Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), After the Rain pas de deux, Helgi Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, and Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. Â© Erik Tomasson
I’ve always wondered what the future of ballet looks like, and Program 5 at the San Francisco Ballet offered a good preview. Onstage was a program that made Balanchine look as ancient as Petipa. The oldest piece on the program was Wheeldon’s Carousel, choreographed in 2002. More than just offering recent, modern ballets however, it offered good modern ballets. My favorite of the night was Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. Definitely my favorite Wheeldon piece so far, it features a man and a woman, looking very bare and simple, with the woman in ballet flats and loose hair. As the mesmerizing hypnotic slow music unfolds (with music by Arvo Part), the two dancers begin to melt into each other’s arms with complete surrender. An aching sadness pervades the air in their deliberate movements, as the two never make eye contact – when she falls into his arms, her gaze is aimed backwards as she arches her back; they often stand side by side, facing the same direction, or she wraps her arms around him and leans her cheek on his shoulder. In addition to complete trust without eye contact, this also implies a missed connection, as if they are harboring a guilty secret or wrongdoing, but trust each other anyway with unqualified acceptance. It includes a little bit of the experimentation that I saw in the piece Wheeldon created for SF Ballet a few years ago, Continuum. In this pas de deux, Wheeldon plays with the ebb and flow in the background of the steady music, as the two dancers push and pull through the slow music in inventive ways. This piece calls for a strong, steady partner – Damian Smith is probably one of the best partners in the company, and fulfilled his duties commandingly, with yearning compassion spilling out of every pore in his body. Yuan Yuan Tan completely trusted him, and her sensual langorous limbs were perfect for melting into him. The result left the audience mesmerized. It was a great example of modern ballet choreography, used in innovative ways with an intuition and understanding that everyone understood but could not quite verbalize.
After the Rain followed another Wheeldon piece, Carousel (A Dance). It had a completely different tone, reminiscent of an old MGM movie musical. It possessed all the elements that a modern audience would love – a sparkling set, modern costumes, and pretty imagery. It’s a pretty piece, but not much more than that. Set in a carousel, with ensemble members rotating in repetition as the horses, the rotating motif served as an apt swirling background for the love story in the central pas de deux. In the program notes, it states that the young girl is supposed to have an edge, as she goes for the “older man”. I was a little appalled that they considered Joan Boada an “older man”, and this didn’t come across at all. The central couple seemed no more than a normal teenage girl and boy at the fairgrounds, flirting. Dores Andre danced as his partner with youthful independence. My favorite part about this piece were the demi-soloists, mirroring the atmosphere of love and the fun of the fairgrounds, danced by Frances Chung, Elizabeth Miner, Rory Hohenstein, and Jaime Garcia Castilla. They were a great group that danced well together, with cheerful warmth. Historically, they were promoted to soloists around the same time (or since I started going to SF Ballet more seriously) and so it was great to see them dance together.
Helgi Tomasson debuted his piece, On a Theme of Paganini. As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t holding my breath with this one. However, it started hopefully, as he started with a motif of the flipped hand (shown in the picture below) .
This movement in itself is very witty, and a great starting point. However, the choreography never went far enough to explore its possibilities in innovative ways. The result was choreography that seemed overworked because it wasn’t going anywhere, and it felt like the piece could have been much shorter with the same results. Tomasson repeatedly displays a penchant for the melodrama and the cliche – the ensemble men dance in typical masculine bravura fashion, with big jumps and sweeping arms, and he really likes to have the girl curl up in the guy’s arms for no apparent reason in his pas de deux. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a fog machine had been turned on. Some positive things though – this piece had more complexity in its layers that I’d seen in his previous pieces. And as always, he knows how to showcase his dancers really really well. He pulled out all the stops in casting the biggest stars of the company, and I realized what a rare honor it is to see two star principals dance onstage at the same time (Maria Kochetkova and Vanessa Zahorian) in addition to three superstar men (Davit Karapetyan, Pascal Molat, Joan Boada). Kochetkova and Zahorian matched each other well in their precision, and mirrored each other well. He also cast three very tall men as demi-soloists (David Arce, Christopher Mondoux, and Anthony Spaulding) for a dashing dramatic result, although only for too brief moments onstage. It’s hard to see this piece working on any level with any other company than San Francisco Ballet, since it seems so tailored to exactly what the company has to offer now.
The evening closed with Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden. A few months back when I called into the NPR program that featured the SF Ballet, I asked how SFB is catering to younger audiences through its programming, and its answer given by executive director Glenn McCoy, who answered my question in short, by saying, “cutting-edge choreography”. The example he gave on air was this piece, Eden/Eden. Certainly cutting edge, this piece addresses the very futuristic issue of cloning, and utilizes video and electronic music for a multimedia experience. The music is by Steve Reich called “Dolly” from Three Tales (a video opera), led by conductor Gary Sheldon with earphones on. Interspersed with the buzzing electric music are short vocal phrases, describing the process of cloning, technology as an extension of normal evolution, and creating robots that are going to outsmart the human race. It suggests the possibility of humans as machines, with a voice that says that a silk flower isn’t a real flower. (Scientifically, I have problems with that statement because that isn’t a perfect analogy, but I will let it slide for now.) Humans as machines is then reflected in the dancers, who emerge from the ground with skin colored costumes and skin colored skull caps, who then proceed to dance in a pulsing, disjointed, and urgent fashion. The costumes are reminiscent of empty shells, vehicles to carry DNA, like a single celled enucleated egg. Partnering is gender-irrelevant, with dancers controlling and moving each other’s legs and reacting mechanically to each other. As superhuman machines, the dancers whip off multiple fouettes instinctively. Their heads move separately from their bodies, as do their hips and other joints, as a machine that is the sum of its parts. It continues like this in a disturbing progressive fashion, as anticipation builds in addition to the questions asked above the music. A transparent screen falls in front of the dancers, onto which lights and patterns are projected for an added cohesive effect of frenzy. In its final moments, a voice asks if we have it all planned out, as Yuan Yuan Tan peters out and collapses slowly onto the floor. The energy onstage was electric, with the dancers going full force the entire 30 minute piece. Anthony Spaulding was a particular standout, with a powerful presence and extra fire. The overall effect is a disturbing and chaotic high, which forces the viewer to consider the social message of science and where it’s going.
If this is the future of ballet, there is much to look forward to. With this program, it really cemented in my mind that one of San Francisco Ballet’s best strengths is its solidarity in modern ballet choreography. Their dancers absolutely absorb and breathe the choreography naturally. I was thinking though, if a ballet newbie sees Eden/Eden and enjoys it, how will that viewer ever be able to appreciate Giselle? Or do they need to?
Program 5 runs through March 18.