The long-awaited performance of San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove happened last week. To be fair, this program is always difficult to review in the strict “objective” sense, as it is a rare summer performance for the ballet to its home town, and the surroundings are so gorgeous. For me, it also happened to fall on the weekend after a particularly grueling month on the pediatrics ward, and the emotional and physical toll of taking care of sick kids in the wards really got me and I was ready for a break. So in all, it was a lovely weekend in the gorgeous setting of Stern Grove, and what could go wrong when viewing my favorite company perform in such lush surroundings?
Let’s talk about the setting. It is set in the lush and green Stern Grove on an outdoor stage with a simple wood backdrop. The orchestra is placed in front, and both dancers and musicians are often subject to the ubiquitous fog and humidity that the area is known for. This year however, the fog wasn’t too bad although it was still pretty chilly. This concert is free, as are all the programs at Stern Grove, and this year, the audience numbered to over 10,000 people in one place. The crowd is unavadoidable, and yet pivotal to the whole Stern Grove experience. It is because of this crowd and the vast space that people are in, that makes some programs work and others don’t. Pieces that have worked in the past include Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, usually big rousing pieces with lots of dancers that can grab your attention, or pieces like Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux, where the emotive power of the piece extends to the very last row of audience members sitting amongst the trees on the hillside. Â This year, the program closed with Wheeldon’s Number Nine, which worked very well for this setting. The high energy whirlwind of bright neon colors popped off the stage, and it was also a great opportunity to see some of SF Ballet principals on stage, for most of the audience probably for the very first time.
My favorite piece for the afternoon was Hans van Manen’s Solo. It features three men performing solos, one after the other, in a sort of monologue soliloquies. Colored by modern touches such as side to side head jerks and speaking in the modern ballet vocabulary, it was a lovely showcase of three very different men, featuring their three very different personalities. Hansuke Yamamoto’s quirky grace, James Sofranko’s youthful fire, and Gennadi Nedvigin’s easy charm.
This program also featured their own corps member Myles Thatcher’s original choreography, featuring SF Ballet’s school trainees and company apprentices. It was a very modern work based on work from Dream House and Ethel, filled with sharp geometry and pliable torsoes. I think it’s the challenge of every young choreographer to find a distinct voice of their own, particularly in dancer choreographers who have been exposed to so many of the great modern choreographers – Balanchine, Wheeldon, McGregor, and even Possohkov. Thatcher isn’t quite there in terms of finding his own, yet clearly still very talented with an eye for lines and angles and also knowing the strengths of his very young dancers and capitalizing on their youth and flexible backs. It will be exciting to see where his future will take him.
The program also featured Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, which was my first viewing of this piece. It comes off as a storybook ballet, with a vague storyline, and I’m reminded of Balanchine’s famous quote that his ballets are “storyless” (he insists that his ballets are “very concrete, though ‘storyless’”). However, it is this ballet and the ending of Serenade which make it difficult to believe his words. The flavor of the ballet is Scottish, with men in kilts and regional headress. A woman with red shoes dances a jaunty dance (Nicole Ciapponi), encouraging everyone else to dance around her. The choreography is spirited, set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Â The central portion of the ballet features a duet between Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan; it’s unclear if she is a dream, a wili or a sylph maybe? But she clearly enjoys to run away from him at the end of their duets, leaving him alone, and a group of men who bar him from following her. The story doesn’t really make sense, but the highlight for me was Tan’s dancing. She was luminous, with a softness in her port de bras that was really lovely here, with her usual fluidity and remarkable control. It fit her part of the elusive but quintessential love interest here.
In all, it was a really nice afternoon in Stern Grove. When else could you sip beer while watching one of the best companies in the world?
For more of Stern Grove’s performances this year, click here for their website.