There’s something so idyllic about the idea of watching ballet in the park. Yesterday, I spent most of the day at the beautiful Stern Grove in Golden Gate Park to watch a San Francisco Ballet performance in the outdoor venue. Surrounded by tall majestic trees, it was a picturesque setting for anything, really, and a great chance to spend some time outdoors. Such an experience is never about watching the ballet itself, and it requires a certain sense of composure and flexibility in the bright outdoors with lots of distractions to be had, including people milling about with hats blocking your view. It was a great day for a picnic, and a particular highlight was watching little girls dressed up in tutus – future dancers of the San Francisco Ballet, perhaps??
The drawback to being in such an environment is the onstage theater will compete with the nature of its surroundings. Everyone smiled when a pair of screeching scrub jays began to compete for attention with the onstage birds in the second act ofÂ Swan Lake.
The opening piece of Helgi Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini however wasn’t magnetic enough to rival the distractions of the outdoors and its crowds. Its crystalline elegance was a bit muted for this environment, and a piece like this is best showcased like jewels that sparkle when held up against black velvet in a quiet room where people talked in hushed tones. In addition, the smaller dimensions of the stage cramped the flying bravura that characterizes the choreography, especially in the men, notably Jaime Garcia Castilla and Pascal Molat. The only moment that stood out was a particularly lovely melody in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with pianist Roy BogasÂ singing a plaintive, heart-tugging melody that fueled Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in a dramatic duet that swept the audience up in its phrasing. In a dark theater, the choreography in this duet came off as too blatant for my taste, but in this environment, it captured the audience’s attention and held it.
In the second act of Tomasson’sÂ Swan Lake, the audience immediately gets catapulted into the middle of the action with Prince Siegfried, danced by Ruben Martin Cintas, running around the forest holding a bow and arrow. Anthony Spaulding made an all-too-brief appearance as the imposing Von Rothbart, complete with impressive soaring jumps. The swan corps de ballet were in top-form, portraying both fragility and the intimidating nature of a group of wild birds in unison. Swan Maidens Elana Altman and Lily Rogers embodied bold drama with their tall lines and big movements. Vanessa Zahorian danced the lead as Odette, and I saw a softer side of her dancing in the white swan adagio. Her arms whispered of tragedy and surrender, yet she always seems to come truly come alive in faster tempos, especially a series of small, quick turns that were breathtaking and seamless. Dancing with clean lines, Zahorian favors pristine refinement over doomed vulnerability in her portrayal of Odette.
The show ended with Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, a veritable crowd pleaser that pleased both ballet lovers and newbies alike. I was struck by how differently I perceived this piece from my first viewing, and I attribute this to the difference in casting choices. The razor-sharp tension that I saw in my first viewing transformed into mercurial resilience and tongue-in-cheek humor with Sarah Van Patten, Katita Waldo, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Ruben Martin Cintas in the leads, dancing with unguarded transparency and witty camaraderie. The Stern Grove performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto had more joy – a quirky, celebratory romp. Van Patten and Vilanoba perfectly captured the chaos of the moment, embodying a beautiful mess in a flash of desperately reaching arms and sexy sashaying hips. Their timing and chemistry was impeccable. Waldo and Martin brought a propulsive energy, a touch of lean austerity and a keen sense of musicality to their pas de deux, with Waldo’s legs unfolding for days. The group finale, Capriccio, was a rousing folk dance that brought the audience to its feet and a fun way to end an afternoon at Stern Grove.
The Stern Grove Festival ends next week, with an appearance by the San Francisco Opera. Click here for more information.