Monthly Archives: January 2009

A random chat

Re: Diving into the Lilacs, abstract and story ballets

J: the “diving into the lilacs” title reminds me of driving miss daisy
J: seriously, if there was a lilac bush and guys diving into it… i would have been highly disappointed
Friend: well, it sounded like a very evocative piece, as you said
Friend: i feel like i would like that more than trying to follow giselle, for example
Friend: where there is a plot
Friend: but that i can’t follow
J: oh really?
J: it’s “whatever you make of it”
Friend: yeah
Friend: that’s why i think i would like it better
Friend: whereas you have to explain giselle to me
Friend: i guess rather than trying to guess at the blanks of a story
Friend: maybe i’d just like to lose myself in the emotive aspects
Friend: and not worry about following the story
J: but it sucks too b/c in abstract ballets, they don’t explain anything
J: and if they’re doing so evocative, like holding up two fingers, and then putting it to their heart, i’m like, ‘what the heck’
Friend: hahaha
Friend: is that the scientist in you
J: do u think?
Friend: crying out for a logical explanation
J: i’d rather it be totally abstract, if it’s going to be
J: rather than halfway storytelling
J: hinting at a plot
J: without telling it to you
J: like, i know something you don’t know
J: at least a story, you can read in the program notes
J: and make the dance fit the story they’re telling you
Friend: ah
Friend: right

Which do you prefer? Abstract or story ballets?

Review: 2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1


Anthony Spaulding and Yuan Yuan Tan in Possohkov’s Diving Into the Lilacs. © Erik Tomasson

What’s in a name? Usually in a title for a ballet, the best I can hope for is that it be innocuous, enough to allow the choreography to speak for itself. Balanchine took the safe route by naming many of his ballets after the music, which also reflect his musical choreographic style – Serenade, Concerto Barocco, La Valse. The most creative title that comes to mind is Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, where Morris took all of Leroy Anderson’s pieces and named the ballet after the one piece of music that was omitted from the ballet. Don’t even get me started about the bad titles – Jorma Elo’s Double Evil still baffles me. The title of San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer Yuri Possohkov’s world premiere tonight, Diving Into the Lilacs immediately conjured up a flowery, sugary confection that begs to be taken literally. Thankfully, the piece veered away from the implications of its enthusiastic title and turned out to be a lovely piece of work.

In a few of  Possohkov’s abstract ballets, I found his strengths to be in engaging the audience’s emotions, rather than our logic. In his previous Fusion and in this piece, the meanings and my comprehension remain murky (although Fusion improved upon second viewing). But it is without a doubt that his strengths include capturing evocative moods through movement, and his choreography seems to come alive. There is a constant shifting, changing directions, turning, and the choreography breathes organically.

In Diving Into the Lilacs, Possohkov describes moods that roughly correlate to the seasons of the lilac, a flower scent strongly associated with his childhood. The piece opens in silence and darkness, as the muted colors onstage and the diaphanous dresses make the stage look almost watery, with the background of lilacs looking almost aquarium-like. The scene slowly comes to life. There are several motifs throughout, including one where the men reach out with one hand up high, and then cross their arm close to their heart like a pledge. It gives it an intensely personal almost reverential feel, as if memories are being held close to the heart. Images shift as fast as his configurations, vaguely alluding to a plot but never specifying – a group of men look forlornly to the back as if looking into the past, while a group of women face forward and reach to the sky. The men rush to support the women as they gently bend backwards in surrender.

The pictures the choreography paints on the stage flow effortlessly, yet he uses such dramatically evocative gestures it’s hard to watch without wondering what these gestures mean. Maria Kochetkova and Pascal Molat skip and run in a youthful dance, Molat with exuberance and Kochetkova with a quick, light-as-air touch. Yuan Yuan Tan and Anthony Spaulding follow in a dramatic pas de deux, darker in mood yet more passionate. She reaches back in his grasp that almost loses her, and she falls to the floor where she reaches desperately at his leg. Spaulding is a substantial figure to Tan’s slim one in a balanced partnership that was made stronger with their sizzling chemistry. It was a marvel to watch them at work, with Tan and Spaulding whirling as one in breathtaking shapes and drama. Joan Boada and Lorena Feijoo changed the mood with an upbeat folksy dance, filled with hip juts, flexed foot kicks, and do-si-do’s. Thrilling pirouettes with a flexed foot flew by in a joyful celebration.

There’s something riveting about the speed of Possohkov’s choreography and the thrill of visibly difficult catches and what look like near-misses. The shifting configurations pull the eye, and the moods evoked are personal and poignant. It’s difficult however, to pinpoint what exactly ties everything together, as the movements seem to be completely different sets of dances altogether and transitions are abrupt. I wonder if this would improve on a second viewing, like it did for me with Possohkov’s Fusion. The seasons of the lilac mirror the human experience in a warm glow of nostalgia not without its pain yet ultimately hopeful, with the carefree days of childhood, the darker days of searching and growth, and the celebratory end.


San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’s Diving Into The Lilacs. © Erik Tomasson

On the flip side, artistic director Helgi Tomasson shows us that he’s a better artistic director than a choreographer, with his piece titled Prism. Prism showcases his star dancers in the best way possible – Sofiane Sylve sparkled with full, alluring lines, looking very much like a spotlight was following her as she glowed. It was difficult to tear your eyes away from her when she was onstage. Kristin Long was attentively partnered by Ruben Martin and Hansuke Yamamoto although in an almost too precious way, with the two men carrying her and presenting her gently whenever possible. And Taras Domitro made the solo look like it was made for him; his numerous turns and now signature split jump brought out the loudest audience response (although he had more difficulty with a commanding stage presence when simply standing front and center, looking out into the audience). Tomasson experimented with different stage configurations of groups of dancers, all set to the music of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which was interesting for a short while, but not enough, as it seemed to drag on in places as the piece seemed too long for what it was trying to say.


Taras Domitro in Tomasson’s Prism. © Erik Tomasson


Ivan Popov and Sofiane Sylve in Tomasson’s Prism. © Erik Tomasson

The evening ended with a reprise of The Four Temperaments, seen a few months ago on tour. The stark cold simplicity provides a definite contrast from the previous two neoclassical ballets which were beautifully expressive. Despite its simplicity, it still packs a punch. With the music by Paul Hindemith and choreography based loosely based on the four humors of the body – black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile (although as a medical student, I’m not clear what a “humor”, a temperament, or yellow bile is). With jabbing pointed feet, legs suddenly splaying into the forward splits, arms pushed outwards, the choreography has a relentlessness about it that alludes to the human body in that whatever happens, the heart keeps pumping and the blood keeps flowing. The two male soloists (Pascal Molat and Davis Karapetyan) both had a softness to their dancing (both in choreography as well as in individual style) that contrasted with the sharpness in the women in an intriguing display of gender role reversal and opposites. Sarah Van Patten and Ruben Martin danced the second Sanguinic variation, where Van Patten shot steely penetrating looks that could stop anyone in their tracks. I’ve never seen her kick with more power or dance with more vehemence in a role that the NY Times called one of the best of 2008. Sofiane Sylve brought the piece to a close with a strong, pointed Choleric variation.

Ruben Martin and Sarah Van Patten in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. © Erik Tomasson


Davit Karapetyan and San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. © Erik Tomasson

Overall, it was a diverse mix of modern ballets with a local emphasis and as always, with the caliber of dancing to the umpteenth degree. Program 1 is off to a strong start.

What’s the most inventive or frustrating title of a ballet that you’ve seen? On a side note, ballet superstar Diana Vishneva was spotted in the house, sitting a row in front of me, watching the Possohkov piece intently.

Click here for more information on Program 1, which continues until February 7. Program 2 starts on January 29.

Review: San Francisco Ballet’s 2009 Opening Night Gala


Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison in Balanchine’s Tarantella. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s 2009 Opening Night Gala started with a burst of celebratory fireworks at the War Memorial Opera House on January 21, 2009 in a magnificent display of diverse ballet works. Keeping up the excitement from last year’s 75th anniversary season and American tour, the program was an exciting and balanced timeline of ballet’s history, as well as showcasing this company’s strengths to the fullest – starting as early as excerpts from Giselle and Le Corsaire, a strong smattering of Balanchine, and some modern choreography from Wheeldon, Elo, and Forsythe. When the programming info first got released, I was excited by every single piece that I recognized (aside from one piece that I didn’t recognize) and excitingly risky casting that included the company’s top principals and young up-and-comers. Even with a few last minute cast changes, I knew that this was going to be an evening to remember.

And so it was. The evening started off with joie de vivre with Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison in Balanchine’s Tarantella, waving to the audience as they ran onstage. Thrilling with wickedly fast tricks and high flying jumps interspersed with stylistic flourishes and a light playfulness, Chung presented clean articulated feet with a smiling and spunky confidence, while Deivison took a more casual approach and a winning presence. The end result was delightful, charming, and the most endearing performance of the evening.

Another standout was Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in a reworked Raymonda pas de deux, choreographed by Yuri Possohkov after Marius Petipa. Their strong chemistry in a seamless partnership made for a beautifully wrapped complete package where the steps melded together in the classical tradition with a modern twist (such as the very classical arabesque with a modern tilt, in the photo in the previous blog entry). As always, Maria Kochetkova was the epitome of breathtaking control and soft and warmly expansive grace, with Joan Boada as her strong, smoldering partner with a fire that came to life in his solos.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Rachel Viselli in Tomasson’s Giselle. © Erik Tomasson

The whole excerpt format of a gala was completely new to me, and I got to thinking about its strengths and its weaknesses. It was interesting how this excerpt format worked in some piece’s favor, such as Jorma Elo’s Double Evil, which ended up being an exhilarating rush of adrenaline – the excerpt format eliminated my structural concerns that I had with the piece as a whole when it made its premiere in the New Works Festival. But in Giselle, the excerpt format threw the audience directly into the middle of the story by opening up on a fairytale forest, with the Wilis trotting in on a line. This sudden transport was a bit jarring, but I was immediately sucked into the story with Yuan Yuan Tan’s first arabesque, which held all the tragedy and forgiveness and love in the world. Even in this short excerpt, Tan’s moving performance spellbound the audience with an otherworldly expressiveness and gasp-inducing balances. Ivan Popov was her Albrecht (one of the last minute cast changes) dancing with lovely tall lines but marring his performance with messy landings in his jumps and turns. I’m not convinced that the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia worked well as an excerpt; it simply was not long enough to cast its mesmerizing spell over the audience. Expressing more of a mood, it was a leaning, stretching, contemplative exercise in highly inventive partnering and pointework. Katita Waldo’s angular lines worked well for the stark nature of this piece, with Ivan Popov as her hard working partner in which it was hard to decide if he was even dancing, but acting more as a structural support to get Waldo to the next step. I just don’t think it wasn’t long enough to weave a magical spell over the audience.

Katita Waldo and Ivan Popov in Wheeldon’s Polyphonia pas de deux. © Erik Tomasson

For the rest of the first half of the evening, Tina LeBlanc brought a shower of applause with her entrance in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, bringing a delightful mix of generosity and freshness to the choreography. Despite a few hiccups in partnering, LeBlanc’s partner Isaac Hernandez made a strong impression on the audience with a budding stage presence especially in his dazzling jumps and bravura in his solo. This piece was followed by Tomasson’s Confidencias, a solo piece danced by Lorena Feijoo in a melancholy yet introspective monologue set in a saloon-like setting. I found the choreography repetitive and bash-you-over-the-head obvious, yet with stunning skill, Feijoo gave tension and momentum in every second of this piece, whether she was waltzing with herself, putting the shawl around her shoulders, or quickly turning and looking and searching, for something.

Let’s bring it home, shall we? Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba gave the audience something to think about with the edgy pas de deux from Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The couple kicked, fought, and grabbed each other to the athletic choreography. Sylve sporting a head of fabulously uninhibited curls (different from the dress rehearsal photo below) had the bite of a black widow, her steely toe grabbing onto the floor and every side split kick as explosive as a punch to the gut. She gave spectacular weight and gravity to her performance that was jaw-dropping as well as disquieting. The pas de deux from Le Corsaire was the spectator sport of the night, with cheers from the audience as in a sporting event. Vanessa Zahorian spun with perfect technique, while Taras Domitro’s split jumps were extravagantly dramatic. The evening ended with a rousing finish with excerpts from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. Pascal Molat led the men’s regiment with magnetic charisma, with the corps dancing in exuberant unity. It cracks me up to think that only Balanchine would dream up a ballet dancing regiment, but it was a glorious end to the opening night gala and an appropriate finish to a glittering jewel of an evening.

Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Sofiane Sylve in Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. © Erik Tomasson

Taras Domitro and Vanessa Zahorian in Le Corsaire. © Erik Tomasson

If the gala is any testament to its upcoming 2009 season, it’s going to be a really good year. 

Program 1 for San Francisco Ballet starts on Tuesday January 27. Click here for more information. 

Other links:

Preview: San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Night Gala


Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Raymonda. © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Raymonda. © Erik Tomasson

The San Francisco Ballet’s opening night gala was last night. I’ll write more later but a quick review of highlights – There were way too many individual standout performances, but Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada’s Raymonda pas de deux stood out in its equally strong partnering and individual performances, a glittering masterpiece of classical ballet perfection. Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison was also a favorite, in an adorable Tarantella by Balanchine, a confection of charm and choreographic delight. Yuan Yuan Tan’s Giselle brought me to tears, Tan’s balances and Taras Domitro’s split jumps made the audience gasp out loud, Tina LeBlanc was a study of control and flight, Pascal Molat’s ebullience was infectious, and Sofiane Sylve’s magic was mesmerizing.

A more complete review to come.

Click here for a ton of photos from the gala and the afterparty.
San Francisco Chronicle’s review

Marin Symphony: Cello and Courtship


 Smuin Ballet dancers Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Aaron Thayer performing the Romeo and Juliet pas de deux

Smuin Ballet dancers Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Aaron Thayer performing the Romeo and Juliet pas de deux

On Sunday night, the Marin Symphony presented a performance that highlighted its season’s theme of symphonic music of dance by presenting a program of three ballets. Although very different, the unifying theme in the three presented pieces was the dramatically picturesque music that translates as appropriate music of a full-length ballet, with Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” being a bit of an exception (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon last year as an abstract ballet for the New York City Ballet). But even with the Tchaikovsky, all three pieces painted colors in bright, lucid colors that made for a dramatic yet vibrant evening.

Cellist David Requiro  Photo by Brian Hatton

Cellist David Requiro Photo by Brian Hatton

Despite distracting hokey details from the title “Cello and Courtship” to the literal translation of the first piece, The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, with the donning of a Mandarin suit by conductor Alasdair Neale, it’s a relief that the priorities of this orchestra lies in its commanding presence and innovative soloists. I’ve been most impressed by the choice of soloists this symphony continues to pick for its programs. With pianist Orion Weiss at the first concert I saw (who made my Best of 2008 list) and Naumburg International Cello Award winner cellist David Requiro, the Marin Symphony has picked young yet wildly exciting musicians practically bursting with potential and surprise (in a good way). These two soloists have rightly intrigued and brought audiences to their feet with intelligence and most importantly, stellar musicianship. As the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations”, 23 year old cellist David Requiro played the graceful theme and variations with an airy ease and touches of whimsy. Displaying impressive command and imaginative thought, Requiro played with a refreshing directness, lack of waffling pretension, and beautifully long, never-ending phrasing. The soloist and the orchestra collaborated warmly, tossing the melody effortlessly from one to the other, emphasizing the intimate, chamber music-like heart of this piece with a quiet refinement. Requiro showed us that subtlety can speak the loudest of all, and his engaging performance was full of delight and a gentle humility appropriate to the playful loveliness of this piece.

More striking than their earlier performance, the Marin Symphony performed with a commanding presence, most likely contributed by the much loved conductor, Alasdair Neale, who coaxed the orchestra into a full, resonating sound and led with charm. The interpretations of these three pieces weren’t keenly original or unique, yet satisfying and appropriate to the demands of the music. The program opened with Bartok’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, filled with unapologetic cacophany. Its lusty story was described by Neale before the piece began; although the story was hard to follow once the music started, the twists and turns of the music made for a speedy (albeit murky) ride. The “alluring” clarinet as Neale described wasn’t merely alluring without a taunting note of sarcasm, with danger in the short, staccato deep dissonant notes in the cellos. The piano is bright with a biting edge. The trombones make a strong showing with a technically difficult performance played with panache. The program ended with selections from the passionate yet unabashedly beautiful Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The exultant Folk Dance comes to life with warm camaraderie. The visual highlight was the appearance of dancers from the Smuin Ballet, Aaron Thayer and Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, as Romeo and Juliet. Yarbrough-Stewart was a quintessential Juliet, a beautiful performer in portraying the young innocence of the character with a lovely completeness in her dancing that was mesmerizing. Thayer was an eager and ardent Romeo, with a slightly awkward gangliness that added to his boyish charm. With his height and long extensions, Thayer was most affected by the limited physical stage space; aside from a few slips, they danced admirably despite limited constraints. Although I’m still uncomfortable with the message that the music alone is not enough for a symphony concert, even I have to admit that the ballet dancers was a welcome addition that personified the swelling strains of Prokofiev’s music through dance. The concert ended with the Death of Tybalt, an appropriate death music for an arrogant antihero – an intro full of bravado ensued by a galloping chase, sudden interruptions, and a slow deliberate march that grows to alarming proportions, and ends in a bang. It was an impressive and appropriately dramatic end to this symphonic program.

There’s one more performance on Tuesday January 20, at 7:30 PM. Click here for more information. 

Other links:

Best of 2008

And… I’m back! Apologies for the long absence, but I hope everyone had a great holiday like I did. I did a bit of shuttling back and forth from home (HOME home) and work, but it was all worth it and I managed to keep things up at work at the same time. Can everyone believe it’s already 2009?? It’s hard not to look ahead to the next year without being optimistic. But last year was a good one. On a personal and professional (i.e. non-blogging) level, 2008 was filled with a lot of frustration and struggle, but I ended up a much happier and stronger person. Last year was truly a year I can say that I really grew. That much strife is never fun, but if this year brings the same, I hope I’m ready for it! And what a great year this was for theater! Below are things that impressed me deeply. Let’s get on with it.

Biggest event of the year: San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival. Hands down, this event was probably the most widely written about event of the year. I attended opening night which was a blast being surrounded by critics I’ve read so much about. As advertised, it was an over-the-top, stupendous event that sent reverberations throughout the dance world, all of the world, with its 10 world premieres in three days by the greatest choreographers alive today. In another sense however, it was difficult to ignore a disappointment that no matter what, this festival could not live up to its hype. Crammed into three days, the pieces looked much more alive and urgently present when I saw the company later in the year, on tour. Despite the harriedness and the hype, the festival was simply awesome.

Best performance of the year: Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimet’s Giselle, especially the second act. Heartbreaking, heavenly, transporting, it was a performance that transcended this world. Tan and Helimets seemed to melt into each other, and it’s a performance I’ll never forget.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle. © Erik Tomasson

Honorable mentions:

Breakout stars of the year: two performers that unexpectedly floored me this year (which, as I see more and more great performers, is getting harder to do but these performers are phenomenal) – a tie between pianist Orion Weiss‘ vibrant rendition of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with the Marin Symphony, and Isaac Hernandez‘s explosive yet brief solo as the Russian in San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker who will be one to watch for the upcoming year.

Orion Weiss

Isaac Hernandez

A common theme for this year: the merging of science and art. From opera (John Adams’ Dr. Atomic), to ballet (Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden about cloning), and classical music (Turnage’s Three Asteroids) and even a choreographed piece of my own. None of these pieces were even created this year, but I’m slowly starting to see science’s influence emerge repeatedly in the arts.

Best non-ballet, non-classical musical event: Berkeley Rep’s Figaro. Yes, I realize my biases and preferences for ballet and classical music are clear, but there were other events that I thoroughly enjoyed as well, such as the genre-defying play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a company that continues to take risks and always presents something surprising, innovative, and relevant.

A special shoutout to: A great year for TV, especially PBS’ Great Performances. From the startingly poignant performance of Raul Esparza in the revival of Sondheim’s Company, to the magical broadcast of SF Ballet’s Nutcracker, to SF Symphony’s opening performance of Carnegie Hall’s season, I’m duly impressed with the arts that are made accessible to audiences all over the US.

Most popular blog entry: Sascha Radetsky’s Last Performance with ABT by FAR - either he’s the most googled ballet dancer or he’s googling himself a million times, with my review of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker the next popular blog entry with so many people googling it during Nutcracker season that it broke the record on my blog for the most number of hits in one day.

Most anticipated events for 2009:

  • Martha Argerich performs Ravel’s piano concerto with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony
  • the entire 2009 season for San Francisco Ballet which is, believe it or not, better than last year’s (especially the full length Balanchine’s Jewels, Swan Lake, and an evening of Mark Morris) and let’s not forget to savor the final year for Tina LeBlanc with the SF Ballet
  • Julia Adam’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Diablo Ballet.

Martha Argerich

My advice for 2009:

  • Support theater!! Buy tickets, drag friends with you, comment and discuss what you see either on this blog or other blogs, and don’t forget about smaller, local companies that are struggling in this dismal, arts-unfriendly economy
  • Do not buy pre-sale tickets for Wicked but wait it out until the hype dies down (and it will!).

What were your favorite performances for 2008? Anyone think I left something out?

Here’s to a year of innovative theater, unspeakly beautiful dance, and soul-touching music!