Monthly Archives: April 2009

2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Jewels

Pierre-François Vilanoba and Sofiane Sylve in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Pierre-François Vilanoba and Sofiane Sylve in Balanchine’s Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

George Balanchine’s Jewels is a Balanchine fan’s dream come true – a full-length abstract ballet of modern neoclassicism at what he does best. San Francisco Ballet’s production of Jewels is a glittering one, showcasing both the grandeur of Balanchine’s choreography and his innovative musicality, as well as San Francisco Ballet’s unique stamp upon the beloved ballet. 

Jewels is an evening-length ballet made up of three movements – the poetic Emeralds, the jazzy Rubies, and the regal Diamonds. Despite differences in flavor, the common threads that run through these movements are Balanchine’s innovation in redefining classical ballet steps, and his incessant musicality. The sets by Tony Walton were reminiscent of a dark starry night and a childhood toy, and lent an intimate feel that felt like the inside of a black velvet-lined jewelry box, a suitable backdrop for clusters of glittering jewels. 

“Emeralds” is set to the delicately lilting music of Gabriel Faure, defined by lyricism tinged with melancholy. The piece opens with a central couple, Lorena Feijoo and guest artist Seth Orza from Pacific Northwest Ballet, with a line of girls in softly shifting shapes in the background. Feijoo and Orza perform a series of slow turning promenades with intricate, innovative handholds that lend an unexpected yet warm intimacy, with her arms draped around his shoulders with his around her waist. Orza had an impressive regal bearing worthy of a prince, yet wavered visibly in partnering Feijoo, a problem not uncommon with dancing with a new partner. In the pas de trois, Hansuke Yamamoto, Frances Chung, and Dana Genshaft danced with glowing effervescence.
 


Hansuke Yamamoto, Dana Genshaft, and Frances Chung in George Balanchine’s Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Even in the simplicity of the choreography, it’s amazing to see Balanchine’s mind at work, creating patterns imbued with emotion even in the simplest of movements. One of my favorites is the famous “walking” pas de deux, danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith. In step with the pulsing beat of the strings, Tan walks delicately on pointe escorted by Smith. Long looks are exchanged, and the gentle walking motif is interrupted by a punctuated arm or a leg ticking like the second hand of a clock. San Francisco Ballet’s version of “Emeralds” wasn’t one of the quietest versions out there, but no wonder, with the casting of its two most dramatic ballerinas, Tan and Feijoo, in the lead roles. Feijoo’s solo was deliciously flirty, and Tan’s solo was marked with swift clarity. It was a generous rendition that dazzled like the brightest of emeralds.

Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan in George Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan in George Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

The accented offbeats and an insistent bass of Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” signals the next movement, “Rubies”, and announces it to be a completely different world. It’s a playfully flirtatious movement that’s shamelessly flashy and completely irresistible, filled with seductive hips and daring eyes. Elana Altman is a glorious Siren, kicking her leg up over her head with drama in every inch of her long extensions. Vanessa Zahorian and Pascal Molat cavort mischievously as if playing their own game while sharing an inside joke. Molat’s overflowing spirit and Zahorian’s clean strength in the lightning quick choreography made this “Rubies” a fun ride.

It was an interesting study in unconventional casting. Altman and Zahorian are normally the clean, classic, understated dancers with Tan and Feijoo being the dancers with flair that seem better suited for “Rubies”. It was with impressive effort that these dancers stretched their stylistic muscles, yet I couldn’t help but to wish the volume on “Rubies” was ramped up just a tad, and “Emeralds” was danced with a little more sensitivity and introspection.

Elana Altman in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Elana Altman in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba shows us why diamonds are the most precious of jewels. Backed by the sweeping Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, Sylve was the queen honey bee, overflowing in unforced resplendence. Even though this is an abstract ballet, Sylve and Vilanoba told a story with their movements, never too much yet perfectly so. It’s a world of nobility that builds to an impressive climax where the stage is flooded with dancers in unison. The starry background lights up in a over-the-top pattern of chandelier-surrounded-by-more-chandeliers which unfortunately overwhelms the eye, but still ends in a blazing celebration.

In all, San Francisco Ballet’s production of Jewels is an exuberant showcase of some of the best modern ballet choreography out there, as well as the vast array of talent amidst its roster. The corps was perfectly on point, matching the style of each movement to a tee. This is a program worth seeing with different casts in varying interpretations of the same roles.

Who have you seen in the lead roles? What were your thoughts?

San Francisco Ballet: Program 7, Jewels. Click here for more information.

Review: San Francisco Symphony: April 24, 2009

Picking a program to attend can be a tricky thing. It’s usually a balance of who’s performing as well as what’s being performed (what other factors are there in a concert?). The San Francisco Symphony’s program on Friday night wasn’t particularly screaming my name, yet it proved to be a night of new revelations.

The evening was under the tight direction of Yan Pascal Tortelier, and his collaboration with the symphony proved to be a luminous one. In the opening selection of George Bizet’s Music from L’Arlesienne, the symphony almost sounded like a completely different orchestra. Tortelier took a rather cliched piece and brought out a range of ravishing colors. From its confident start to a transparent sound brimming with crisp, articulated details, the orchestra came alive under his direction. The result was captivating, with Tortelier visibly encouraging the orchestra and seemed to have music spilling out of his very being that he had memorized, directing without a score.Â

Organist Paul Jacobs

Organ soloist Paul Jacobs

The Poulenc Organ Concerto in g minor followed, a piece unabashed in its innovation and dense ideas. The Poulenc showcases different facets of the instrument, including sounds that I’ve never thought the organ could do in my limited experience with this instrument. Poulenc seemed to play into the organ’s stereotypical sound of blaring dissonance sounding like the awesome angry voice of God, as well as openly flaunting its reputation by sounding like the flute or a stringed instrument in witty conversation with the orchestra. Soloist Paul Jacobs played with admirable authority, expertly commanding the complicated instrument. It was intriguing watching him at work, pulling out stops and watching his feet at work. I felt like I was discovering a completely new instrument, and a unique and even a little offbeat one at that.Â

The second half of

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the concert featured works by British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composer not often featured other than his ubiquitous rendition of “Greensleeves”. The Lark Ascending is a beautiful yet simple symphonic poem, reminiscent of a leaf blowing with the wind over stark moors in its plaintive melodies. Violin soloist Nadya Tichman’s gently musical style was a lovely and perfect fit for this piece. Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 in f minor was an elegant mess of a piece. Even in its most chaotic moments that maneuvered deftly over different keys and offbeats, there was a sense of dignity. Maybe this is a stereotypical British quality, but it was a complicated, intriguing mess that begs for a second experience.

This concert reminded me that the San Francisco Symphony is one of the city’s most precious treasures. It brings in interesting soloists and interesting works and creates masterpieces out of them, even in the most overplayed pieces. And, most of all, I forgot at how fun a concert can be. This was definitely one of the most fun I’d had at the symphony in a while.

San Francisco Symphony’s website

Other links:

Fridays at the Theater

Davies After Hours at the San Francisco Symphony, photo taken from their website.

When did Friday nights become the night for young professionals to be spend at the theater? More than one company has picked up on the fact that young people (er, people under age 60) actually want to attend the theater, but for one reason or another, never go. It’s a great idea that’s definitely taken off by making theater more like places where young people actually hang out. 

From the companies that I’m aware of, Berkeley Rep started first with their 30-Below parties with appropriately themed parties before or after a play (and 50% off the ticket price). San Francisco Ballet started their Fridays at the Ballet. I attended a few weeks ago, and it was a classy event that had a welcome atmosphere for mingling, including dancers. And San Francisco Symphony pulled out all the stops with a post-performance party with live music that connects to the symphony performance. And, it’s free! Friday April 24 will be their second Davies After Hours event, with power rock band NTL made up of SFS musicians playing instruments like electric bass and electric violin.

It’s a nice direction without compromising the quality of theater being presented. I do wish there were more dates available, but with SFB and SFS programs just started this year and hopefully next year will bring newer ideas (and more dates).

Philip Glass Answers My Question

Regarding the relationship between his music and dance, at around 42:30. (Thankfully, they cut me out of the video but Page repeats my question.) His answer became a multi-minute freeform association about dance, but it was fascinating to hear his stories about dancers and his admiration for the art and artists. He talks about his first forays into writing music for dance, and I can’t get the image of a 42 year old Philip Glass struggling with dance combinations out of my head. :) The entire conversation with music critic Tim Page was very good. He talks about minimalism in music, his recent performance in San Francisco with his Music in 12 Parts, his past and future projects, and more. My favorite part is that he’s a little bit of a geek. His candor was endearing and his thoughts, admirable. What’s not to love??

My initial writeup of this conversation, and a photo I snuck in, here.

Review: Ballet Preljocaj’s Les 4 Saisons

Friday night at Ballet Preljocaj’s Les 4 Saisons… (The Four Seasons) reminded me that a performance is often not only what’s on stage, but the entire experience of being an audience member. Modern dance isn’t so popular so far outside the boundaries of the Bay Area, yet it still looked to be a surprisingly filled house for this one night only performance and I had luckily snagged seats close to the stage. I was seated next to a little girl who looked to be no older than four years old with her poor grandmother who probably thought that the word “ballet” in the title of “Ballet Preljocaj” led her to believe that she was in for an evening of Swan Lake or child-friendly Cinderella. The performance opened with two men in nude-colored G-strings dressed in a completely see-through clear inflatable bear suits, walking across in halting, posed movements in complete silence. I immediately became hyperaware of the little girl and the level of detail that we could see with such close proximity. The little girl had instantly stopped fidgeting and was watching with a newly-found riveted and rapt attention. It became worse when both male and female dancers came out wrapped in dark blankets and started swirling the blankets around to reveal that they were wearing absolutely nothing underneath. I blame the little girl for making me so keenly uncomfortable, as well as the American Pilgrims founding this country that made me feel like such an uptight, Puritannical American in the face of such bold French openness.

I hope it’s clear that I’m exaggerating my discomfort – after all, it must have been volumes worse for the grandmother. Preljocaj’s Les 4 Saisons is a lavishly ambitious production, set to the familiar music of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The over-the-top cartoon-like sets and costumes by Fabrice Hyber provides a fulcrum for comparison for the choreography, serving either as stark contrast to the stark, disturbing images onstage, or as a neon highlighter, reinforcing the dizzying delirium.

There’s no doubting Preljocaj’s talent and genius establishes himself as a major choreographer of modern dance. His choreography falls both within audience expectations and outside of it, with a result of a hodgepodge of child-like joy, intense violence, and langorous haze. Loosely incorporating images of the four seasons, this takes the audience on a journey that ranges from joy, awkwardness, confusion, and at all times, intrigue.

Preljocaj constructs seamless movements with captivating logic that’s inventive. There’s an organic flow to sections of his choreography that’s easy to get swept up in. A gentle musicality finds new nuances in a piece of music known so well. In the rocking “Allegro” of Autumn (music in the youtube video below), Preljocaj uses the downbeat to have the dancers jumping rope as elementary school children do, with two people holding a huge rope with a dancer gleefully jumping with delight in response to the pulling downbeat. Some of my favorite moments were in the allegro movements that depicts joy. Lightning quick changes in direction in a group of dancers dressed in summer beach clothes frolicking in the sun is really fun to watch. Les 4 Saisons… also uses multiple props in inventive ways. I’d never seen better use of props in a dance performance both in its inventive use and in placing the props in service to the choreography rather than the other way around. A woman in high heels, two men, and a rocking staircase (shown in the photo above) becomes a lazy and langorous threesome.

Interspersed between joy, there are moments of disturbing images. A woman convulses on the floor and a man screams at her. Two women engage in a peculiar pas de deux where they pull and push each other aggressively by grabbing the skin of the face, the underside of the arm, or the torso in painful holds. The extremes in emotion is seat-squirmingly uncomfortable, and its purpose and transitions unclear.

Bottom line, there was still a feeling that there was just too much going on. Moments of confusion are common with me during modern dance, yet with the over-the-top sets, the ridiculously flamboyant recording of Vivaldi’s music, spoken word, and the use of props, it all added up to “too much” that ultimately failed to gel into a cohesive whole. This piece gives off the impression that it was trying to accomplish one too many goals. It may have benefited from Coco Chanel’s advice on accessorizing. “When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on.”

The dancers of Ballet Preljocaj were wonderful in this athletic choreography. Yang Wang was a powerhouse of buzzing energy, and Lorena O’Neill stood out for her curious blend of clean elegance and layered eroticism.

Still, Preljocaj convinces that there’s much to be learned (and to be talked about) in reinventing the classics, both in interpreting familiar musical classic and the institution of dance. I would even call this a “must-see”. It was an intriguing evening that was challenging as well as admirable in that it made me reflect on my expectations, my biases, and my reactions. And it made me extremely hopeful for the future of dance with choreographers like Preljocaj in this world.

Click here for more photos on the Ballet Preljocaj website. They’ll be performing Les 4 Saisons… in both Seattle and Santa Barbara later this month.

Links:

 

Reinterpreting a Classic

Ballet Preljocaj’s Les 4 Saisons

ballet_prelocaj_1

Ballet Preljocaj is stopping by California to present their Les 4 Saisons (The Four Seasons) choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, set to the music of well known Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’m always wary of when I hear about choreography to really well known music, masterpieces in themselves really. Normally, this would really bother me, but I have a soft spot for this Vivaldi’s colorful piece, yet a certain amount of distance from it. I didn’t grow up with it like I did Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, for example. I was especially intrigued by what Preljocaj himself had to say about choreographing to such a well known piece. Taken from his website:

Can the music – so well known, so conventional, so gone astray – can it indeed still deliver more surprises, more gray zones, more secrets?

And so, we shall see. His words give me hope. I also have a fondness for Preljocaj’s choreography – his work was the first work I ever reviewed for my dance criticism class back in college, and one of the first modern pieces I really saw. His Annonciation was particularly lovely. The sets do cause me to worry, however – the Santa outfit? For winter? Really??

Ballet Preljocaj at the Mondavi Center on Friday, April 17. Click here for more information.

My full review here.

2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. © Erik Tomasson

Program 6 at the San Francisco Ballet is a program very much focused on the music. Three very different pieces graced the stage in varying responses to their accompanying music. The most harmonious construction was Christopher Wheeldon’s quirky yet stunning Within the Golden Hour that was for many, the favorite of the night. Set to the shimmering music of Ezio Bosso’s seven pieces for strings, the piece breathes. Wheeldon utilizes innovative partnering and movements that entwine unobtrusively to the swells in the music. Bathed in a warm glow, this piece has the feeling of dusk – convivial with a touch of melancholy. Ensemble work flanks a series of smaller groupwork. A brief competitive duel with Martyn Garside and Garen Scribner set to rivaling strings is thrilling in its flash of fierce virtuosity and elegant lines. The series of pas de deux is also a wonder, where Wheeldon stretches time with choreography that’s spellbinding in suspense and stark beauty. In the duet with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Sarah Van Patten, Van Patten unfolds as a slowly opening flower, stretching languidly to the music. Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada weaves a spell, carving unconventional and gentle shapes with their bodies and Kochetkova’s feathery arms, unfortunately marred by a wayward violin solo painfully still searching for its pitch. Choreographed only last year on the San Francisco Ballet, the dancers have stepped up to really claim it as its own, and this piece has only improved with time. Â

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour. © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour. © Erik Tomasson

Even if you couldn’t connect to the sharp-cornered “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” choreographed by Balanchine, there’s no denying that the choreography intimately followed the music, Stravinsky’s violin concerto in D major. If this piece was a painting, it would be a mix of a cubist Picasso, deceptively simple stick figures, and the irony and the multilayered construction of a Jasper Johns painting. The dance is filled with geometric shapes and angles, mirroring the atonal accompanying music occasionally uneasy on the ears. Dancers’ steps mix classical ballet and casual every day movement in a mix of the mundane and the sublime. Sky high split penchee arabesques (as shown above with Yuan Yuan Tan) are juxtaposed with turned-in feet and flexed wrists. A little bit of mime is thrown in, where Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba is doing the classic “mime in a box”. Sylve twists in a series of perplexing backbends that’s intriguing in where it will go next.  Dark humor pervades the choreography in the jaunty first movement, where Balanchine experiments with one-versus-four in a series of formations. The two central pas de deux is tense, with Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba dancing as if oil and water were being forced to mix. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith suspended this same unresolveable tension, with a touch of drama set to the yearning phrases of the violin. Tan’s long limbs unfolded with insectlike precision. The men, Vilanoba and Smith, were pillars of strength and equally dramatic partners to their flashy female counterparts, Sylve and Tan, who were as alluring and terrifying as Greek goddesses. The ensemble joined in at the ending “Capriccio” in a multilayered complex and cheerful finale. Roy Malan was the fearless violin soloist.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. © Erik Tomasson

Robbins’ West Side Story Suite continues to insist upon its dancers to sing with Broadway chops, and the effect unfortunately takes away from the choreography that crackles with intensity. Kudos for the dancers who sing; their valliant effort is much appreciated, yet it’s hard to avoid thinking if this is too big of a task for people who don’t specialize in a highly skilled style of singing. The worst part is that after the initial novelty wears off,

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the singing takes away from the dancing. Put another way, they fared better than if opera singers were asked to dance Swan Lake in pointe shoes. In addition, sound projection was still a problem. My friend who’d never seen the movie and didn’t know the story, had no idea what was going on because the lyrics were impossible to discern if you hadn’t had them memorized already. It’s also never a good start when the audience starts to laugh at its opening. Robbins, I’m learning more and more, means for his stillness and silences to mean as much as actual movement. When the boys are lounging in their territory at the prologue, they have to be tensely poised as a predator ready to strike (case in point: the opening to the movie West Side Story, which I found terrifying in its silence). This intensity has to be sustained in order for the story to be believable, yet it wavered throughout the performance. Despite this, the core of the dancing was still solid. The gang members in both the Jets and the Sharks were passionately committed in their fighting and struggle. Moments of white hot passion flared, especially in the rumble with Ruben Martin as Bernardo. Rory Hohenstein’s presence was a welcome sight after his too-long absence from the War Memorial Opera House stage, a superstar standout in both his solos and in the group dancing, dancing with an intense sharpness and crisp virtuosity. Shannon Roberts again brought down the house as the sexy Anita, with a powerful singing voice and sass to spare.Â

A shoutout to the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra with this very difficult musical program, from the Stravinsky Violin Concerto to the notoriously difficult West Side Story Suite. It was conducted by David Briskin.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbin's West Side Story Suite. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Robbin's West Side Story Suite. © Erik Tomasson


The opening to West Side Story, the movie

More information on SF Ballet’s Program 6, here.

San Francisco Ballet’s 2010 Season Announcement

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Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Sofiane Sylve in Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated. © Erik Tomasson

Highlights of next year’s programming at SF Ballet include the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s A Little Mermaid, world premieres by Christopher Wheeldon, resident choreographer Yuri Possohkov, and Renato Zanella, a reprise of Tomasson’s Swan Lake, and finally, Balanchine’s Serenade. A brief summary of each program follows:

  • Program 1: Tomasson’s Swan Lake
  • Program 2: Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer, a world premiere by Christopher Wheeldon, and the return of Paul Taylor’s Company B
  • Program 3: an All-Balanchine Program, with Balanchine’s Serenade, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Theme and Variations
  • Program 4: Yuri Possokhov’s Diving into the Lilacs, the return of William Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated, and the SF Ballet premiere of Michel Fokine’s Petrouchka.
  • Program 5: United States premiere of Hamburg Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, a full-length ballet set to the commissioned music of Lera Auerbach.
  • Program 6: Tomasson’s “Haffner” Symphony, a world premiere by choreographer Renato Zanella, and the return of Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons.
  • Program 7: Wheeldon’s Rush, a world premiere by Possokhov, and the encore presentation of Robbins’ The Concert (or, the Perils of Everybody).
  • Program 8: Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet 

What are your must-sees next year?? I applaud Helgi Tomasson for making such forward-thinking decisions – he really is vying for the world’s best artistic director award. My favorite is Neumeier’s Little Mermaid, although there are a LOT more repeats from this year than I expected. It would be nice to see something new. Can I put in a request for Morris’ Sylvia before the girls it was created on leave the company (one out of three already left), Robbin’s Goldberg Variations, and Balanchine’s Chaconne? Any more requests?

The official press release, here.

San Francisco Ballet website

The Met Livecast of Bellini’s La Sonnambula

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Mary Zimmerman’s controversial production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula caused her to be booed onstage as she took her final bow. I caught the live broadcast of this performance at my local movie theater. She restages the production as a modern day dress rehearsal of, er, itself, complete with chorus members

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holding scores of the actual opera. The leads of this production mirror the lovers in the opera. The plot strays into the existential a tad too much for my taste. When the actors were singing, were they singing as actors in their production, or were they singing the arias as coming from their own true heart? And how is it possible that not even one member of the chorus realized that the leads were following the exact plotline of the scores that they were holding in their hands?

Truth be told, I went to see it for its stars, Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay, especially since their appearance in last year’s La Fille du Regiment. Granted, Florez’s voice sounds multitudes better in person – a friend of mine couldn’t get over the grating quality of his voice that I swear is limited to the broadcast, not his voice. But even over the broadcast, his voice is a rockstar voice that’s impossible to say that it’s anything but. Natalie Dessay’s voice was mustily sweet, and softly dreamy in the second act aria that she sings as she’s sleepwalking.Â

Can I say, I love these live broadcasts from the Met. Not only can I acquaint myself with operas I’ve never seen before, with the best opera stars, but I can sneak in candy, wear my glasses, and chill. I also really enjoy the chatty narration of Deborah Voigt, who at one point admitted she didn’t know what to say next because there were no cue cards (she was quickly handed a cue card). I know that it’s never the same thing as watching it in person, but at $22, it’s not a bad way to spend an evening with Juan Diego and Natalie Dessay.