Monthly Archives: January 2010

Review: Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company – the West Coast Tour

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company

When Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses rolled into town for their first highly anticipated West Coast tour, I got to thinking about the music behind ballet. In its best scenarios, the music is everything – it is the basis for the movement choreographed to it. In other examples, the music disappears into the background – in Tudor’s Lilac Garden, I can’t remember the music or the composer of that piece for the life of me. I’ve also found that music can be the stumbling block for me to be able to enjoy certain pieces. The pieces set to undanceable pieces come to mind – such as Mark Morris’ Joyride set to the cacophanous music of John Adams. Wheeldon’s Continuum is another piece, and this piece opened the evening with Morphoses.

The momentum in Wheeldon’s Continuum is derived mostly from the sharply-cornered music by Gyorgy Ligeti. The most challenging piece of a very forward-thinking program, the angular choreography pieced together stark images of geometric angles, alternating flexed and pointed feet, insect-like images, and tension that always seem to result from movements in silence. (The audience seems to start breathing again once the music starts up again.) It’s colored by a bewildering sense of randomness to this piece. Momentum is built up between images from moment to moment, but its logic remains murky and elusive. However through movement, Wheeldon is able to point out the humanity and the dark humor in the music I never would have heard otherwise. Even in tension, an urgency and a driving energy challenges the audience to consider it, most of all. Gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz (recredited by Mary Louise Geiger) offsets the clean angles and creates different worlds, from an austere world with black and bright white, or a warm glow of red.

The program also features choreography other than Wheeldon’s, which is an advantage in variety not only for its dancers but for the audience as well. Lightfoot Leon’s Softly As I Leave You featured a dramatic duet about loss between dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk. Even entrapped in a box, the dancers struggle with angry intensity, yet an atmosphere of surrender and sadness pervades. Lush earthiness is backed by Bach’s sensuous, drawn out phases, and Jacoby and Pronk dance with a mercurial power that’s breathtaking.

Ratmansky was also featured on the program, with Bolero. Six dancers wearing numbers on their leotards dance to the familiar strains of Ravel’s Bolero in movements that mirror the repetitive motif with imperceptible yet building climax. It starts slowly, with a solo and a background chorus of softly shifting shapes. More people join as the music builds. There is a sense of competition (perhaps because of the numbers on their leotards?) yet a nonchalance and a haughty disregard for each other. Yet it’s always changing, as partners switch and different groups dance with each other. Ratmansky’s choreography emphasizes the complex detail in the music, with offbeats that are given as much attention as the onbeats. The irrepressible shifting and pointed movement slowly casts its spell as does the music, which only broke when an accidental skirt came loose and had to be tossed to the back. It was only at this point when I realized how much I had been emotionally caught up in the piece. The piece soldiers on, skirt or not, with the piece coming to an impressive crashing close.

The evening ended with Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantaisie, which was my favorite for the night. Highlighted with searing red costumes by Francisco Costa, from beginning to end, the piece was all seamless fluidity, seething with power and life. The dancers were like watching animals in the wild – a harnessed invincibility, an expansive confidence to fly.

With Morphoses’ West Coast tour, California audiences were privileged to be exposed to a company with such a cutting-edge sensibility and an amazing repertoire. Yet it was hard not to notice the empty seats that appeared after each of the two intermissions. Perhaps Wheeldon is ahead of his time with audiences not used to change – at the post performance Q&A, a woman admitted she had never seen such sensuality onstage before. I have to remember that this sort of dance is still new to a lot of people. Or perhaps he’s still trying to find a convincing voice with his lofty vision to challenge audiences as well as seek their favor and support. This favor is made more difficult by music like Ligeti’s. Yet Wheeldon is not afraid to take that risk, and everyone benefits as he searches for beauty, even in difficult places.

An adorable Christopher Wheeldon at the post-performance Q&A.

This week: January 25-31, 2010

Don’t you hate it when real life gets in the way of what you really want to do? It’s been particularly difficult to tear myself away from work and a semblance of a personal life these days. Throw in a family visit last weekend and a bridal shower this coming weekend, and things get nearly impossible. Anyways, some really good things are going on this week. If you attend any of these, please report back to tell me what I missed!!

  1. San Francisco Symphony: MTT plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23: Do you think he calls himself MTT? I really wanted to go see this. A marvelous program at the symphony, continues through Saturday. The program includes a Stravinsky Octet for Wind Instruments, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 with Michael Tilson Thomas as the piano soloist, and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella with a fantastic line up of singers including Eric Owens, an amazing artist that stood out even in the standout cast in SF Opera’s Porgy and Bess last summer. This program might be a fun one to watch from the cheap center terrace seats – piano performances are good for these because you get a great view of the keyboard and MTT’s expressive actions. It might not be fun for the singers though, as they face forward. Read sfmike’s take on it, here.
  2. San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake closes at the end of this week. My review from last year is here. I will be watching Sarah Van Patten on Saturday afternoon – she hit it out of the park last year in Pointe Magazine’s top 12 favorite performances of the year.
  3. Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses completes their West Coast tour this week with their last show in Santa Barbara on January 29. I’ll be reviewing them soon (hopefully tonight). The company and their repertoire is amazing and challenging – if you want to see the future of ballet, go see it. And for goodness sakes, don’t leave before the last piece, Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantasie, as a friend of mine did – it was my favorite piece of the program. I couldn’t help myself, but I saw him strolling in the lobby where nobody recognized him. In a supremely fangirl-y moment, I introduced myself and got to ask him a few questions (one was, “What does Continuum mean?”). I hope I wasn’t rude because I didn’t mean it that way at all, but he was equally nice and charming and so so intelligent, and I was thrilled to meet a choreographer I so admire. SFB principal Pierre-Francois Vilanoba was also spotted in the house.
  4. Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein opened this week.

I’m sure I’m missing a million events, but as I’m up to my neck in graduate work, these are the things that have been on my radar recently. What else am I missing out on?

Review: San Francisco Ballet’s 2010 Opening Night Gala

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Le Quattro Stagioni. © Erik Tomasson. It must be a fun photography game to try to catch Taras Domitro in the perfect 180 degree splits.

Every opening night gala is a celebration in itself, but especially recently, San Francisco Ballet has had much to celebrate. With the festivities of the landmark 75th anniversary still echoing in my ears, this year’s celebration was one with a more personal touch – artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 25th year anniversary with the company. In an opening night program that highlighted choreographers whose work have been staples in shaping the company’s repertoire, the gala was not only a showcase for the company’s astounding versatility but also the vision of Tomasson and his extraordinary accomplishments as its artistic director. With pieces from Balanchine, Morris, Wheeldon, Robbins, and Tomasson himself, you see that Tomasson had an eye for innovative choreographers that think a little bit outside the box and push the envelope. (A choreographer missing from the opening night lineup was choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possohkov whose presence was missed.) San Francisco audiences have been privileged to benefit from his vision for innovation and style.

This opening night gala was not only a showcase for Tomasson’s leadership in bringing the company to the forefront of the international ballet scene, but his choreography as well. A majority of the evening were choreographed by Tomasson himself, and it was interesting to see a broad range of his choreography in one sitting. His eye for innovation that makes him a good artistic director is present everywhere – Tomasson favors class and elegance in his lines, no better exemplified in his pas de deux from 7 For Eight. Backed by Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, Nutnaree Pipt-Suksun and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, elegantly clothed in black, personify the restrained yearnings of Bach’s music by being boxed in by a square spotlight, and dancing within its realm with outstretched arabesques and coolly controlled promenades. There are also occasional indulgences in unabashed romance in Tomasson’s choreography, like dips into a well of guilty pleasure. Passion simmers underneath a layer of decorum, such as in the pas de deux from The Fifth Season, multiplied by the wholehearted trust only seen in the assured partnership between the thrillingly seamless Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith. More than once in different works, a woman is cradled into a man’s arms and carried off stage. A woman’s cheek rests gently on a brawny arm. Tomasson’s world is a world where the men are chivalrous like knights on white horses, jumping with power and always debonair. In Tomasson’s “Winter” from Le Quattro Stagioni, an overflowing of stage full of strapping men embodying strength and virtue, led by the dynamic Taras Domitro. The stage seemed too small to contain this tour de force.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Tomasson's Chi-Lin. © Erik Tomasson

Still, even in the opening night program, Tomasson’s abilities fall short as a champion choreographer. It’s unclear if Tomasson is the master constructionist with a view for the bigger picture while making the journey interesting. Watching his works, I get the feeling that he choreographs in blocks. He seems to be getting somewhere within the span of a few minutes, but it ends soon; transitions are abrupt and not always logical nor easy to follow. This blocked style is especially evident in contrast to Balanchine’s “The Man I Love” from Who Cares?. In a falling-in-love-in-a-Carousel-sort-of-way duet between Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, there is even a poetic story in the placement of the two lovers, both in space and in relation to each other. In their spacing alone, both close and far, in different hand holds and lifts, there is both uncertainty and certainty in falling in love, an ebb and flow that resolves with a satisfying close. There are revelations around every corner, small and big. In contrast, Tomasson’s Balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet, also a story of falling in love, the overall construction lacks an overarching line in the plot – no slow yet growing buildup to a climax or natural die down punctuated by a first kiss. It’s phrasing built into the construction of the piece, the same as in music as in dance. The result are sudden changes in fast and slow in a ride that feels more random and uneven. Perhaps there’s a metaphor for first love in there somewhere?

As in music, there is room for performers to inject their own artistry. The dancers who excel at Tomasson choreography are the performers who carry and follow through the movements, adding momentum. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith seamlessly converge in a whirlwind of trust as she falls freely in Smith’s sure arms in The Fifth Season. Tan is a free bird in the “Flute Moon” from Tomasson’s Chi-Lin, angular and showy. Davit Karapetyan powers through space with power and grace, noble yet stirring in Tomasson’s Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers with incredible stage presence. Maria Kochetkova is a thrilled young girl in love as Juliet as she flits across the stage with Joan Boada as her ardent lover.

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

In some of the pieces, this blocked style is used to its advantage. In Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso, which may as well be his finest piece yet, utilizes this style by presenting the work set in a classroom feel. Five men in solid colored unitards repeat high flying steps, steps tinted with lyricism and authority, on both left and right sides as is normal in a ballet class. There is a repetitiveness reminiscent of basic training exercises. The men push themselves higher and faster, as well as competitively yet congenially with others. This display of virtuosity is a thrilling showcase for dancers as beautiful as the lyrical Diego Cruz, James Sofranko, Garen Scribner who holds gentility in his finishes, Hansuke Yamamoto, led by Pascal Molat. Molat bursts off the stage with his energy yet his footwork is precise, and he seems to fly. In other pieces however, choreography falls flat. The pas de six from Tomasson’s Sleeping Beauty felt harried, with each variation feeling truncated and too brief; the shaky footwork and lack of unity amongst the dancers didn’t help either. It was disappointing that the pas de deux from Tomasson’s Tuning Game went nowhere in spite of its sharp inflections, especially since it was an introduction for newly hired principal Vitor Luiz (dancing with Lorena Feijoo) to San Francisco audiences. It wasn’t the proper showcase for both dancers, and we’ll have to wait until the season to see what he can do.

The company truly soars in choreography such as Morris and Balanchine that the company seemed created to dance. The “Typewriter” from Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet is quirky, lightning fast, and entertaining, and Robbins’ “The Mistake Waltz” from The Concert is earnest and heartwarming that reminds me, a bit painfully, of my ballet classes where someone (like me) goes in the wrong direction or gets offbeat from the music without quite knowing why. It’s easy to write these pieces off as mere froth, yet these pieces require a transparent sincerity without overdoing it. San Francisco Ballet excels at striking the perfect balance. Balanchine’s Agon with Sofiane Sylve and Anthony Spaulding is both severe and stunning. Gennadi Nedvigin in “Bugle Boy” from Paul Taylor’s Company B is a finger snappin’ carefree spirit with loose, swinging shoulders. Katita Waldo and Damian Smith work through the angular complexity of Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux from Rush, unraveling movements through time and space. Stylistically, this company has become an expert in these choreographers. Yet this company isn’t one that evolved this way, but it’s a company that represents a vision of its artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. And for that, San Francisco audiences are thankful. It’s going to be a great season this year.

San Francisco Ballet website. Program 1, Tomasson’s Swan Lake, starts tonight.

San Francisco Ballet 2010 Opening Night Gala: Initial Thoughts

Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's 7 For Eight. © Erik Tomasson

Tonight’s 2010 opening night gala at the San Francisco Ballet was a worthy tribute to Helgi Tomasson, celebrating his 25th year as artistic director. Watching it, I began to understand the scope of his vision as well as his sense of accomplishment in shaping this company into a world class one. There’s no doubt that one of his biggest talents is showcasing his stellar dancers in the best light possible. Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun’s arabesque is a breathtaking wonder. Davit Karapetyan is a rare combination of power and ease, while his partner Vanessa Zahorian sparkled with pristine glamor. Pascal Molat’s energy and precision burst off the stage. Maria Kochetkova embodied young love in a moving portrayal of Juliet with her heart on her sleeve, and Yuan Yuan Tan is the free spirit that no one could capture.

A full review will be coming up soon – I  had a thrilling moment when I realized that I was sitting a few rows behind Christopher Wheeldon. I’ll be seeing his company, Morphoses, perform next week.

2009: A Year in Review

Happy new year’s, everyone! I hope everyone had a good one – a friend of mine rented a cabin in the mountains of Oregon this year, and a bunch of us took a road trip up there to celebrate the start of a new decade.

A snapshot I took of my trip to Oregon for the new year's

It’s always a fun time to look back to the previous year to look at all the things that I experienced in a theater. One of the biggest thrills this year was when I was asked to be a guest on public radio discussing theater in the Bay Area. Also, I had a blast watching and taking photos of rehearsal for the Smuin Ballet. Stuff like that is always a thrill!

Here’s a random list of memorable moments from 2009:

  • Sarah Van Patten’s entire season with the San Francisco Ballet: Literally everything she danced last season was absolute perfection and deeply memorable. There was her biggest role, her heartbreaking and unforgettable portrait of the fragile Odette in Swan Lake. Then there was her razor sharp Sanguinic variation in Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, her haunting performance in Morris’ gentle “A Garden” (gently partnered by Ruben Martin Cintas), to the wide-eyed comedic ballerina in Robbins’ The Concert, to the tragic heroine in the dramatic Jardin aux Lilas, to the beautifully feminine lead in Balanchine’s Jewels in “Diamonds”. She showed an impressive versatility as well as an unforgettable stamp in each role. Van Patten’s appeal is not obvious nor in-your-face, but a deeper, quieter one that draws the audience in to observe her more carefully. She embodies her roles fully, to make you believe that she is Odette, or that she is a mannequin in Morris’ A Garden. Her gentle musicality and clear expressive eyes speak volumes. Her Swan Lake will be the one to see this year, as the SF Chronicle called her “by far the most scintillating Odette/Odile”. She is also, rightly, nominated for an Isadora Duncan Dance award for Outstanding Achievement in Performance for her entire season last year.
  • Martha Argerich performing the sparkling Ravel piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. There is nothing like watching a piano legend as she tossed off phrases with ease, and breathlessly held the audience’s attention at her finger tips in the second movement. I was also caught by surprise when I found myself bewitched by Ligeti’s Requiem, featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
  • Pascal Molat in Robbins’ A Concert. Hilarious.
  • Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Romeo Et Juliette by Jean-Christophe Maillot. An amazingly dramatic and suspense-filled production, presenting a classic in a new light thrilling to modern audiences. Carla Korbes was a particular standout as a smart and spunky Juliet. The balcony scene is a touching and funny standout, with a first love dance that embodies young love – the thrill and the awkwardness of it all.
  • My friend Nicole’s wedding, where the bride danced a moving solo Polynesian dance for her new husband that brought tears to everyone’s eyes, set in the gorgeous natural backdrop of the island of Hawaii. This is what dance is – embodying emotion when words aren’t enough. Her movements were warm and inviting, and even though I didn’t know the meaning behind her arms’ gestures, it made you want to believe every word she was saying.

Things to look forward to next year:

  • Yo Yo Ma as the artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony. I believe all the concerts are sold out.
  • John Neumeier’s A Little Mermaid with the San Francisco Ballet, as well as a smattering of world premieres for their 2010 season.
  • Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort with the Smuin Ballet
  • In the Heights national tour

Anything you’re looking forward to seeing this year?

San Francisco Ballet’s 2010 Opening Night Gala

SF Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson at the 2008 Gala Performance © Erik Tomasson

This year for their opening night gala, San Francisco Ballet will be honoring Helgi Tomasson in his 25th year as artistic director. He is a man who knows how to show off his beautiful dancers, and who else is responsible for nurturing my favorite ballet company? It will be an event worth celebrating. And if this gala is anything like last year, it will be an amazing can’t-miss performance, a showcase of the company’s brightest stars as well as a chance for up-and-comers to shine.

The gala will be on Wednesday January 20, at 8 pm. There will be a limited number of discount tickets available for the 30 and under (the young and poor) crowd. Click on the website for more information.

San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Night Gala

The Berkeley New Music Project

A few weeks ago, I had seen this on Reverberate Hills, and so I recognized this group when I ran into them at the ferry building in San Francisco. It was both PR and fundraising rolled into one, as they sang (with remarkable harmony and pitch) Christmas carols in the pre-Christmas season. My date was handed the note explaining their group which I wasn’t able to see, but you can read more on Patrick’s blog in the link above.

Some blurry photos I snapped. Click to enlarge.

How much new music can a dollar buy?

The increase in student fees and other cuts at the UC system in California are appalling, and something has GOT to change.

As on Reverberate Hills, donations can be made to:

Department of Music
University of California, Berkeley
104 Morrison Hall #1200
Berkeley, CA 94720-1200
(Specify “Berkeley New Music Project”)