Feature Review: San Francisco Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Written by: G. J. Dowler

Programme A (18 September 2012)

Divertimento No.15
Dancers – Dores Andre, Clara Blanco, Frances Chung, Nicole Ciapponi, Maria Kochetkova, Taras Domitro, Gennadi Nedvigin, Hansuke Yamamoto, Artists of San Francisco Ballet
George Balanchine – Choreography
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Music [Divertimento No.15 in B flat, K287]
Costume design after Karinska
Mark Stanley – Lighting design

Symphonic Dances
Dancers – Frances Chung, Sofiane Sylve, Maria Kochetkova, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Tiit Helimets, Vitor Luiz, Artists of San Francisco Ballet
Edwaard Liang – Choreography
Sergei Rachmaninov – Music (Symphonic Dances, Op.45)
Mark Zappone – Costume design
Jack Mehler – Lighting design

Number Nine
Dancers – Does Andre, Sofiane Sylve, Sarah van Patten, Vanessa Zahorain, Daniel Deivison, Vito Mazzeo, Carlos Quenedit, Garen Schreiber
Christopher Wheeldon – Choreography
Michael Torke Ash – Music
Holly Hynes – Costume design
Mary Louis Geiger – Lighting design

Programme B (21 September 2012)

Dancers – Vanessa Zahorian, Joan Boada, Sarah van Patten, Tiit Helimets, Vito Mazzeo, Maria Kochetkova, Gennadi Nedvigin, Artists of San Francisco Ballet
Helgi Tomasson – Choreography
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Music (Souvenir de Florence, Op.70)
Mark Zappone – Costume design
Christopher Dennis – Lighting design

Dancers – Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Shane Wuerthner, Maria Kochetkova, Vitor Luiz, Artists of San Francisco Ballet
Christopher Wheeldon – Choreography
C. F. Kip Winger – Music
Mark Zappone – Costume design
Mary Louise Geiger – Lighting design

Guide to Strange Places
Dancers – Artists of San Francisco Ballet
Ashley Page – Choreography
John Adams – Music (Guide to Strange Places)
Jon Morrell – Costume design
David Finn – Lighting design

Programme C (19 September 2012)

Dancers – Joan Boada, Vito Mazzeo, Paschal Molat, Gennadi Nedvigin, Garen Scribner, Duston Spero, Benjamin Stewart, Pierre-François Vilanoba, Lonnie Weeks
Mark Morris – Choreography
Bohuslav Martinů – Music (Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra)
Two pieces for harpsichord lento
Isaac Mizrahi – Costume design
Michael Chybowski – Lighting design

Classical Symphony
Dancers – Maria Kochetkova, Hansuke Yamamoto, Frances Chung, Carlos Quenedit, Dores Andre, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Artists of San Francisco Ballet
Yuri Possokhov – Choreography
Sergei Prokofiev – Music (Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 ‘Classical’)
Sandra Woodall – Costume design
David Finn – Lighting design

Dancers – Yuan Yuan Tan, Damian Smith, Pascal Molat, Sean Orza, Jeremy Rucker, Myles Thatcher, Luke Willis

Yuri Possokhov – Choreography
Shinji Eshima– Music
Alexander V. Nichols – Scenic and Projection Design
Mark Zappone – Costume design
Christopher Dennis – Lighting design

Within the Golden Hour
Dancers – Vanessa Zahorian, Damian Smith, Sarah van Patten, Pierre-François Vilanoba, Maria Kochetkova, Joan Boada, Artists of San Francisco Ballet
Christopher Wheeldon – Choreography
Ezio Bosso & Antonio Vivaldi – Music
Martin Pakledinaz – Costume design
James F. Ingalls – Lighting design

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

San Francisco Ballet is most welcome to the UK, returning after too long an absence. The USA’s most venerable classical ballet company, headed by Helgi Tomasson for the past 27 years, it is an immensely likeable troupe whose dancers are clearly full of the joys of dancing. That joy, however, is not always tempered by the finer points of artistry, the subtleties that make classical dance an art form. Perhaps as to be expected from a company based on the West Coast of the United States, it is bright, breezy and confident, painting its art more in primary colours rather than pastels. It is not necessarily a criticism; it is just how dance has developed there.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 (choreography by George
 Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust). ©Erik Tomasson

In a generous three programme season, the company presented ten works, all, with the exception of Balanchine’s 1956 Divertimento No.15, created in the last two years. As a statement of intent, it could not be clearer: Tomasson rightly believes that the future of his company, and indeed the art form, is creation. It was ever thus – the classics were new once – but there are dangers. Indeed, this season gave the impression of a certain homogeneity of approach, a one-size-fits-all take on choreography which inevitably rubs the corners off works by different creators. It is unavoidable, given the intensity of performance that such a schedule imposes.

Balanchine is clearly where this company ‘starts’, the lode stone for American neo-classical dance, so it was apt to open Programme One with his Divertimento No.15, a delightful work in which the Balanchine took on the challenge of choreographing to Mozart (the siren call of the Lorelei to most unwary choreographers) and just about got away with it. Karinska’s hideously dated and mimsy costuming apart (baby blue and lemon posset are not flattering), the ballet sings its way through the music, its chief glory being the variations section which sees Balanchine release a cascade of delightful enchaînements, culminating in the filigree whizz of the final variation, here performed with both poise and wit by the most excellent Maria Kotchetkova. Of the three men, Gennadi Nedvigin impressed with his clean line and academically pure approach to his steps. Alas, matters were less happy in the pit as the orchestra wrestled with the Mozart and lost, giving too much accuracy to the title ‘scratch band’.

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang’s Symphonic Dances. ©Erik Tomasson

The orchestra, considerably beefed up with brass and percussion, were far happier in the lushness of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Indeed, its playing under Martin West was impassioned and idiomatic. It is glorious music, so it was a disappointment not to see glorious choreography. Edwaard Liang, ex-New York City Ballet soloist, is trying his hand at making ballets and should desist. In the face of the crashing waves of Rachmaninov, he has little if anything to say, except choreography by the yard and the insistence that the dancers adopt that far-away look into the back of the First Circle that indicates yearning or desire or loss or whatever. Musically, his treatment is naïve and, at times, cuts directly across the rhythmic pulse. Three pas de deux are separated by mass calisthenics by a russet-clad corps, whereas our doughty soloists are kitted out in apricot cream. Lighting is excellent, but, also, alas, highlights the choreography all too efficiently. Duets are of the grappling, hoisting variety, the three ladies manhandled in the most unflattering manner into some of the ugliest positions imaginable. It is a prime example of the ‘gusset-splitting’ school of pas de deux work – Maria Kochetkova surmounted all of this nonsense and caught the eye, as did the Amazonian Sofiane Sylve. Nevertheless, Symphonic Dances is best avoided.

Finally Number Nine, a Christopher Wheeldon, one of three in the season, a short, rumbustious essay in movement. All the Wheeldon choreographic ticks are there, but his grace notes were missed – he can create movement, and, even more potently, pose of quite exquisite beauty. Partly it is down to the music: Michael Torke’s insistent score clattering on and on, propelling the dancers on and off the stage, and giving no-one to catch their breath. Number Nine is not one of Wheeldon’s best – it passes the time of day and looks striking in the cast’s bright outfits (the corps are in a particularly unfortunate bilious yellow, the soloists in more muted tones) against an effectively colour-changing backcloth.

Programme C ended again with a Wheeldon, which proved to be the strongest work of this quadruple (and very long) bill. Wheeldon seemed far more on old form here than with Number Nine. The work is over-long and the dancers are clad perfectly hideously – rejects from San Francisco’s odalisque outfitters for the women and unflattering coloured wife-beaters and thick belts for the men (disastrous costuming was an unwelcome thread running throughout the company’s season). After a messy and unpromising first movement for the assembled dancers, matters settled considerably with two pas de deux (two and three of three) of the highest standard. The second in particular was extraordinarily successful, an essay in adagio movement which mesmerised, and was executed to cool perfection by Sarah van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba to a haunting piece by Ezio Bosso. Wheeldon has the seeds of choreographic greatness within him for which this pas de deux, along with the third, featuring the miraculous Maria Kochetkova alongside Joan Boada, provides ample evidence. All praise to violin and viola soloists Gina McCormack and Tim Grant, too.

Alas, matters had not been a source of great joy and pleasure beforehand: the evening started with a bottom-drawer Morris featuring nine men who spent some time doing not very much at all – choreographic mutterings set to Martinů’s frankly bizarre music (harpsichord admirably played by Bradley Moore). Clad in Mizrahi’s rhubarb and custard camouflage body stockings, the nine chaps cavorted somewhat leadenly for some time and then stopped.

Maria Kochetkova and Hansuke Yamamoto in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony. ©Dave Morgan and courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

A brace of Possokhov in the middle, the first a ‘homage’ to his classical Bolshoi roots, the second a Japanese romp through “the burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion”. Possokhov has a nice line in bending the Classical rules, and in Classical Symphony, undulating torsos counterpointing classically straight legs made for a fine image. However, the piece descends rapidly into a series of show-off pieces, all to poor Prokofiev, but it could all have been done to the Entry of the Gladiators or the theme from Eastenders for all the sensitivity to the music and use of its rhythms. Still, the orchestra merrily rolled along as the gentlemen and ladies of San Francisco Ballet deported themselves. Costumes were effective – a neat take on the classical ballet outfit, even if it all looked like the final night hoe-down at the All-American Don Quixote Convention. At the centre, the luminous presence of Maria Kochetkova, making sense of it all, producing a cascade of dancing of the highest order, the steps pouring gloriously forth. Her cavalier, the awfully eager and most promising Hansuke Yamamoto, hurled himself with gusto into the ever greater demands of the choreography. As a piece it did not work and exposed a somewhat fudged classicism from the dancers, a ‘nearly-but-not-quite’ in many steps, nowhere more so in the cruelly exposing third movement for leaping men.

It was, however, infinitely preferable to RAkU, a cod-orientalist ballet, as authentic as supermarket sushi. A pity, as a good narrative work helps in the midst of all these abstracts, which were beginning to meld into one – so it was disappointing to see the narrative under-done, the emoting over-done. Japanese ballets are rare (apart from the obvious dance versions of Madam Butterfly), the fusion of Western Classical Dance and oriental movement and sensibilities a particularly difficult dish to bring off – Balanchine’s Bugaku and MacMillan’s Rituals were two very individual takes on that particular challenge and neither ever found particular favour. The albatross round this work’s neck is the score by company orchestra double-bassist Shinji Eshima, which is loud and unsubtle, more a movie than a ballet score. True, some ‘authentic’ sonorities are used, but it does bang on. The four male attendants/samurai/soldiers were an irritant, their costumes evoking less the land of the Rising Sun and more a sword and sandals Hollywood epic. Unconvincing. Tremendous work, though, from the three principals, most notably Pascal Molat’s pantherine ‘baddie’ who rapes the heroine and torches the Golden Pavilion (here evoked in they-taught-me-how-to-do-this-at-stage-school fashion by Alexander V Nichols’s projections). Yuan Yuan Tan is exquisite from the moment the set opens like a travelling trunk to reveal her in kimono alongside her lover/husband/betrothed – the stalwart Damian Smith (the kimono, alas, is almost as soon hoisted into the flies in an unintentionally comic moment). I longed to see her in more felicitous fare than this, as the story lurched into melodrama and this beautiful artist was reduced to hurling sand all over the place (the ashes of her dead lover, one assumes, but it could have been a souvenir from Camber), tugging at her hair and generally emoting in ways no nice girl should ever have to do.

Programme B, which I saw last, proved to be the most satisfying. Company Director Helgi Tomasson’s Trio proved that the choreographer had picked up a lot from Balanchine as a dancer for him; it bore many influences from the Old Master and showed a deft use of the stage and a certain musicality. The central pas de deux, which becomes a somewhat fraught pas de trois, was over-reminiscent of Serenade, and overlong, but the first and last movements bounced along happily, the latter, with Slavic inflections clearly also showing the influence of Jerome Robbins. Costuming was more pleasing than had been the case elsewhere and suitably droopy for the music.

Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places closed the bill, and for anyone who had seen his Fearful Symmetries for The Royal Ballet and, most recently, revived by Scottish Ballet, it was something of a familiar experience: a John Adam’s score (this one less successful than the older work), the same deployment of forces in continual entrances and exits, the avoidance of solo, the favouring of duo or quartet in unison, the multiplying of dancers each doing their own thing. In this work, there is more focus on pas de deux, of the extreme, impassive kind favoured by Page. The dancers, clad in figure-hugging coloured tops, and either shorts, pedal-pushers or skirts, have a ball – this was a company getting its teeth into something different from its usual fare. It is rollicking stuff, a little old hat for those who have seen Page’s work of the years and confirmation that he has, perhaps, not really moved-on as a choreographer, but good fun nonetheless.

The strongest work was Wheeldon’s Edgar Allen Poe-inspired Ghosts to C. F. Kip Winger’s fine score (finely played too). Here, costuming is spot on – dancers clad in diaphanous, floaty white over-garments – and Wheeldon deftly evokes the image of spirits at play, aided by Mary Louise Geiger’s superbly atmospheric lighting. His choreography is eerie, inventive, haunting; it is a decidedly impressive essay in themed movement. Both Sofiane Sylve and the season’s star Maria Kochetkova were superb but all praise to the entire cast, fully in style, working as one to create the impression of the beyond. A work that needs to be seen again.

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