How is it possible that Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux LilasÂ 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.Â
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.
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 Â 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.Â
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. Â 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.
There’s one more performance of Program 4 on Wednesday March 25. Click here for more information.