Monthly Archives: May 2009

Mergence 2009

When the bigger dance companies close for the season – all the Bay area dance companies seemed to close within weeks of each other – I find the summer to be a great time to explore smaller, local companies. I just came back from a nice evening at the Northern California Dance Conservatory. Titled “Mergence 2009″, it was marketed as an evening of art inspiring art – a night of original choreography as well as fine art inspired by said choreography. Hosted by the conservatory as well as, a cultural arts advocate organization that aims to bridge the arts together, it was an evening of food, wine and art with a local emphasis. The reception before the performance was a lively, classy event that set the celebratory mood.

The performance part of the evening was a diverse program of eight modern dance pieces ranging from the silly to the sublime. The only recognizable choreographer on the program was Bay area’s Tina Kay Bohnstedt from Diablo Ballet. Her “Being Individual” set to the music of Philip Glass’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was an exercise in shifting geometric shapes and group interactions backed by the pulsating music, with two group dances flanking a gentle central pas de deux. Intellectually engaging and a strong start to the evening, there was tension in vacillating between an air of caution and complete freedom that was difficult to tell if this was intentional or not. Choreographer and artistic director Jen Bradford’s “Writing on the Body of a Queen”, backed by the music of Gary Pozner, Dustin O’Halloran, L’Arpeggiata and Christina Pluhar, started out as a fun romp with an ease that flowed effortlessly. The central pas de deux fluctuated softly and quickly between surrender (a trust fall) and control (a man’s hand at the woman’s throat) like the fluttering of an eyelash, and in its twists and turns, the effect was captivating and absorbing and my favorite moment of the evening.

In moments, the evening can’t resist straying into the arena of cliche, reminiscent of ballet school recitals I grew up with. I found the most successful pieces to be the ones that embodied simplicity and showcased the dancers, rather than the pieces that aimed to teach the audience something or tried to be too ambitious. The dancers moved with incredible fluidity. Their technique may not equal professional companies, but it’s a rare quality to find a group of people that can simply move.

Original choreography is risky and commendable, and I’m so impressed that local companies are putting originality at a premium even in this economy. The effect is well worth it.

More performances are scheduled for this weekend. Click here for more information.

Thoughts on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Check out this video.

What do you think?

Now, what if I told you that he’s blind, since birth? He’s never read a note in his life (in the traditional sense, at least), and he has never seen the piano. Does that change your opinion of his playing?

Funny how the mind works. Bias is an invisible, elusive thing. I was flipping through some of the videos of the world famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition which is amazingly live streamed across the internet. It’s incredibly addicting because the level of playing is so high and the intensity is palpable even through the internet. At a brief initial glance however, a lot of the competitors sounded the same to me. A huge part of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’m not listening live, but with the existing conditions, they all sounded really well studied, guarded, careful and precise. However, my ears perked up when I heard Nobuyuki Tsujii, the performer in the video above. He had the advantage of a fantastic beginning to the Chopin etudes, but his unique artistry stood out immediately. There was a warm flash to his playing layered with a well of sensitivity, a refreshing raw unfinished edge but real heart. A quick search on the Van Cliburn website led to his biography and information that he has been blind since birth. After acquiring that knowledge, I began to find his playing absolutely heartbreaking, even down to his practiced and awkwardly endearing bows. From my point of view, he isn’t technically the best player in the competition, yet I can’t help but to root for him.

Why is it that as audience members, we pore

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over artists’ biographies in the program? Their personal lives shouldn’t matter in the audience’s opinion of the artist and his or her art. Or does it, or more importantly, should it?

A friend of mine thinks it’s irrelevant that he’s blind, and pointed out that it would be more impressive if he played that way and he was deaf. True. He’s advanced to the semi finals, by the way. His semifinal chamber performance with the Takacs Quartet will be tomorrow afternoon if you want to tune in. I’m sending him the best of luck all the way over here from California.

I also listened to Stephen Beus who unfortunately didn’t advance to semi finals, but I liked the elegance in his playing.

Be sure to check out the live stream of the competition online, here. So worth it.

Who are your favorites, and who else should I check out? There are simply too many to listen to.

Update: my thoughts on the Van Cliburn finals.

Summer Mélange

There’s a new principal dancer in town at the San Francisco Ballet!

Recently I ran into two eye-catching ads at a local Bart station, one for the Smuin Ballet and another for Company C Contemporary Ballet. Company C Contemporary Ballet’s season seems to be over, but the Smuin Ballet’s spring season recently started up so be sure to check them out and report back! (Yes, that’s an order.)

Other upcoming events – San Francisco Symphony’s last Davies After Hours for the year is on May 22, with DJ/composer Mason Bates and SFS resident conductor Benjamin Schwartz team up to present Mercury Lounge: Mercury Soul comes to Davies. Click here to find out more about it. I can’t make it this time, but I’ll be catching the concert on Thursday. Mason Bates first caught my attention with his work played by the Youtube Symphony, where they previewed

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an excerpt of The B-Sides. I always cringe a bit when I hear about electronica merging with classical music (it’s done so poorly way too often), but his piece really surprised me, and I’m looking forward to hearing more. Bates’ The B-Sides will premiere at the SF Symphony preceding Davies After Hours, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.Â

Also remember to check out their amazing summer schedule, titled Summer & the Symphony. It’s always a little more casual, breezier, and a great opportunity to try something new. My picks are James Gaffigan’s “my classic Mozart” program and “my classic Russian composers” with the amazing Orion Weiss, who was one of the best things I heard last year. And he’s playing the Rach 2, which I prefer over the serious suicide-by-drowning Rach 3. Rach 2 is the still serious yet discretely sensitive and passionate younger brother (sister? Not sure why I picked the male gender over female, but Rachmaninoff is so masculine) of Rach 3. Anyways. Look out for Jeremy Denk and Chris Botti as well.

Check out the video below for a preview of Mason Bates’ The B-Sides, performing with the Youtube Symphony, with the earnestly charming composer himself in the midst of the action.

Tina LeBlanc’s Final Farewell Performance


Tina LeBlanc taking her final bows. © Erik Tomasson


It’s so difficult to imagine San Francisco Ballet without Tina LeBlanc. I remember her since my college days, when I would drag my dormmates to see performances so we could get the group discount. To me, she is a very big part of San Francisco Ballet; she’s always been there since I became a regular fan of the company. Again, it’s really really hard to imagine San Francisco Ballet without her.

Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. © Erik Tomasson

Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. © Erik Tomasson

She symbolizes a lot of what the company stands for, and it’s amazing how early the direction of the company was set on its course for its standards of excellence by hiring dancers such as LeBlanc when she joined the company 17 years ago. Her technical speed and precision is solid and astounding, yet it’s her artistry that shines. Steps are never steps, but an emotion, an idea, a character, or a phrase. Her technical control is breathtaking. Her whole being radiates, and in her final performance, her heart was on her sleeve at every precious moment.

Tina LeBlanc and Griff Braun in "My Funny Valentine" from Lubovitch's with my heart. © Erik Tomasson

Tina LeBlanc and Griff Braun in "My Funny Valentine" from Lubovitch's with my heart. © Erik Tomasson


To talk of anything specific about her final performance seems narrow-minded, because her persona is so much bigger than this one night. Her final farewell performance was a worthy tribute, with excerpts from four modern repertory pieces, interspersed with video clips of her past work as well as interviews with people who know her well. The versatility of the video clips of her past work was truly impressive, and it made me sad that I had missed her in Square Dance and Giselle. The four excerpts she performed highlighted her versatility and her strengths. She flew through Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with lightning precision and a joyful lightness, partnered by guest artist and former SF Ballet principal, Gonzalo Garcia who never looked better or happier to be on this stage. She flies through the steps with confident spontaneity, looking like she was born to dance this piece. She shows us another side of her personality with Lar Lubovitch’s “Funny Valentine” from …smile with my heart, danced with guest artist Griff Braun, reaching her way through the dark passions of this piece with fluidity and wholehearted commitment. The simplicity of Tomasson’s Adagio from Sonata showcased LeBlanc’s transparency and lyricism, mirrored sensitively, impeccably by partner Ruben Martin. And the pas de deux and finale from Balanchine’s Theme and Variations was a celebration for LeBlanc as its reigning queen, and Davit Karapetyan by her side with quiet boldness. 

Tina LeBlanc and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine's Theme & Variations. © Erik Tomasson

Tina LeBlanc and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine's Theme & Variations. © Erik Tomasson


It was an incredible night. Every moment onstage sparkled, packed with consideration, thought, and emotion. The audience savored every single moment. She received a touching send-off with curtain calls from her frequent partners and fellow dancers, and the audience roared when her two adorable sons came to give her flowers. Helgi Tomasson presented his star ballerina to the world one more time. It’s an understatement to say that she will be missed. 

She’s shined in so many roles in my mind, yet my personal favorite remains her role in Rodeo. There was something so hilarious and heartbreaking and yet something so relateable in that moment she comes out in the yellow dress. It’s such a still moment, yet it spoke volumes. 

What are your favorite Tina LeBlanc roles?

More shaky curtain call photos.


A roundup of San Francisco Ballet’s Jewels 2009 Reviews

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

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


Here is a list of reviews for San Francisco Ballet’s productions of Jewels this year, which is a heavily googled topic right now. It’s also been heavily reviewed, even in the NY Times. It’s also an excuse to post another beautiful photo from the production.

It’s interesting to note that each review was written from a different point of comparison. Alastair Macaulay from the NY Times writes from the perspective of the original production, in comparing the leads in “Diamonds” to the original dancer cast in the role, Suzanne Farrell. Rachel Howard of the San Francisco Chronicle compares this production to SFB’s past productions in 2002-03. I often wonder what biases I carry into seeing a production even before the curtain even goes up – I could feel myself comparing it to the DVD of Jewels that the Paris Opera Ballet did that I love. I realize that this is incredibly unfair… or is it? Can anyone come into a new production with completely fresh new eyes to give it a fair chance to form opinions?

But who doesn’t come in with baggage and biases? I’ve been thinking about dance criticism thanks to the lively discussion on dance critic Claudia LaRocco’s blog (click here to see it), where she asked everyone to answer “What is dance criticism?”. Is it even possible to watch something with an unbiased attitude to give a production the “generosity of consideration” that every show should receive? I’m not sure that it is, or at least not to the extent that we would like.

Despite bias, there’s no doubt that San Francisco Ballet’s Jewels is a gift to the city and a piece that’s worth seeing again and again. 


Review: 2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 8

Sarah Van Patten and Garen Scribner in Elo's Double Evil. © Erik TomassonSarah Van Patten and Garen Scribner in Elo’s Double Evil. © Erik Tomasson

It’s been an amazing 76th year for the San Francisco Ballet. Ever since the programming was released last year, I knew that it would be a great year, maybe even better than their 75th anniversary year. I realize that my reviews for this year have been filled with an even higher-pitched feverish enthusiasm than ever, but, no really, this year was really well deserved and a level of variety and quality that’s going to be difficult to repeat.

The year started out a tad slow, with the pretty yet insubstantial Diving into the Lilacs and a smattering of Tomasson’s choreography. Swan Lake picked up the momentum again despite its flaws, and successfully showcased some of the most memorable dancing of the year. Mark Morris’ program was perfection and one of the top programs of the year, if not the best. After a West Side Story suite that lost some of its novelty, interesting programs rained down one after another, with Tudor’s haunting Jardin aux Lilas, Robbins’ The Concert, Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, and Balanchine’s Jewels (which should be sold out for every show, and is my pick over Tomasson’s Swan Lake).

The final fireworks of Program 8 proved to be a satisfying end to a glorious year. Despite San Francisco Ballet’s well-deserved reputation of versatility, I truly feel like San Francisco Ballet feels most at home in the repertoire of modern ballet. It doesn’t hurt that two out of the three ballets in Program 8 were built on the company itself, merely a year ago in the New Works Festival. Program 8 was the perfect showcase, and on Sunday afternoon, the company stepped up and tore up the floor in one of the most exciting performances of the year.

The dancers of the San Francisco Ballet are always world class, but for some reason on Sunday afternoon, they were astonishing. Soloist Frances Chung burst forth with an expansiveness and a sostenuto in her phrasing in Possohkov’s Fusion that was dazzling. There was life pulsing through her very limbs. I’ve always seen her as a wholesome dancer who fully embodies sunny exuberance, and it’s been fun to watch her grow into something freer and deeper, with increasing confidence. She’s also had a very good year starting with the lead in Balanchine’s Tarantella at the opening night gala. But for the first time, I saw flashes of a superstar who could hold her own in SF Ballet’s star-studded roster of female principals. Guest artist Rory Hohenstein’s electrifying presence drew your eye whenever he was onstage. His dancing embodies a contrasting balance of dangerous power and a hint of gentlemanly elegance, and dances with razor-sharp articulation. His year away from the company must have been a very good one, and he came back an even better dancer than before, with a deeper commitment to movement and the emotional soul of the moment. In Possohkov’s Fusion, Hohenstein and Clara Blanco, who matched him with her sparkling wit, was both terrifying and beautiful to watch. Principal Nicolas Blanc wowed with the fluidity of his turns and phrasing, alternating with intensity of sharply punctuated attack in Elo’s Double Evil, causing the audience to burst out into spontaneous applause. Not a particularly loud, flashy dancer, Blanc’s dancing is filled with nuanced detail and a quiet strength that is more than what it looks like at first glance. Watching him on Sunday made me want to see him onstage more often than I do. Principal Maria Kochetkova seemed destined to be typecast as the precise classical technician, yet for some reason, I always delight in seeing her cast against type, which is a huge testament to her artistry and versatility. In Elo’s Double Evil, a far cry from the classics she does so well, she brings herself to the role with a commitment and an enchanting presence. She never ceases to charm.

Possohkov’s Fusion, along with Elo’s Double Evil, premiered at the New Works Festival last year, and the company dance these pieces as if they were born to do it. Fusion is shrouded in a heaily perfumed air, and as if in a dream, episodes fade in and out, alternating between four men in Middle Eastern dress and a group in boldly-colored sleek, modern costumes. Momentum is fueled by a pulsating score by Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman and a melancholy heart-tugging saxophone melody. The central pas de deux with the sexy, seductive and playful Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith flowed seamlessly from one dramatic geometric shape to another and cast a hypnotic spell. 


Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Possohkov's Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Possohkov's Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo, Frances Chung, and Maria Kochetkova in Possohkov's Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

Lorena Feijoo, Frances Chung, and Maria Kochetkova in Possohkov's Fusion. © Erik Tomasson

Elo’s Double Evil trembles with excitement. The ballet is divided into contrasts of the extremes. There is light and dark. Slow (supported by the music of Vladimir Martynov) and fast (supported by Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra). There is ballet and anti-ballet movements - robotic and even a little hip hop. Movements don’t necessarily reflect the differences in extreme, with robotic, jerky arm movements to singing strings in the slow sections. Movements double over themselves in the blink of an eye. I still find this piece a bit random and haphazard, but there’s no denying its high speed adrenaline rush and standing ovation-inducing finish.


The biggest news of the night was the replacement of Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons with Balanchine’s Rubies. I was initially disappointed, but in retrospect, I couldn’t deny that this is a fabulous program, even if I had seen Rubies mere days ago. Taras Domitro was the last minute replacement for Vanessa Zahorian’s partner. Reminiscent of a glittering playground with its mischievous air, they imitate jumping rope and Domitro motions his arm to have a group of men follow him as if inviting them to revel with him. Zahorian, looking more confident than on opening night for Jewels, shows off with sass and playful flirtation. Domitro dances big, adding a fresh and thrilling energy. I found Lily Rogers’s rendition of the siren soloist in Rubies to be a rather careful one, but she emphasized a slow seductiveness to the role as her arm flutters down her other arm in a very come-hither sort of way. The second time around, I was able to watch the ensemble more, with equally fascinating choreography as the soloists. Often they act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action or nonchalantly watching it, adding a new layer of intrigue to this flashy piece.

Vanessa Zahorian and Pascal Molat in Balanchine's Rubies. © Erik Tomasson

Vanessa Zahorian and Pascal Molat in Balanchine's Rubies. © Erik Tomasson

It’s always sad when the San Francisco Ballet season nears its end, but Program 8 is a fantastic end to a wonderful year. It’s also a great program for ballet newbies as well. So be sure to grab your friends and go, before the season ends this weekend. 

For fun, I wrote a haiku review for Fusion last year. Maybe with some inspiration and cajoling I can be convinced to write ones for the others. Here it is.

Shadowy mystique
A sharp breath caught in midair
Surrendering blur

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 8: click here for more info. Be sure to check on programming for Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. If you saw it, be sure to comment – I’ve never seen it, and please tell me I’m not missing much!

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 8: Change in Programming

Maria Kochetkova and Isaac Hernandez in Ratmansky's Russian Seasons. © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Isaac Hernandez in Ratmansky's Russian Seasons. © Erik Tomasson

For those of you who had been planning on going to see Program 8 at the San Francisco Ballet this weekend:

Due to dancer illness, a change in programming is required for the upcoming Program 8 performances on Saturday, May 2, 2pm & 8pm and Sunday, May 3, 2pm. George Balanchine’s Rubies will now replace Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons.

Although programming is always subject to change, we offer our sincerest apologies and thank you for your support of San Francisco Ballet.

Rest assured, for those of who will be missing Russian Seasons this year, myself included, because thankfully, it’s on the programming for next year. Stay tuned for news on programming for next week. I hope said dancers are healing safely and soundly!

For updated information, click here.