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 ofÂ 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.Â 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. Â 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.
Jerome Robbins’Â 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 . Program 2 is playing until February 20.