Monthly Archives: February 2009

Review: San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake


San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson


Ever since casting was released for San Francisco Ballet’s world premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake, the internet dance world has been a-twitter with the six lead couples cast to dance the role, half of them dancing for one night only. The ultimate role of a lifetime for the ballerina as Odette/Odile, it’s a role that encompasses the theatrical characterization two very different yet similar charcters (the swan-woman Odette and her impersonator, the evil Odile), as well as the toughest of technical standards including the infamous 32 fouettes. Everyone has their favorite ballerinas that are almost guaranteed to be amazing in the role (including  everyone’s favorite Tan and Kochetkova, they’re mine too!), but I was more curious about my dark horse favorite for the role, principal Sarah Van Patten. Not the flashiest of dancers, I’m always struck by her subtlety and transparency, where every emotion shows up strikingly on her face and eyes (including nervousness). Desipte not being a technical warhorse, her performance is steeped in moving musicality and lavish detail, including everything from a look, the angle of her face and neck, and the completion of the curve of her arms. In a one night only performance last night, she blew my expectations out of the water in a stellar performance in a deeply touching portrayal of a traditional tragic heroine with a modern edge.

Principal Sarah Van Patten, headshot taken from the SF Ballet website. © David Allen

With breathless phrasing and a lovely unforced pause-and-go timing to her dancing highly attuned to the music, Van Patten and partner Ivan Popov shows us how sexy an adagio can be. Theirs is a gentle love story of two people falling in love for the first time. Spilling over with innocence and glowing sensuality, there is palpable tension in Odette’s skittish fear and a slow growing trust of a character who learns to love after being hurt and imprisoned by her captor, Von Rothbart. Van Patten’s Odette is no wilting wallflower, but an oppressed prisoner with a lot of fight still left in her. Amidst her melancholy, Odette flashes moments of intense passion betraying her still very much-alive heart as she clasps Prince Siegfried’s hands around her torso in a tight, desperate hug. Van Patten’s gifted acting comes very much into play as her trust in Prince Siegfried is measured out slowly over the course of the second act, growing organically, imperceptibly. Odette’s ultimate surrender is careful, not overtly farflung or fervent, with a tinge of uncertainty and regret still present in her backbend trust falls into his arms. The effect is heartbreaking. It is a richly layered portrayal that foreshadows an unhappy ending, yet an intimate picture of a girl’s vulnerability who simply allows herself to feel and to love.Â

As the seductress Odile, Van Patten shot daggers out of her eyes as she dares Prince Siegfried to love her, yet her transparency that served her well as Odette betrays her as Odile. Van Patten’s driving energy wavers slightly in the technical allegro parts, occasionally performing the steps without completely commanding them. Falling a little short of the 32 single fouettes (so sue me, I counted), Van Patten’s Odile still flirts dangerously with a smoldering fire. I could almost hear evil godmother cartoon laughter in her final backbend with Prince Siegfried holding her hand where she knows she triumphed over his heart, and knows that she deserved it.Â

In addition to Van Patten’s singular performance, lots of other bright performances peppered the stage. Principal Ivan Popov finally seemed to arrive on the scene in his pas de deux with Van Patten, serving as a strong partner and dancing with vibrant intensity. His solos however were still plagued by uncertain air positions and landings, but his tall elegant lines were noble. Anthony Spaulding was a forbidding Von Rothbart in his fiercely long lines and magnetic charisma, despite his costume that made him look like a mix between a swamp creature and a Goth drag queen. There were too many smaller roles to mention, but included a well-assured Dores Andre and dynamic Martyn Garside as the Neapolitan couple, and Frances Chung, Charlene Cohen, Matthew Stewart, and James Sofranko as the spirited Russian court. The swans made the lakeside scenes my favorite part of this production, dancing cohesively with elegance and serene power.

If you couldn’t tell already, the dancing made the performance for me. Although magnificent in scope, the production itself was a bit uneven, with an extremely static first act that may actually be the most boring thing I’ve seen on the War Memorial Opera House stage. The deathly slow music, conducted by Paul Hoskins, really didn’t help the staid choreography. Peasant dances are supposed to be energetic, communal, warm, celebratory, no? Instead, the choreography felt a bit stiff, overly simple, and too cutesy. The sets by Jonathan Fensom, although grand in scale, were more sterile rather than awe-inspiring. The palace set was the most successful that brought audience applause with its spiraling ascending staircases, and it served as an apt metaphor for Prince Siegfried’s distinguished yet empty life. The costumes, also by Jonathan Fensom, were shiny and new – Odile’s costume glinted cruelly in the light, and the Russian princesses wore particularly pretty sparkly dresses. The swan headpieces took some getting used to, looking unflatteringly like mullets, especially Odile’s black one.

In conclusion, it can be a good or bad thing that the entire ballet falls on the shoulders of the dancer dancing the role of Odette/Odile, and the chemistry with her partner. In the case on Thursday’s performance, it was a very very good thing. Van Patten’s heartbreaking vulnerability and quiet sensuality made her Odette unforgettable, with Popov’s intensity and strength making their partnership a cohesive portrayal of a love that transcends time.

Did you see it? Thoughts? Are you a Giselle or Swan Lake person? If you saw other Odette/Odiles, please leave your impressions in the comments – I’m dying to know how they did! I’ll be attending one more performance this weekend, yay.

Other links:

From the San Francisco Ballet Youtube channel. Check out Val Caniparoli’s wig at 1:15; he was very funny as the tutor. There’s a brief clip of Sarah Van Patten in rehearsal a little before 3:00 as Odette.

Photo Preview: San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the hits on my blog skyrocket due to the number of people searching for San Francisco Ballet’s newly staged Swan Lake. Since I won’t be seeing it until later this week (thanks to my day job, I’m relegated to the confines of my schedule rather than my free will, which would be to see every Odette/Odile). So in response to popular demand, I’ll post some photos which will hopefully be a substitute for a review. If you’re on the fence, act FAST because tickets are selling quickly.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

Any thoughts? I’m not the biggest fan of the swans’ headpiece (it’s a bit intrusive, and it looks like a starfish vacuum-sucked itself onto their heads). But look at the production! It’s going to be a big spectacle, and it looks spectacular. Grab your ticket before it’s too late, click here for more info.

The San Francisco Chronicle review (more photos here)

San Francisco Ballet website

Philip Glass, in Conversation

Philip Glass © Saturday Matinee

What a treat! I went to an informal conversation with Philip Glass (led by Tim Page) and got to ask him a question. I told him that my first experience with his music was with Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”, and was wondering what he thought of seeing his music in dance form. He then started talking about his experience with dance in his lifetime for a while, starting with his days in Juilliard. His thinking was rather economical, as he thought, who will always need my music?  And his answer was, dancers and theaters will always need music. And so he wrote for dancers. He mentioned Jose Limon and Martha Graham at Juilliard, but he said he didn’t write for them, but for their students. He also mentioned that he would have liked to have been a dancer himself; he was in awe of using your body as the ultimate physical art form. The closest he got was he was touring with Lucinda Childs’ dance company and they allowed him to take ballet class with the dancers, at age 42. He jumped at the chance, much to the entertainment of the dancers. He said he was fine except for the combinations because his specialty was music memory, not muscle memory. This made everyone laugh.

It’s funny how sometimes we think artists do things to serve their art, but often the reasons are economical. He said he controls who accesses his scores because he makes his living performing his own music and doesn’t want others to rob him of his livelihood. 

There were other questions on his movie music, and lots of other talk on minimalism, classical music, and “ideology” in music but I need to get ready for the concert tonight.

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Philip Glass on the right, in

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Review: 2009 San Francisco Ballet Program 2


That look! Vanessa Zahorian and Joan Boada in Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated © Erik Tomasson

The buzz around town has certainly been San Francisco Ballet’s performance of William Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated. An uber-modern abstract ballet set to the rockin’ score by Thom Willems, dancers stretched and kicked in an atmosphere that was crackling with tension and anticipation. Reminiscent of a futuristic unknown world, it is not the friendliest society, where so much of the choreography is about violent push and pull, and laser-beam focused gazes in brief fleeting moments of connection between partners. Sharp split kicks are unfurl slowly to inhuman angles (especially pronounced with Katita Waldo’s proportions), and then snapped back at violent speeds. This push-pull from the music takes the audience on a ride that is unexpected and curiously fascinating. In space, dancers are often placed independently placed all over the stage, including the extreme sides and the back of the stage. The performer dancing or watching the action by herself in the back corner was equally important as the couple dancing downstage center. It was like watching animals in their own environment – interacting yet doing their own thing, with each person contributing to the overall environment. And then in suddenly in a sea of shifting shapes and formations, everyone merges together to walk in a straight line, gangster style with attitude, with an effect was that powerful in their unity in contrast to the previous self-absorbed independence.

The casting for the Sunday matinee performance contained dancers as varied as they come. Maria Kochetkova delved into her performance with intense control and detail, paired with lovely fluid arms. In contrast, James Sofranko’s turns were wildly uninhibited yet perfectly executed, a delicate yet skillful study in balance between control and wild abandon that was thrilling in its spur-of-the-moment feel. Luke Willis displayed impressive elevation, and Katita Waldo’s split kicks caused an audible stir in the audience. Sarah Van Patten once again displayed her subtle yet solid musicality, where her leaps are held back until the very last moment when her leg would kick out suddenly, sharply. Sofiane Sylve danced the lead in the central pas de deux as she did in the opening night gala, with mindblowing severity and majesty. Her partner was guest artist Simon Ball, from Houston Ballet, an impressive figure with his tall height and muscular bodybuilder physique unlike any other male dancer in the company. Despite rising to the imposing task of keeping up with Sylve as her sparring partner, eye contact and connection with Sylve felt lacking, and her split kicks felt less extreme than they did in the opening night gala when she was partnered by Vilanoba. But none of this seemed to matter, because this piece was clearly the audience’s favorite, as was mine. The gold cherries that were suspended in the middle, clearly elevated, served as a quirky chandelier that overlooked the stark world under it.

Katita Waldo and Ruben Martin in Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated. © Erik Tomasson

Katita Waldo and Ruben Martin in Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated. © Erik Tomasson

The rest of the program was a revisit of new works that premiered at the New Works Festival last year. The program opened with Stanton Welch’s Naked, set to the music of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. The best part about this piece is its music, and the fact that this neoclassical ballet offers a direct interpretation of the jazz-inflected music in rich detail. Elizabeth Miner and Hansuke Yamamoto introduces the piece to the audience in a frenzied blur mixed with moments of pointed precision and elegant nobility, emphasizing a sense of play in their interaction. Yamamoto has never danced with a stronger sense of purpose. The contrasting slower sections were immersed in a watery mystere; bathed in blue, and punctuated by sharp details like an upward deflected hand as a ticking secondhand on a clock. Rachel Viselli danced her solo with a slow gentility, as dreamy as an impressionistic painting.

Frances Chung and Brett Bauer in Welch's Naked. © Erik Tomasson

Frances Chung and Brett Bauer in Welch's Naked. © Erik Tomasson

Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House injected a dose of story-like drama with its conceptual depiction of couples loosely based on characters in Henrik Ibsen’s plays that challenged women’s place in Victorian society. Each couple repeats gestural motifs – one woman holds her mouth up to her mouth as in, “don’t speak”, while another nervously smoothes out her dress. Although the specifics of each couple’s relationship is lost on me since I’d never read any of Ibsen’s plays, the frustration and isolating loneliness of a restrictive society is communicated in these gestures and the choreography, accompanied by imposing men who grab at wrists and arms rather than with gentle hands. Tina LeBlanc stepped up to bring a crystal clear sharpness in an uncharacteristically mature and dramatic role, partnered with reaching passion by Quinn Wharton. Ashley Muangmaithong danced the role of Nora Helmer, with Daniel Deivison as her partner - Muangmaithong had beautiful sweeping drama in her long extensions, but an awkwardness in her shoulders crept into her dancing occasionally. As Ellida Wangel, Shannon Roberts danced with power and authority. Katita Waldo and Davit Karapetyan danced in “Ghosts”, with Waldo ripping her heart out with force in her gestural motif of a beating heart, with Karapetyan filling his dancing with intensity at every moment. The music of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 added a warm and homey atmosphere in its sparse orchestrations, with hidden and unspoken passion in its plaintive strains.

Lorena Feijoo and Quinn Wharton in Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. © Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo and Quinn Wharton in Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. © Erik Tomasson

Swan Lake is next at the San Francisco Ballet, opening on February 21. It’s not to be missed!! Click here for more information.

Other links:

Burn the Floor

With a touch of Superstars of Dance

A few weeks ago, I went searching on the internet for a show for my salsa-loving aunt’s 60th birthday, and stumbled across Burn the Floor, a Latin/ballroom show that was playing at the Post Street Theatre in San Francisco. A few hours later, I coincidentally received a kind invitation to see the performance, as well as the dancers’ warm-up/rehearsal before the performance. So last week, I found myself at the Post Street Theatre, warmly hosted by world champion and executive director Peta Roby and her husband, Nic. It’s always a rare treat to watch dancers, from all over the world, in rehearsal, doing something they do really really well. Peta was great as she explained how they do warm-ups isolating their muscles, beginning with the lower limbs and going upwards, and answered all of our questions. Many apologies for the blurry photos – it was pretty dark and I was trying to sneak the photos in as to not disturb the performers.










Henry Byalikov (from the TV show Superstars of Dance) and Tristan MacManus who were kind enough to pose for us since I wasn’t sure if any of the warm up photos were going to show up, at all. Aren’t they adorable??

And what a performance! The warm up dancers were unrecognizable during performance, which is a testament to their abilities as performers, as they tore up the stage with their energy and commitment to the performance. Everything was under the thin guise of showcasing the choreography, including a pseudo-storyline that was hazy – is it a tribute to the history of ballroom dance, or the personal history of Peta Roby’s childhood memories of dance, or a showcase of how far dance has come from your grandmother’s fox trot? Or a little bit of all of the above? This mattered very little, as the audience got swept up in the passion of the tango, the high-flying energy of the jive, and the sizzle of the samba with performers dancing their hearts out. It wasn’t without its moments of cheese complete with shirtless men that looked like they had been sweating for hours and scantily clad women, although my amateur competitive ballroom dancer friend did warn me that ballroom is very cheesy by definition. In its best moments, I felt like I was people watching in the world’s best salsa club. 

This is a perfect show for the TV audiences swept away by the power and drama of shows such as So You Think You Can Dance (including a couple featured in the Superstars of Dance). No wonder, as Burn the Floor was created and choreographed by world-champion Jason Gilkison, who is strongly connected to the shows So You Think You Can Dance (both the US and the Australian versions) and Superstars of Dance as the captain of the Australian team. His choreography has an element of fun, whether or not it’s a fiery rumba where the girls catfight over the men, or five men lead a blindfolded woman in a sexy Latin dance (sorry I’m not sure which dance this was, as I’m not well versed in “ballroom”) that is entertaining to watch. 

In watching ballroom, my eyes are normally drawn to the women showered in glitter and feathers; however, in this show, the men grabbed the spotlight for themselves as they performed with a spectacular electricity, with Patrick Helm dancing with particular intensity and Henry Byalikov dancing with a clean, bright yet flashy presence. My ballroom friend liked Damian Whitewood and Sharna Burgess the best for their technical abilities, although admittedly as a ballroom nonspecialist, it was hard to tell who was REALLY good at ballroom or not. But I definitely knew what I liked – Damon and Rebecca Sudgen added a touch of old world class charm as the ballroom specialists of the group, with an elegant stage presence aided by their tall, Balanchinian lines. Dancer Giselle Peacock was also a favorite, with an attention grabbing energetic style that seemed to incorporate a modern twist of hip hop and jazz. Her style was singular, and absolutely fabulous. The cherry on top of the sundae was vocalists Jessica Lingotti and Kieron Kulik who shimmied along with the dancers; Lingotti’s powerhouse voice brought the house down.

This show is a great accessible show for everyone no matter their dance background. I also can’t think of a better Valentine’s Day date either – this sexy show would be perfect. As I watched it, I kept on thinking on how my mom, a big Dancing with the Stars fan, would love this show too. Be sure to catch it before it leaves; it plays at the Post Street Theatre through March 15. 

On a random note – speaking with the people associated with this show, I got an inside scoop on the Superstars of Dance. Apparently some of the dances that were televised with different music they danced to! They had problems with music licensing and the like. Fascinating! That just sounds so wrong. 

On another note: the Post Street Theatre is holding a promotion and a dance video competition where you can win tickets to the show, as well as a lesson with one of the stars of the show. Click here for more info on this competition, as well as a special ticket offer for $15 off for each ticket.

Watch Burn the Floor performers Giselle Peacock and Henry Byalikov representing Australia in Superstars of Dance.


Burn the Floor website at the Post Street Theatre

Other links:

All photos (except for the title photo) © Saturday Matinee

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated

Coming up soon – the Latin ballroom show Burn the Floor performance (and rehearsal!) at the Post Street Theatre in Union Square in San Francisco, my first full length Cinderella, and Program 2 at the San Francisco Ballet this weekend. I am obsessed with the raw power of the pas de deux from Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which I saw for the first time at the opening night gala a few weeks ago at the SF Ballet (and is in Program 2)- I prefer Sofiane Sylve’s wild curly hair but still a wonderful video nonetheless with Svetlana Zakharova and Andre Merkuriev of the Mariinsky. Turn up the volume, and enjoy!