Monthly Archives: March 2009

2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 4

Erin McNulty and Pascal Molat in Robbins' The Concert. © Erik Tomasson

Erin McNulty and Pascal Molat in Robbins' The Concert. © Erik Tomasson

How is it possible that Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas only premiered by SF Ballet this very month? The haunting Jardin was the highlight of Program 4 at the San Francisco Ballet in a particularly satisfying program that made it difficult to argue that any company, anywhere, could have performed this rather dramatic program at a higher level than SFB did that night. 

Tudor’s Jardin is a haunting sketch that captures human emotions through gesture. Set to romantic and foreboding music of Ernest Chausson’s Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 65, it’s difficult to even put my finger on anything specific. All I was left with was a mood – a gradually absorbing story that stayed with me well after it was over. The general story is that there’s an arranged marriage between the central couple – Caroline and the Man She Must Marry, danced by Sarah Van Patten and Ivan Popov. Caroline’s lover (Davit Karapetyan) and Caroline’s betrothed’s mistress (Elana Altman) is also there. The ensuing ballet is a series of encounters as dancers move in and out of the story. Tension is seen in splayed fingers and heads turning quickly away. Caroline and her betrothed treat each other with very strict formal manners. There is resignation in Caroline’s low shoulders and still arms kept close to her sides. Under a stony surface, cracks of fire show through. Emotions are kept at bay, revealed only in fleeting moments in private. In the company of everyone, the scene freezes. Only Caroline, draped over the arm of her betrothed, moves and reaches out to her lover. Hesitating, she brings herself back to her betrothed and of her own volition, drapes herself back over the arm of her betrothed. She has made her choice, and the effect is heartbreaking.

The restraint in the dancing of Sarah Van Patten and Elana Altman worked well in Jardin aux Lilas as women who had learned to keep their true desires from surfacing. There is an innocence in Sarah Van Patten’s portrayal as Caroline that adds another poignant layer to her character. Ivan Popov cut a striking and menacing figure as the proud “Man She Must Marry”, and Davit Karapetyan was an ardent and passionate lover in his grasping for a desire he could not have.

Lorena Feijoo and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. © Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. © Erik Tomasson

This piece was followed by the charming and comedic The Concert, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The comedy is in the style of the physical comedy of old Looney Tunes cartoons, with a splash of spoof. Set to the music of Frederic Chopin with orchestra and piano, the pianist Michael McGraw (in a fine acting appearance) accompanies the dancers in a series of sketches that offer the audience a peek  of what surely ran through Jerome Robbins’ mind when he hears this music. A series of non sequitur sketches follow filled with stock characters – the overly dramatic ballerina (Sarah Van Patten in an uncharacteristic yet pitch perfect comedic portrayal), the cigar-smoking husband (a standout Pascal Molat with his spot-on comedic timing) and his bossy wife (a very funny Erin McNulty). This piece also has the uncanny ability to make the audience feel like they’re in on the joke, which the audience enjoyed enthusiastically. 

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Concert. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Concert. © Erik Tomasson

Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini is a reprise performance of this piece which premiered last year. A heroic effort, Tomasson pulled out all the stops on this piece, to showcase as many dancers as he can, and the best dancers in his company, which is what he does best, both as a choreographer and as the artistic director. On the surface, this piece is classy and elegant, with the shiny glint of a ballet that looks freshly current. In addition, structurally, there are moments of intrigue – a witty motif, the outward facing palm, is repeated throughout. His use of male bravura dancing is thrilling, both in ensembles and solos. This is perhaps the style that Tomasson may have excelled at in his dancing days. But as a whole, the piece strays. Formations are pretty, but transitions are abrupt and without rhyme or reason.  Attempts at innovative partnering instead look like a poor man’s version of Wheeldon and Balanchine, and came off a little awkward as well as looking like it’s already been done before.

This isn’t to say that there were moments that were transporting, and this is all credit to Tomasson’s dancers that he’s so good at presenting to the world. The corps danced with a crystal clear unity and confidence. Maria Kochetkova and Vanessa Zahorian were well matched in the opening, dancing with clean and quick footwork. Pascal Molat and Taras Domitro were thrilling to watch as they flew all over the stage in gravity-defying jumps and turns. But the highlight was the enchanting pas de deux between Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan. In a tender duet, both weaved a spell in long, fluid legato that was breathtaking in its precision and poignancy. It was the kind of artistry that transcends uneventful choreography into something truly memorable.

Davit Karapetyan and Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson's On a Theme of Paganini. © Erik Tomasson

Davit Karapetyan and Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson's On a Theme of Paganini. © Erik Tomasson

There’s one more performance of Program 4 on Wednesday March 25. Click here for more information.

2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5: An All-Morris Program


Sofiane Sylve and James Sofranko in Morris' <i>Sandpaper Ballet</I>. © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve and James Sofranko in Morris' Sandpaper Ballet. © Erik Tomasson

So much has been written about dance choreographer Mark Morris and the common threads that appear throughout his dances. His uncanny ear for music is unparalleled – I often hear melodies previously unheard until I “see” it through his dances. His irreverent sense of humor is unmistakable and oh-so-refreshing. Especially in his ballet choreography, although he’s clearly using ballet vocabulary to serve his purposes, yet it’s hard to shake the thought that he’s sticking it to the very traditions of ballet at the same time. His vision and ingenuity as a dance maker is courageous to the degree at how clearly we hear his voice, his individuality. He sticks to his guns, without what others think his dances should be. The result is I often see something I’ve never seen before, thrilling in its genius and authenticity. In San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5, Mark Morris’ personality was splashed in all its colorful glory across the stage in three very diverse pieces of his that exemplified his best traits.

So often Morris’ pieces are merely moments strung together like beads on a string, held together by the music. Simplicity reigns, and whatever meaning the viewer struggles with especially in the face of such annoyingly vague simplicity (how often do we need to find what the choreographer is trying to say?) seems unfair to impose onto Morris’ intentions. Yet always the master constructionist, I feel like I’ve been taken on a naturally evolving journey with discoveries each step of the way.

Morris’ A Garden is one such piece. The most classically derived out of the three pieces presented in the program set to Richard Strauss’ Tanzsuite for Orchestra, a cool yet dreamy tranquility pervades the piece. Dancers freeze into position – a motif of a standing person slightly leaning forward with hands palms down as if resting on top of an imaginary desk in front of them, has the feeling of waiting breathlessly for the next thing. Perhaps this is what a mannequin’s dream world looks like, when humans aren’t watching. Group dances are warmly communal, yet still respectful. Morris delightfully defies common gender stereotypes by setting male dancers to the music of the tinkling chime of the glockenspiel. The central pas de deux was my personal shining highlight of the night, danced with such gentle heart by Sarah Van Patten and Ruben Martin in choreography that embodied a myriad of opposites. Their movements flowed seamlessly from langorous to angular. Hesitatingly halting and lightly awkward yet constantly evolving, even a little sad. Volumes were spoken in silences that were quivering with anticipation, in a series of still poses where Van Patten mirrors Martin, one after another. The result is quietly stunning.

Sarah Van Patten and Ruben Martin in Morris' <i>A Garden</I>. © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Ruben Martin in Morris' A Garden. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' <i>A Garden</I>. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' A Garden. © Erik Tomasson

Even viewing it a year later after its premiere last year, Morris’ Joyride to me is still like watching Latin being spoken. Set to the uber-modern music of John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony, equally cacophanous movements copies the music with its constantly changing meter and sounds and moods. Dancers lunge, point, karate kick, and walk off nonchalantly, glaring at the next group of dancers to come in. Interactions between the dancers are as warm as the metallic bodysuits and the mechanical LED numbers that insistently flash numbers throughout the piece. Garen Scribner danced with a steely pointedness, and Pascal Molat with virility of attack. The driving momentum is an unrelentless rush, and the dance ends with one dancer triumphantly standing, with the rest of the dancers flattened on their backs.

Ruben Martin and Vanessa Zahorian in Morris' Joyride. © Erik Tomasson

Ruben Martin and Vanessa Zahorian in Morris' Joyride. © Erik Tomasson

The evening ended with Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, which is more substantial than the crowd-pleaser it seems to be. Set to the buoyantly joyful music of Leroy Anderson, it opens with the infectiously joyful “Sleigh Ride” as a mini overture. This piece can be seen as a structural play in constantly shifting formations, and the study of one versus a crowd. The piece opens with a large number of dancers in straight lines. The geometric costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, with the bottom half of the body (including gloves) green and the top half white, has the communistic effect of camouflaging individuals and presenting the ensemble as a whole entity. One dancer drops out of formation and scrambles, with arms flailing, to the opposite corner of the stage, with everyone else watching. And the dancing continues once order is restored. After solos, the ensemble returns to surround the soloist in the straight line formation to swallow the soloist out of sight.  

The equalizing nature of this piece rendered certain dancers almost unrecognizable, including Sofiane Sylve, who was delightful as the girl that disappeared later, leaving three men to partner… er… air, in a comical reproduction sans Sylve. Witticisms are peppered liberally throughout, with lilting jazz inflected shoulders and skips. Morris refuses to shy away from “ugly” poses, as if to flaunt ballet to its face. But Pierre Francois-Vilanoba flinging his arms about wildly with his eye-tugging stage presence and height? Pure comedy, and an absolute delight.

Kristin Long and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Morris' Sandpaper Ballet. © Erik Tomasson

Kristin Long and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Morris' Sandpaper Ballet. © Erik Tomasson

Other links:

The last showing of this program is on Tuesday evening on March 24. Click here for more information.

2009 SF Ballet’s Program 4 and 5


A photo of Ruben Martin rehearsing Robbins' The Concert in the program. Photo in the program by Erik Tomasson.

A photo of Ruben Martin rehearsing Robbins' The Concert in the program. Photo in the program by Erik Tomasson.

Just a quick note on Programs 4 and 5 at the San Francisco Ballet currently going on, which I saw this past weekend – if you haven’t seen these yet, RUN and grab tickets to the last showing this week. It’s my two favorite programs this year so far at the SF Ballet – out of the six pieces presented over these two programs, there was only one half-miss (can anyone guess which one I wasn’t totally thrilled about??). Program 4 has the haunting Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and the hilariously charming Robbins’ The Concert that had everyone from these loudly giggling little boys in the orchestra section to me, laughing out loud. It also includes Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini. The great thing is that the last program this week contains nearly the same oustanding cast I saw in Jardin and the Concert, aside from the spot-on comedic timing of Pascal Molat, who will be danced instead by Ruben Martin in the photo above. How can you not love that photo?? Alastair Macaulay wrote about how George Balanchine favored against type casting, and it would be great fun to see hearthrob Ruben Martin in this comedic role on Wednesday.

Program 5 is the delicious all-Mark Morris program – they did an all Robbins’ program last year that I didn’t think quite captured the essence of Robbins, but I felt like the Mark Morris program captured the elusive balance of Morris’ heart, wit, humor, and versatility very well. If you like ballet to be only beautiful and classical and extension-y, perhaps this isn’t the program for you (although I like beautiful ballet as well). But if you like to see someone push the boundaries of what ballet can be in a surprising and thrilling way, Program 5 is for you. This program would be great for younger audiences as well. It includes Morris’ A Garden, Joyride, and the audience favorite, Sandpaper Ballet.

More to come later…

More information on Program 4 and Program 5 on the SF Ballet’s website.

Diablo Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Diablo Ballet’s charming production of Julia Adam’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the veritable Harry Potter of ballets – a rare ballet that appeals to audiences of all ages. It proved to be equally engaging from my seven year old cousin to an adult such as myself.

I’ve described my admiration for choreographer and ex-SF Ballet principal Julia Adam before. The best part about this production is that it serves as a vehicle for her choreography. This production is chock full of her characteristic musicality, quirky ingenuity, and cheeky humor. Delight and surprise abounds. The show opens with fairies tumbling all over the stage in a whimsical opening. When introducing the two central couples Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius, Adam has each couple mirroring each other, yet with just enough gestural differences to communicate that one couple is in love, and the other couple clearly has issues. The presentation is subtle yet clear, especially seamless in a complex plotline that’s difficult to explain through dance. The Rustics (including Bottom) move with earthier, grounded movements, with their heads buried in books that represent their narrow view of the world and dead seriousness in their play within this ballet with, of course, hilarious results. Titania was danced by the striking and majestic Tina Kay Bohnstedt. David Fonnegra was the exceptional standout as Bottom who danced with warm resilience and excelled at the furious partnering in the pas de deux with Titania, made more difficult with the unwieldy donkey mask. When Puck, danced by Erika Johnson, bowed in a reverence at the end of the production, I could practically hear Puck’s final speech in the Shakespeare play in my head.

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

…Else the Puck a liar call;

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.”

There were aspects of this performance that reminded me of the ballet recitals I used to perform in while I was growing up – the number of children in the production, and the costumes – but in a fond nostalgic way. Despite not being the most polished production around in its visuals, thoughtful touches such as the costumed trees (long sleeved one shouldered columnar gowns) added touches of whimsy and interest.

In all, my seven year old cousin was just as charmed by this production as I was. She may have missed more of the plotline than me, but she was dancing out of the theater nonetheless. It was such a thrill to see this with my cousin, with her whispered “wow!”s and adorable enthusiasm as she applauded with her hands over her head. This really is a production that’s appealing to both adults and kids alike, and the loudly responsive audience seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

Two more performances remain on Saturday March 21 at 2 pm and 7:30 PM.

Diablo Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lesher Arts Center in Walnut Creek

Preview: 2009 San Francisco Ballet Program 4

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Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson's On a Theme of Paganini. © Erik Tomasson

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.

- Maya Angelou

I always get a high number of hits from people googling information about San Francisco Ballet towards the beginning of each run, but this time I can’t make it to the War Memorial Opera House until later this week. So keep your eyes peeled for my review but in the meantime, here are some gorgeous preview photos which will hopefully encourage people to go see it. Program 4 opened last night, with Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, and the piece I’m most looking forward to, Jerome Robbins’ comedic ballet The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody), especially intriguing after I saw a brilliant Robbins’ documentary on PBS fairly recently (click here to pre-order). It shed light on a choreographer I knew very little about, other than being the choreographer for Fancy Free and West Side Story. Interesting costumes for the Robbins’ piece, no?

Lorena Feijoo and Ruben Martin in Tudor's <i>Jardin aux Lilas</i>. © Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo and Ruben Martin in Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. © Erik Tomasson

 

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' <i>The Concert</I>. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Concert. © Erik Tomasson

Click here for tickets and more info on Program 4. Program 5 opens tonight – a tribute to one of my all-time favorite choreographers, Mark Morris.

Review: 2009 Martha Argerich and the San Francisco Symphony

Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich

Friday night, I attended the San Francisco Symphony’s program in a performance I labeled as one of the most anticipated for 2009. In a completely sold out house, it was a rather hodgepodge program with pieces that were wildly different from each other. The draw for most of the audience was to see Martha Argerich perform in all her glory, including a friend of mine who had flown in from southern California just to see her perform. And perform gloriously she did.

To say that Argerich is a master of her craft is a gross understatement. I’ve heard Martha Argerich in her most startling and piercing (her Bach, for example). But this was more of a performance of quiet understated beauty, yet not without its dynamic contrasts. In a brilliantly whimsical Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, Argerich takes the audience on a gratifying journey that she knows very well. She showers us with flashes of sparkling wit and fire in the fast

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first and third movements, and lush watery colors and exquisite beauty in the second movement. In one section in the second movement, the piano weaves a hypnotic counterpoint to songs sung by woodwind solos, with a particularly lovely one by Russ deLuna on English horn. The piece was sensitively accompanied by the highly attuned San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. Despite multiple curtain calls, Argerich looked genuinely apologetic by taking her leave without an encore. In all, it was a refreshing take of an artist at her peak, truly honoring the music rather than putting the spotlight on herself. Her performance is so satisfying with a soaring and complete narrative. She makes performing look so easy, I can’t help but to wonder why everyone can’t play like she does. I’m reminded at how rare a performance like hers is; she truly is a true master of her craft, unlike any other. This is why she is my favorite piano player.

The other most talked about piece on this program was Ligeti’s Requiem, featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and conducted by director Ragnar Bohlin. Written in 1965, it is the type of modern music that usually makes me want to claw my eyes out – cacophanous, challenging, irritating, tedious. My friend who’s equally not used to modern music, claimed that the experience was like trying to eat razorblades through his ears. And yet. I found something extremely profound despite my certainty to not like it. There is an undeniable truth to a piece that encompasses the emotions of a true funeral song, with visions of mourning, pleading, and unspeakable grief, rather than the traditional requiems where the chorus sings valliantly of honorable prayers of faith. It starts out in a low rumble that’s more a vibration than a sound. Scary outbursts intersperse the song at merciless volumes, in a cacophany of screaming sopranos and general dissonance. The second “Kyrie” is an ascent of horror, with the third “De die judicii sequentia” dissolving into utter chaos, with extremes in both registers and volume. The first “Introitus” embodies a disturbing emotion of a cry of someone that’s been crying for days – still deep in grief, yet too exhausted for a cry. The effect is deeply haunting.Â

The soloists for Ligeti’s Requiem, soprano Hannah Holgersson and mezzo-soprano Annika Hudak, sang with admirable commitment in parts that otherwise may veer into the arena of “very silly”. Perhaps not the best showcases for their voices, yet a praiseworthy performance nonetheless in difficult music.

The concert opened with an 16th century choral piece, Gabrieli’s In ecclesiis. A majority of the chorus filed in two single files down the side aisles, reminiscent of a scene in The Sound of Music where the Nazis infiltrate the theater to take away the Von Trapp family. The song was appropriately church-y, with the added excitement of being surrounded by the tossing of melodies from one side of the hall to the other. Standouts included the two tenor soloists, Joel Jay Baluyot and Thomas Busse, who sang with bell-like clarity. The concert ended with Liszt’s Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo. A standard of romanticism yet fairly nondescript from its romantic counterparts, this piece was at the very least, an excellent showcase for the symphony’s acoustic range and richness of sound and heart.Â

San Francisco Symphony’s website

A video of Martha Argerich playing the third movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto.


Swan Lake: A Second Look

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

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


Just a few words about today’s show – I went to see Tomasson’s Swan Lake for the second time today, in their last performance of the run. The performance with Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Swan Lake is on the top of my list for the most highly anticipated performance the year. But to be honest, it was a quirky performance. In the second act, there was a swan maiden who looked a bit off, and some fast swan swapping occurred as a swan darted offstage, and a new swan maiden came on later, dancing next to Lily Rogers.

The orchestra, led at a MUCH better pace under the baton of Martin West, was especially tight and crisp in the first act, and noticeably sloppy in other parts. In a few nailbiting moments in the second act, the lower orchestra instruments were one beat off from the rest of the orchestra, although they eventually came back together. Some woodwinds hit a wrong note in the Czardas Princesses’ dance that made me cringe. And that famous oboe solo! It’s supposed to be a call of the wild, a half cry/half Siren song that arises from the depth of the dark woods, speaking to Prince Siegfried’s deepest desires of love and fulfillment, and unabashedly loud and pretty and heartbreaking. But the solo was almost inaudible and swallowed by the rest of the orchestra, and I found myself craning my neck to hear it better. I know it’s the end of the run and everyone must be getting tired, but it was still a tad disappointing. 

Yuan Yuan Tan’s performance today was one where I felt like she was experimenting and pushing the boundaries to try something new to her interpretation of Odette/Odile. As Odette in the second act, it was clear that she was a swan in control, rather than an imprisoned, introspective one, in an unreserved and demonstrative performance. Her gymnastic extensions wowed, as did her otherworldly balances. I’ve decided that she must be superhuman. But she made a few character choices that were distracting in a hyperkinetic way, such as interspersing quirky head twitches (once in the middle of a beautifully slow lunging penchee), jerky broken robotic arm waves as she was exiting the stage when Von Rothbart controls her, and fancy wrist rolls behind her when she was stretching forward, making the classical ballet choreography look very modern, almost Forsythe-like. The head twitches seemed to be her way of making her performance more bird-like, although it looked more pigeon-like than swan-like to me. I simply found that I didn’t connect to her performance as I usually do with her performances. Tan’s strengths were in the fireworks as Odile in Act 3 and utter tragedy in Act 4, which she completely ruled in an outpour of passion and impressive glory. It was also great to see Tiit Helimets back onstage again, looking every bit the danseur noble he’s always been.

My full review of Tomasson’s Swan Lake, here. San Francisco Ballet’s Program 4 starts on March 12 – click here for more info.