Monthly Archives: February 2010

Preview: Smuin Ballet in Ma Cong’s French Twist

Last weekend, Smuin Ballet welcomed a few bloggers into their rehearsal room for us to get a preview of their upcoming spring program. Choreographer and Tulsa Ballet principal dancer Ma Cong was there to stage his ballet, French Twist, on the company. With this rehearsal, we got a glimpse of the piece that will be performed in May.

Since it’s still a few months away and Smuin Ballet is still knee-deep in their Winter program, it was such a different experience watching a piece in its early stages. From what I could see so far, French Twist is a piece that’s packed with movement, wit, and quirky humor. Set in ballet flats, there’s a momentum that’s outwardly horizontal with a radiating energy, rather than elevated and vertical as in classical ballet. There’s always something to see, and the movement emphasizes the syncopation in the music by French composer Hugues Le Bar. The music can be best described as post-Romantic neo-Baroque with an overlay of French cafe music + voice. The music is difficult to classify with multiple influences, but these genres comes together nicely with a quirky ease.

Cong ran rehearsal by dancing the steps himself along with the dancers, with a careful eye for detail. Even spacing of the fingers was addressed more than once, and his background in Chinese dance was visible especially in the way in dealing with the wrist and the hands. In the post-rehearsal Q&A with artistic director Celia Fushille, Cong talked about his background as well as his inspiration for this piece, first set at the National Choreographer’s Initiative last summer. His inspiration was Tom and Jerry cartoons, specifically in the way that the movement was not only perfectly musical, but there was inherent humor in the way the movement was so direct and sudden and perfectly placed and timed. He also talked about the challenges of resetting a work that was originally built on another set of dancers. He said one of the difficulties was remembering the original steps, but also adapting it to the strengths and personalities of the Smuin Ballet dancers. He’s tweaking a few details to the original piece, as well as almost revamping the entire finale.

It’s going to be quite a show, especially with Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Smuin’s Songs of Mahler. Many thanks to Smuin Ballet and their warm hospitality for opening up their rehearsal.

Smuin Ballet’s 2010 Spring Program will be playing at the following places/dates:
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (415)978-2787
May 7 – May 16
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek (925)943-7469
May 21 – May 22
Flint Center, Cupertino (650)903-6000
May 29 – May 30
Sunset Center, Carmel (831)620-2048
June 4 – June 5

Smuin Ballet website

My favorite Tom and Jerry cartoon. I had forgotten how violent they are, and it’s still funny after all these years.

Art and Sport in the 2010 Olympics

Plushenko, Lysacek, and Takahashi on the Olympic podium for men's figure skating

The tension between art and athleticism was epitomized in the whole debate in men’s figure skating at the Vancouver Winter Olympics this year. Plushenko was an imposing superstar and tour de force in his impossibly consistent quadruple jumps, yet his focus on jumps took his focus away from the artistic aspects of the sport and other required elements. Evan Lysacek was the elegant and more well rounded skater, although he smartly played it safe by not attempting a quadruple jump in his long program. This won him the gold medal. With this victory, it was a small score for artistry in a sport where the tension seems to split the jump-heavy sport into two factions. And with this gold medal, it’s bound to shape the future of the sport and its emphasis on artistry and consistency.

(Does anyone else think it’s a bit ironic that Lysacek used to be the face of athleticism, especially compared to fellow American figure skater Johnny Weir? With the polarizing presence of Plushenko however, Lysacek became catapulted to err on the artistic side of the sport.)

Aside from this controversy, it seems wrong to think of artistry and athleticism to be completely separate entities. Can anyone doubt the art in the stretch and ease and grace in speed skater Shani Davis’ long lines, especially with the speed that he picks up around the jaw-dropping turns? The explosive power in snowboarder Shaun White’s jumps as he sails through the air? Artistry feeds into athleticism, and you can’t have one without the other.

My favorite men’s figure skaters were Daisuke Takahashi, Stephane Lambiel, and Johnny Weir with wonderful artistry in easing into the ice with their knees which was a welcome relief from nervous stiffness seen on the ice in other skaters. Their scores suffered when Takahashi fell on his attempted quadruple jump and Lambiel was plagued with technical troubles in his long program, but it was their flight on ice that made a mark.

Any predictions for medalists for women’s figure skating? Ice dancing is on TV right now, and I still don’t understand WHAT it is.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Ghosts. © Erik Tomasson

Experimentation is necessary for the evolution of art. Never-before-seen dance positions and partnering can be fascinating to watch in and of itself, yet if this is all that a work of art offers, I start to wonder what the point is. The novelty of string of new inventions wears off quickly, a blatant “check this out” without engagement of the heart. This past week, in San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2, Christopher Wheeldon’s world premiere of Ghosts was a shining example of innovation wrapped within Wheeldon’s ability to build an arresting narrative through abstract ballet.

There were steps, lots of them, and lots of new ones to boot. But the thing that I remember the most isn’t that one cool step or that one awesome partnering move, but the long-lasting impression of poignant beauty. Awash in dark colors, the feel of the ballet is reminiscent of Anne Rice vampires doing ballet with the dusty white long dresses and loose unkempt hair for the women. But deeper than that, it was a veritable feast for the senses. Jam-packed with movement deeply rooted in classical ballet but testing the boundaries with an off-center body, often radiating regret. These steps meld into the music by C.F. Kip Winger and the surging abstract storyline in a satisfying whole package. The music by C.F. Kip Winger is never translated literally, but served as a launching point for experimentation of movement. A meandering piano that drifts in and out backs the undulating quality in the choreography, contrasted with a sharp pointedness and seamless shifting directions. Maria Kochetkova and newly hired principal Vitor Luiz attacked the fiendishly fast central pas de deux in a breathless whirlwind of passions in a complex interplay of grasps and trust. Wheeldon brought out a unique womanly side to Kochetkova’s dancing, as she reminded me of a romantic heroine from classical literature – Anna Karenina perhaps, or one of Ibsen’s heroines. There was a lovely unhurried and sensual unraveling of her limbs, partnered by an intensely urgent Vitor Luiz who injected fervent drama into their interactions. Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, and Brett Bauer danced as a tour de force in their striking power and presence.  This ballet is one of those pieces that stays with you hours after it’s over, an ache that you continue to mull over in your memory.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Opus 19/The Dreamer. © Erik Tomasson

Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer was in stark contrast to the visual affluence of the Wheeldon piece. Its theme was introspective in its simplicity of movement, mirroring the sparseness of the orchestration of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto. Robbins takes a simple step like walking on pointe, and shapes it gently over time. The effect is arresting, hypnotic. There’s a central figure, danced by Pascal Molat, dressed in a nude unitard. He seems to be dwelling in his dreams, although it’s unclear if he’s the director or the hapless victim of his imagination. He leads a group to follow his movements, and then the next moment is lost in his surroundings with a vibrant corps around him. Dancing and interacting with Sarah Van Patten, she is a fleeting and unpredictable vision. There is a juxtaposition of the mundane and the sublime, from heavenly arabesques to torsos and arms flung forward towards the ground. This bold mix is ultimately an uneasy one, a non sequitur that leaves the audience relating to the haziness of the central figure. The curtain closes on Molat and Van Patten with their arms in a questioning shrug, as if posing the same question to the audience.

The evening closed with the high energy of Paul Taylor’s Company B. The music by the Andrews sisters is so evocative of the time period of World War II. It immediately conjures up memories of happier times, yet Taylor puts a twist in every song. In “Pennsylvania Polka”, Elizabeth Miner and Benjamin Stewart polka gaily around boys lying still on the ground, dancing in complete oblivion to the destruction around them. In “There Will Never Be Another You”, Katita Waldo and Quinn Wharton dance wistfully with sweeping finesse with shadowy soldiers marching in the background until at the end, Wharton joins the march of the darkened soldiers leaving Waldo to herself. The contrast between the cheerful music and its darker themes of war and destruction mirrors a denial and an effort to suppress the unpleasantness in this world. However, it’s exactly for this unpleasantness that drives audiences into a ballet theater, to forget and to be entertained and distracted by happier things. It was my feeling that the audience chose to take away the nostalgia in the cheerful music rather than its disturbing themes, but it’s a message that resonates long after the concert was over.

San Francisco Ballet in Taylor's Company B. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet . Program 2 is playing until February 20.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

There are so many other factors that can affect your experience in the theater. Expectations are a big one – high expectations are hard to meet. However for some reason last Saturday afternoon, the stars were aligned – my expectations in check from last year’s experience, a pleasantly honest and savvy date, and a gorgeous sunny day after days of rain – and I had a wonderful time at San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake.

This isn’t your grandmother’s staid Swan Lake of fluttering self-pitying swans. The sparkling costumes and sets by Jonathan Fensom still have that new car smell, with the sets creating an expansive open space for the story to unfold. As beautiful as the sets and costumes are, the best thing is that they allow for the story told through movement to shine.

Despite its deep roots in traditional classical ballet, San Francisco Ballet’s production isn’t a dusty one with uptight perfect fifth position arms. Arms are spread back like wings, twisted in angst and fear. Swans lean forward in lines of regret and surrender. The evil Von Rothbart’s extensions whip out in raging anger as he leaps through the air. Rather than a showcase of textbook technique which can be an end in itself, classical technique is used to further the purposes of the story. The corps of swans were a powerful entity, dancing not only with a remarkable unity but a single minded purpose, dancing with power and an overlay of sadness all communicated through body movements, from assured sweeping arms to eyes cast down. The effect is dramatic and deliciously intimidating in their sheer numbers and solidarity, more like a pack of wild birds than precious animals found in fairytales. The choreography of the pas de trois in the first act is restrained, but dancers Frances Chung, Hansuke Yamamoto (a last minute replacement for Vitor Luiz), and Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun danced with such style that it was hard to notice. Aided greatly by a clipping pace by the orchestra led by Martin West, Chung was delightfully spry with remarkably clear footwork, Pipit-Suksun infused her dancing with a warmth and grandeur in her long extensions, and Yamamoto soared in a winning combination of bravura and gentility in partnering the two ladies. Anthony Spaulding was a mix of fierce aggression and dauntless nobility as Von Rothbart, which made him an intimidating foe. In addition, Anita Paciotti was a strikingly fabulous Queen mother, with a magnetic stage presence dripping with royal airs merely parading around the stage. The dancers brought this classical ballet to life, carving out a cinematic journey that carries the audience through this timeless tragic fairytale.

The near-perfect cast was headed by Sarah Van Patten in the role of Odette/Odile. Her portrayal of the tragic heroine was one that unfolds slowly, sensuously, organically over time. There’s a sumptuous luxury in the way that her movements are unforced yet always growing, and we clearly see the development of her love story from start to finish. From a skittish fear with wide eyes, to growing still when Prince Siegfried catches her hand and looks into her eyes, to a growing trust of backward trust falls trusting him to catch her, to a tremulous foot beating betraying her beating heart. As she turns, she slows and hesitates as she sees her prince – it’s the very picture of a heart faltering. As Odile, Van Patten was all sleek lines glinting cruelly in the light, her confidence in the role visibly improved from last year. She soared in the role of seductress and looked like she was having fun doing it. There was something thrillingly dangerous about the way that she looked up at the audience slowly, fiendishly, deliberately, while dancing with her arms presented and spread wide. Her final pose was triumphant as the Prince is holding her hand, as she throws back her head in silent cruel laughter.

It’s interesting that in this version, I saw not just a love story between two people, but more of a picture of a woman falling in love despite its consequences. Weight is unfairly given to the role of Odette over Prince Siegfried in this romance. It’s a thankless role to be sure, and Prince Siegfried was danced by guest artist Vadim Solomakha. His natural acting ability helps with the angsty moments he had onstage, but in general, he lacked a princely posture when he stood or walked, as he played his part more like a jovial accessible leader who interacts with his people in the first act. In dancing with Odette, he almost disappeared next to Van Patten, and was otherwise unremarkable and technically tenuous in his jump landings and footwork.

In general, I was reminded of how timeless this ballet is, where deception is damning, and the choice to love is heartfelt. San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake is a stunning production that will continue to tell the classic tale to modern day audiences. This production rests on the abilities of the dancers to bring it to life, and with the cast that I saw, this can be a very good thing.

Other reviews:

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2 starts on February 9, including a world premiere with Christopher Wheeldon set to the music of recording artist Kip Winger.