.

Scarlett makes a point in his notes that the women are to wear ‘flat’ shoes. “Flat shoes for the women also help to create a ballet that’s ‘gender-ambiguous,” …”then you have a pack as apposed to a divide.” To this reviewer, the gender divide is clear; the men prevail, the women flail and fail. One ballerina is quoted as saying, “the movement is very grounded, very athletic and physical.” One audience comment made was that the work could be likened to a “rave dance at a club.” Of course the audience gave it a standing ovation. I felt attacked and overwhelmed by its big bang.

Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham highlighted the energy in a stunning duet. Costumes (what there were) by Jon Morell; Lighting (what there was) by David Finn. Martin West conducted the Adams score to its best production.

Liam Scarlett: “Fearful Symmetries” SF Ballet Program 2
Photo by Eric Tomasson

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Cal Performances. UC Berkeley
Friday, January 22: Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dance, Nature, and Western Influence


Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan’s HUANG Pei-hua, TSAI Ming-yuan perform Rice

Cloud Gate Dance brought its gorgeous dance “Rice” to Zellerbach Auditorium this past weekend. All ecological fans and all lovers of the exotic must be pleased with the performance. The sections of the piece consist of episodes entitled “Soil”, “Wind”, “Pollen (1 & 2)”, “Sunlight”, “Grain”, Fire”, and “Water”. These dances were backed by brilliant video, illustrating and amplifying the work, filmed on location over a cycle of rice cultivation in Chihshang in southeastern Taiwan. It sometimes drew more attention than the dance.

The influence of the Martha Graham School, where director Lin Hwai-min studied, is visible throughout. Hwai-min states that Cloud Gate’s hybrid aesthetic “combines Western classical dance techniques with Easter “rounded” movements that draw on martial arts and tai chi.” “Classical” usually refers to ballet; none that was present, but the intense use of the upper body, the central pelvis and the flexed foot and hand, so characteristic of Graham, was the standard expressive movement of the women’s chorus. The men’s work, however, was characterized by the use of long bamboo poles and its use in martial arts.

The contrast was particularly evident in a section entitled “Grain” in which a woman in a red dress does a long lament surrounded by the women’s chorus. Her solo work seemed a derivative from Graham’s “Lament”. Also notable was the duet “Pollen II” a duet on the ground, barely visible in the green lighting, but clearly a fertility ritual. The chorus work was beautiful and moving throughout, creating long passages of slow movement interspersed with intense sections of reaching, falling and lifting.

Lin Lee-Chen is to be congratulated on bringing such an unusual dance experience to Berkeley and the United States. It is important for audiences to see how new dance has been inspired by such cross-cultural traditions.

(Picture credit: LIU Chen-hsiang)